Monday, January 27, 2014

Short Thoughts on the 56th Annual Grammy Awards

Full disclosure: I didn't watch the Grammys this year, so I don't have anything to say about the performances or the ceremony itself. This is, instead, solely going to be some brief thoughts about the winners of the General Field awards. For a full list of winners, click here. And if there are any performances that I should have seen, let me know in the comments.

"Get Lucky," Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams

In retrospect, this one seemed like an obvious win: "Royals" was the debut single from a young artist and those hardly win here, "Blurred Lines" was too controversial, and "Radioactive" probably wasn't "real rock" enough (whatever that means) for certain blocs of voters. As for "Locked Out of Heaven," I imagine there are still a number of people waiting for Bruno Mars to really prove himself, even though Unorthodox Jukebox was a legitimately great album and a confident step forward in his development as an artist, and "Locked Out of Heaven" is one of the best Police songs that Sting probably wished he came up with. But "Get Lucky" was the undeniable hit of the summer, even if it never made it to #1: pretty much everyone with any sort of music career covered it, and I doubt there's a soul on this planet that doesn't want to get down and boogie when that opening bass lick comes in. Similar to "Rolling in the Deep" two years ago, it just seems unfathomable that anything else could have won.

Random Access Memories, Daft Punk

This one seemed wide open until the start of the show, when I predicted it to win this category a few days ago I did so on the assumption that its past-meets-future hybridization of disco and electronica would be more appealing than the "safe" pop of Sara Bareilles or the Taylor Swift Law of Adoration, which requires everyone to fete her wherever she goes (they broke that law this year, as she was completely shut-out, and her wrath is probably forthcoming). And despite the "year of hip-hop" narrative that was completely made-up by those of us trying to find the logic in Grammy Logic, there was never a real chance that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or Kendrick Lamar would take the night's top prize. It's tough to call Daft Punk's win an embrace of electronic dance music (EDM) by the Grammys, since the album is so different from the majority of EDM currently out there. But who would have thought that Daft Punk would ever be pop darlings?

"Royals," Lorde (Ella Yelich-O'Connor and Joel Little, songwriters)

This was Lorde's best shot at a win, since a new, young talent with an obviously bright future would be catnip to voters (she also won Best Solo Pop Performance for the song). Of course, "Same Love" was a serious possibility, but instead another year has come and gone without a rap song winning this particular category, which has never happened in the history of the award. Speaking of hip-hop…

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Look, I make a point to not get too political on this blog. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - particularly, Macklemore - have already inspired a legion of thinkpieces about race, sexuality, and appropriation in hip hop, and I understand a lot of the arguments on both sides of the debate (I don't agree with all of them, but I understand the reasoning behind them). I like the guy. I don't think he's one of the best rappers ever or anything, but he's reasonably good and frequently enjoyable to listen to. And like I said, I understand why he's considered problematic, and I agree with that assessment. But what bothers me recently about the debate is sudden influx of hatred thrown his way for winning every rap category he was nominated in this year, including Best Rap Album (where he was up against Drake, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West*). All of these center on how Macklemore's victories are inherent of his white privilege, and evidence that he doesn't deserve them.

The problem is that these arguments put the blame on Macklemore for winning, as if he gave himself the Grammys based on his own voting. But that's not the case; these arguments are pointing blame at the wrong person. Instead, the focus of these arguments should be on The Recording Academy and their long, problematic history with rewarding hip-hop at the Grammys, which, in turn, is a symptom of the music industry's own general attitudes toward hip-hop as a form of creative and commercial music. It's the same problem with the arguments made year after year that the Oscars don't reward enough people of color; that's not necessarily just the fault of AMPAS but rather endemic of a much-larger representation problem in the film industry. Yeah, it's easier to just put on the blame on a single person/institution, because scapegoating has always been the easiest way to "solve" these issues. But doing so oversimplifies a complex problem, one that stretches much farther than one guy from Seattle who won a few arbitrary awards.

By the way, the only other instances of a hip-hop artist winning Best New Artist are Arrested Development (1993) and Lauryn Hill (1999). So the fact that Grammys even picked a hip-hop act over, say, Kacey Musgraves or Ed Sheeran should be considered a minor victory for the genre anyway (no disrespect for either Musgraves or Sheeran intended).

*Many people have cited Yeezus as the deserving winner of Best Rap Album. I obviously think the album is a terrific achievement, and that Kanye made an album that is very much unlike anything that mainstream hip-hop has ever produced (like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, it's intentionally abrasive and confrontational in a sonically displeasing way). But let's take a moment to look at the harsh truth: there's no way an album like that would have ever won a Grammy, even if Adele had made it. It simply does not appeal to everyone, and with Grammy voters broad appeal matters (not to mention many were probably turned off by the concept). Really, we should all be thanking our lucky stars that Yeezus was even nominated, instead of a more accessible, lesser work.

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