TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2016 |
Posted by: Don Saas
When I was a teenager, I followed the Oscars the way most kids my age followed sports. If you were a young film lover -- in the age before digital streaming and in a part of the country where dial up internet was still the norm -- the Oscars and your local video store were your film education. By din of being the major film award ceremony, the average filmgoer takes the Oscars for granted as the canon of contemporary cinema. And for most casual consumers of music, the Grammy's are the prestige music award show. The Grammy's shape the conversation in the mainstream about what music is the "best."
Now, as I got older and my film education became more in-depth and organic, I began to distance myself from the Oscars. I remembered that they gave Crash Best Picture honors in a year that also saw the release of Brokeback Mountain, Munich, and Good Night and Good Luck (and those were just the other Best Picture nominees). This is an Academy that let The Artist beat Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. These are the Oscars that let Argo beat Life of Pi and Amour. I realized that the Oscars don't award excellence. They award serviceable, safe choices that reflect the demographics of its voting body (or in the case of Crash, faux-liberal self-congratulatory LA circle-jerks).
And to the average filmgoer, that's actually okay. When I was a teenager and just getting into movies in a serious way, I would have obviously loved Argo (and I still think it's a very solid but not superlative film) and would have been terrifically confused by Amour. If you'd shown me The Tree of Life when I was 16, I'm pretty sure I'd have developed a lifelong aversion to Terrence Malick but I would have found The Artist to be perfectly charming (which are my thoughts about it right now). You have to work your way up to the really challenging art, and not everybody has the time/energy/patience to devote that much of their life to cinema.
And it's the same with music. With the exception of a few upsets here and there (Arcade Fire and Beck are two more recent examples), the Grammy's are not about what's "best" in the contemporary music industry (whatever "best" means). They're a metric for what qualifies as the height of the "middlebrow" in contemporary music consumption. They aren't a celebration of the lowest common denominator of modern music (although Meghan Trainor winning Best New Artist over James Bay and Courtney Barnett makes me want to make snarky jokes that say otherwise); they're a celebration of the zeitgeist under the banner of respectability. The Grammy's aren't for music lovers that live for the medium. They exist for the average person who maybe isn't caught up on the state of the current commercial musical conversation. And it's fine that the Grammy's are that as long as we're honest about that being precisely the service they provide.
That's why I can't watch the Grammy's. I live for music. I make my living in music. I know that Taylor Swift's 1989 was nominated for (and won) Album of the Year when Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion (probably the best commercial pop record of the 2010s) wasn't even nominated. I know that minus To Pimp A Butterfly virtually none of the most critically acclaimed records of 2015 were nominated in that category. No Tame Impala, no Courtney Barnett, no Sufjan. Whereas the Academy almost always finds room for "prestige" and "independent" films (those words are in quotation marks for vaguely sarcastic reasons), the Grammy's are almost shameless in how commercially dominated they are. This is an award ceremony that let MACKLEMORE beat Kendrick Lamar for best Rap Album a couple years back before Kendrick Lamar was on the verge of making a solid claim as the GOAT in hip-hop. If you love music at a nearly all-consuming level (alternative, independent, and commercial...just music in all its forms), you eventually have to accept that the Grammy's offer nothing for you.
But this year, I can't let the Grammy's off the hook so easily by simply stating they aren't for me. If the Oscars are under fire this year for #OscarsSoWhite, the Grammy's deserve it's own share of ire. Yes, the Grammy's nominated far more artists of color and Bruno Mars won Record of the Year (albeit for a song that is technically a Mark Ronson track), but Kendrick Lamar losing to Taylor Swift sends a clear message.
If you are a black artist with a fearless political message, you can release one of the most critically acclaimed records of the decade, but you'll still lose to an attractive white girl singing inoffensive pop. The Grammy's can tell Kendrick that he's great as a hip-hop artist (he won all of the hip-hop awards), but they won't let him be great as a musician period despite the fact that both To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d. city are among the most revolutionary records both critically and commercially of the last four years. And the implicit message (considering who he's lost to two album cycles in a row) becomes that maybe they'd let Kendrick win the big awards if he toned down his message, if he weren't so confrontational. And if that's not the Academy's blindness to its own white privilege, I don't know what is.