The Blessing and the Curse of the Grammys

by Will Layman

6 March 2011

Esperanza Spalding accepting her Grammy 

Grammy Voters are the Dorky Kid Incarnate

Glee, of course, is a TV show, and its performers are actors.  If it’s significantly better than The Monkees or The Patridge Family, two other music-themed TV shows that come to mind, then the difference has more to do with the show’s perceived dramatic quality than the music.  In fact, if anything, those ‘60s TV bands were more “real” in that they performed music that was original—whereas every lick of Glee music (and every one of its 113 Hot 100 hits) is a rerun of a tune that was already a smash hit or classic for an “original” artist.

Glee simply gussies up these tunes in the more toothless sound of Broadway harmonies and a cappella stylings.  Justin Bieber might only be a little kid with a pipey voice and bunch of high-priced producers singing “Baby, baby” over and over again, but the expectation with his music remains higher.  It has a taste of new, and some indirect connection to hip hop.  It’s fresh even if it will likely age like fast food.

Jazz, by contrast, is caked in old, at least in the eyes of the pop music public.  Even if jazz has produced, in 2010 alone, a hurricane of daring new music—a good chunk of it intertwined in challenging ways with contemporary popular trends—it’s reputation with just about anyone associated with the Grammys is old-fashioned, dated, safe.  That’s the bad reason that the Grammy voters sometimes choose it over newer music, and that’s the misunderstanding that causes hip music fans to feel cheated when their stuff doesn’t win.

And it’s why real jazz fans don’t want those Grammys, after all.

Of course, this year hip music fans got a taste of Grammy themselves, which is the other big, recent music story.

When Alternative Music Gets Mainstreamed
If there was a bigger upset at the 2011 Grammys than Esperanza Spalding defeating Justin Bieber, then it was the Album of the Year Award going to Arcade Fire over Eminem, Lady Antebellum, and Lady Gaga.  Plenty of news outlets and music critics reacted to this with a cry of “Finally!”  And who can blame them?  The Suburbs was the only Album of the Year nominee on an independent label, and certainly Arcade Fire’s brand of thrumming, melody-minimal rock is an acquired taste.

But Arcade Fire’s victory hardly sparked controversy.  The band’s Grammy night performance of “Month of May” was a strobe-lit exercise in adenoidal repetition (an odd choice for Grammy night, as the group can be much more appealing), so Arcade Fire seems fresh.  Most hip hop performances look like a Vegas show compared to Arcade Fire’s chaotic strumfest of hand-drumming and violin sawing and general failure to play more than one chord.  Cool people from coast to coast could nod knowingly that this bunch of Canadians had risen up to become the face of alt-ness amidst the Grammys, the den of the uncool.

We’ll have to wait and see if Glee has an Arcade Fire-themed episode coming up next season of whether the Bieber Army, upon middle school graduation, suddenly develops a taste for Animal Collective and Of Montreal.  Unlikely, I suppose, but you can be sure that Arcade Fire album sales rose after the victory.  We can only assume that a backlash by hipsters is not far behind, with claims that the band “just isn’t cool anymore”.

The Other Way to Go
That live Arcade Fire performance has got me thinking.

When jazz appears live on the Grammys, it’s inevitably presented in toothless form.  This year, Spalding appeared while accompanying a bunch of talented high school kids who were blowing ‘50s-era solos in the background while hosts talked over top.  No wonder folks were mystified by her Best New Artist victory—she looked the band director at East Elm Street High.  In more typical years, the Grammys will let some older jazz masters play in elegant dress, demonstrating publicly that jazz comes out of a super-old tradition that would dare to stir things up.

Even among the Grammys specifically given to jazz recordings, the Recording Academy’s taste is bland.  Putting aside the “smooth jazz” categories (Best Pop Instrumental Album and Best Contemporary Jazz Album), the categories that feature actual jazz are also typically won by the most conservative or dated recordings.  James Moody’s Moody 4B beat out Vijay Iyer’s stunner Historicity (which, oddly was released in 2009, Grammy People!) for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.  Darcy James Argue’s latest was up against the Mingus Big Band in the Large Ensemble category and never had a chance.  Spalding herself wasn’t even nominated for best vocal album because . . ., well . . ., the Recording Academy pretty obviously doesn’t know what it’s doing with jazz.

So here’s the plan.

Next year, jazz musicians and fans, we don’t want to win anything.  The Grammys is a stain of unhipness for a music that is, over ten decades, the hippest and most subversive there is.  Plus, it means nothing coming from these bozos.

So: when they offer a slot on the Grammy Broadcast to Herbie Hancock or Chris Botti, we switch it up on them.  We slip them a Mickey.

In Hancock’s place comes Matthew Shipp, with his trio. In Botti’s place comes trumpeter Dave Douglas with his Keystone electric band. In the place of mild standards or sophisticated elevator music, our folks bring the sense of adventure that has always marked and will always mark the best jazz.  (For good measure, we can let ol’ Esperanza Spalding sit in with Shipp or Douglas, which she’s more than capable of doing.)  Douglas will smear and cry and buzz on his horn.  Shipp will crash and flail and bring down his fists in passion.

Let it be loud, let it break the rules, let some dissonant harmonies cloud up the world of Glee or the Bieber Believers or even the mainstream hip hop artists with their Escalades and their tired auto-tune choruses and their pop hooks sung by Rihanna.

Let there be a little controversy around jazz so that its status as the “safe”, old-fashioned retrograde choice is cut loose as it should be.  Let Cecil Taylor never be given a lifetime achievement award.  Let the spirit of Miles Davis turn his back on the audience.  Let Arcade Fire, by comparison, seem Gleefully Bieberistic.

Jazz, the real thing—the alive and engaging and vital thing that it still is—doesn’t deserve the curse of the Grammys.  It just deserves to be heard, sweet and clear, above all that Bieber noise.

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