Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Over the weekend, music exec Steve Stoute bought a full page ad in the New York Times to post an open letter to Neil Portnow, NARAS and The Grammys. You can read it at The Huffington Post. Stoute is a hip-hop guy, and cites some embarrassing Album of The Year gaffes, including 2001 when Steely Dan beat out Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP and 2008 when Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute album beat out Kanye West's Graduation. Clearly he thought that Eminem's Recovery should have won this year, and it was beaten out by Arcade Fire's The Suburbs.

In 2001, I was not yet a NARAS member, but I remember being embarrassed anyway. Steely Dan's Two Against Nature was a surprising nomination to say the least, there was some excitement around the album as it was the group's first in 20 years or something. But I bet if you go to a Steely Dan concert today, their fans aren't calling out for songs from that album. Paul Simon's You're The One was also nominated. That was a really boring album, but I remember thinking that they would split the boomer vote. Also nominated was Beck's Midnite Vultures and Radiohead's Kid A. I figured those would split the white hipster vote and Eminem would win. I don't know how that didn't happen, but it certainly was an upset, and I have to think it was an embarrassment.

But not was bad as 2008. I doubt many people even knew that Herbie Hancock had released The Joni Letters. I don't really care about sales, but the record didn't feel like something that was important, and even jazz fans that I know didn't like it.  They felt that the "victory" was actually bad for jazz - the fact that people would be getting the album would ultimately be a turn-off to jazz neophytes, because the album wasn't that interesting. It beat out The Foo Fighters' Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace (a solid record, but not an Album of the Year type album), Vince Gill's quadruple album These Days (a bit too niche) and, shockingly, Amy Winehouse's Back To Black. I could see Kanye and Amy canceling each other out, but I don't see how Herbie beat the Foo Fighters or Vince Gill. A real gaffe.

This year, Arcade Fire beat Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Now, I voted for Eminem, but I'm not that upset about Arcade Fire. They sort of symbolize the mainstreaming of indie rock, and their album seemed pretty solid. Since Album of the Year was given out at the end of the night, and Arcade Fire was the last performer, Stoute felt it was a set up of some kind. Maybe the producers of the show knew who the winners were, and I agree it's cheap to schedule the show like that. But it's not that big of a deal.

Where I really (respectfully) part ways with the guy is when he makes the case that Justin Bieber should have been Artist of the Year over Esperanza Spalding. He says, "Justin Beiber, an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist," and says "His cultural impact and success are even more quantifiable if you factor in his YouTube and Vevo viewership - the fact that he was a talent born entirely of the digital age and whose story was crafted in the humble method of being 'discovered' purely for his singing ability (and it should be noted that Justin Bieber plays piano and guitar, as evidenced on his early viral videos)."

I'll add that he also plays drums! There's no doubt in my mind that he's a talented kid. But none of those points make me feel like I should have voted for him as the Best New Artist. Sales are their own reward. So are views on YouTube and Vevo. I won't deny the kid's cultural impact. But I don't think that "biggest" = "best." Although I'm not an "anglophile" I was torn between Florence + The Machine and Mumford & Sons. Both artists have unique sounds, they ignore trends, and both were success stories with impressive sales in 2010. But I have no problem with Esperanza winning - she is also unique, clearly isn't motivated by commercial concerns, and is a good enough musician to have been an instructor at Berkley at age 20. Putting her in a category with Bieber (much less Drake and the other nominees) seems weird, but I have a hard time thinking that she somehow "robbed" Bieber. Agreeing to perform at the Grammys shouldn't be some kind of back-room deal that you are going to win anything, so I disagree with the point that Bieber was somehow "exploited" (the network decides what part of the ceremony they are going to advertise, and using Bieber to get viewers was a no-brainer). I submitted my ballot before I knew who was performing, and I think that was probably the case with most voters.

As Esperanza said in the press room, Justin will probably be fine, and if new people were exposed to her music, then I think the Grammys did us a service. Unless you think her album was bad (as opposed to just "irrelevant" based on sales), I don't see how anyone could have a problem with her victory. At any rate, her next album is going to be produced by Q-Tip, so hopefully people will be more open to hearing that one.


Anonymous said...

People get all bent out of shape after every Grammy ceremony. I remember the 1985 awards. The contenders for Best Album included three amazing, career-defining classics - Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA", "Purple Rain" by Prince, and Tina Turner's great comeback album "Private Dancer". With them was nominated what was easily the best freshman effort of the year, "She's So Unusual" by Cyndi Lauper. And, oh yes, along for the ride was a pleasant but entirely ephemeral record by Lionel Richie - whose "Can't Slow Down" wound up winning the 1985 Grammy for Album Of The Year.

Compared to that this year's awards seem drawn from pure musical reason.

Minority said...

hey, thanks for reading and commenting. The 1985 example is a great one.