The Blessing and the Curse of the Grammys

by Will Layman

6 Mar 2011

Esperanza Spalding accepting her Grammy 

Screw the Grammys.

Recording Academy, please keep your little gold Victrola statues.  Jazz doesn’t need them.  Jazz fans resent them.  In our hearts we kind of fear them.  Recording Academy, we actually prefer that you have Bieber Fever, and let the rest of us be.

Last month, jazz popped its nose into the bracing, often bitter, air of popular culture.  Grammy voters, those recording industry pros who so often miss what’s really hip in music, chose jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding over Justin Bieber (and over Drake, Florence & the Machine, and Mumford & Sons) as “Best New Artist”.  The rage of Bieber’s millions of tween/teen fans rose immediately through the digital aether, as Spalding’s Wikipedia page, among other places, was marked with comments like “SHE IS FUCKING REATARD! [sic]” or “she won Best New Artist even though no one has heard of her”.

It’s not that I’m too sensitive, as a raging jazz lover and specifically as a fan of Spalding’s three records, to handle the disappointment of a generation of girls named “Brittany”.  Rather, I feel that jazz is tainted by this Grammy, and it has been tainted by the Grammys before.  It’s not just that being anointed by a body as unhip as the Grammy voters is worse than being ignored, but at least it starts there.

Let Us Please Not Be Uncool
In my elementary school, reputations were made and lost in gym class.  If Chris Ciazzo, the fastest kid in the fifth grade, picked me for a team, I was golden for a month.  If the teacher let a dorky kid pick, then my prayer was to be picked last—or not at all. As the universe knows, Grammy voters are the dorky kid incarnate.

I won’t catalog here the many, many times that the Grammy did not go to a brilliant work but instead to something insipid or super-conservative.  Suffice it to say: Milli-Vanilli, 1989. What pains me in particular are those rare instances when jazz musicians were given awards beyond the “jazz” categories, only to have those victories be seen as prime examples of fuddy-duddy taste defeating the new and innovative.

Most recently, there is Herbie Hancock’s shocking 2008 Grammy for Record of the Year”.  He beat out the Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse, and Kanye West.  A jazz musician interpreting the decades-old tunes of a baby-boomer singer-songwriter?  How retrograde can you get?  Of course, it mattered little that River was a brilliant collection of strange yet lyrical versions of Joni Mitchell’s vanguard pop songs.  It mattered not at all to Grammy voters that River featured a generous dollop of weird and keening saxophone improvisation from Wayne Shorter, who is a crazy, illusive genius.  I’m 97 percent sure that the hipsters and critics who wailed the next day about Grammy conservatism do not even know who Wayne Shorter is.  What mattered, alas, is that The Grammy Voters Got It Wrong Again, Ignoring the Zeitgeist And Voting For That Old Music, JAZZ.

The last thing that jazz needs is to be the staid selection, the thing preferred to something edgy, like hip hop, or something really popular, like Justin Bieber’s hair.

For that matter, the best thing that could have happened to Bieber was to lose.  Now, just maybe, he’s not Milli Vanilli or Christopher Cross (Best New Artist, 1981) or Men at Work (1983).  But perhaps Esperanza Spalding is?

What’s So Great About Being Among ‘The Chosen’?
The dilemma for Spalding and Hancock, but maybe for Kanye West and Florence and the Machine too, is that popularity is only one way that artists measure themselves.

We live in a time of super-confusion regarding selling (or being sold) out.  Back in the “golden era” or the time of classic rock, a dozen of the most critically revered artists were also on the biggest labels, selling the most records.  From the Rolling Stones to Paul Simon to Miles Davis, artists could seek a huge audience from the larger platform without appearing to prostitute themselves.  Today, the link between “selling” and being great (or being famous) has been flipped upside-down and backwards.

Getting to a big label is no longer the launching pad for one’s career. Doing it yourself is almost de rigueur.  Radio play has become irrelevant and certainly secondary to, say, placing a song in an Audi commercial. Justin Bieber himself, the very embodiment of massive popular success, started on YouTube and just launched a hugely popular, 3D, industry embraced and generated movie designed to make him seem like a struggling artist who Broke All The Rules.

The goal, however, remains the same:  develop a huge following.  Which is how you win a Grammy, right?

For outraged Bieber fans, the unfairness was a simple equation: Justin Bieber is outrageously popular, therefore he deserves to win.  Greeting Esperanza Spalding with a sincere “Who the hell is she?” was simply another way of crying foul.

While popularity is an excellent predictor of Grammy success, what complicates matters is that Grammy success can itself cause greater popularity.  Maybe it ain’t cool to win a Grammy, perhaps, but it’s cool to increase sales, downloads and YouTube hits.  Artists want it so they can survive, even if it suggests that you’re not the hippest act.  Being anointed by the Giant Entertainment Conglomerate may have its price… but it also has its benefits.

Of course, if record sales guaranteed awards, then the dominant force on Grammy night would not have been an artist but a TV show.  Who dominated the record charts in 2010?  The cast of Glee.

Indeed the bigger, more outrage-generating music news of the last month was that the Glee cast, with its barely imaginable 113th single on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, is now the most successful recording “artist” of all time.  Elvis Presley, with 108 singles on the chart, had previously held the record for decades.  Not the Beatles, not even Michael Jackson can match the Gleesters for charting pop songs.  Wow.

So why aren’t Lea Michele and her gleeful chums the best new artists of 2010, or at least nominated?  Why weren’t the “Gleeks” bombarding Esperanza Spalding’s Wikipedia page with their collective teen disappointment?

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