As we go into Grammy weekend, it is important to keep in mind the marquee awards are not a competition among equals–this is a contest among already massively successful musicians to add another (albeit important) laurel. Most of the songs and artists nominated for the major awards (record, song, album and even ‘best new artist’) have already sold millions of albums, performed in major venues around the world, been on TV–done everything we associate with mainstream success.
Having a canonizing organization like the Grammy’s is just fine, maybe even necessary, and there’s an outside chance I’d agree it’s important. But it shouldn’t be criticized for failing to capture the diversity of music, or new innovations in music. That’s like asking a duck to be a chicken.
One way to understand the limits of the Grammys to reflect real, on the ground, lived music is to see that it canonizes pop music, not music genres. The main categories are simply not “genre blind.” Pop music, as I argue in Banding Together, is music crafted for specific types of venues (Top 40 radio stations) and music destined for the pop market typically has its distinguishing genre characteristics muted or obscured in the interest of gaining widespread attention. Songs are created to attract an audience but not “fans”, who discriminate on the basis of musical distinctions. Because music from genres can be transformed into pop music, the charts usually reflect a blend of “pure” pop and songs from styles that are popular at the moment. So, pop is a chart, a way of doing business, or a target demographic, but it simply isn’t a musical genre.
We can see evidence of my argument in some of the changes the Grammys made to their categories this year. You may have noticed that two popular categories were blended, so we now have nominees for Best Hard Rock and Best Metal Performance. This year that pits theatrical (and choral) Dream Theater against the Foo Fighters and Sum 41, against Mastodon and Megadeath. These things are just not musically similar but they are alike using the logic of markets, the logic of pop.
Actually, thinking about the heavy metal/hard rock category allows me to make one last point about the Grammys. The Grammys are a canonizing award preoccupied with identifying and celebrating albums, bands and songs that are or will be “classics.” So, Judas Priest has won for a new live version of a 23 year old song (“Dissident Aggressor”), and Motorhead won a Grammy for a cover of a 22 year old Metallica song (“Whiplast”). This year, the Best Improvised Jazz Solo category includes Ron Carter, Chick Corea and Sonny Rollins, who must have over 100 accumulated performance years between the three of them. This is the sport of retirees and pop stars, and we need to stop kvetching about the occlusion of the rest of our musical landscape. If you want an expertly vetted source on contemporary music, check out the Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll. If you want to experience music that hasn’t been “changed by exposure to the market,” go to the club near you. Go on a Tuesday. Report back.