Are the Grammys out of tune?

[3 February 2010]

By Greg Kot

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

On the day after the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, the question I got most from readers was this: Is that all there is?

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences would like to leave its television audience with the impression that Taylor Swift made the best album of the last year, “Fearless,” by awarding her its most prestigious prize. But what many people who watched the show were talking about Monday was not the “artistic achievement” of that album, to use the academy hyperbole, but the inability of Taylor Swift to sing on key. She was flatter than a pancake in her frankly embarrassing duet with Stevie Nicks.

One could write it off as a bad night, but Swift has had more than one in nationally televised awards shows. Her duet with Miley Cyrus (remember her?) at last year’s Grammys was just as shaky, leaving viewers who had not previously heard her music wondering what all the fuss was about. To put this in context for the “American Idol” audience that the Grammys were clearly courting with Sunday’s pop-heavy lineup, what do you think Simon Cowell would’ve said about Swift’s performance? I have an idea, and it wouldn’t have been, “You’re on to the next round!”

But now that Swift has been anointed by the Grammys, sales of “Fearless” are sure to rise. It’s the one music awards show that really matters, the one that gets people who don’t normally buy music to go out and do just that.

The point isn’t that Swift is a talentless hack who doesn’t deserve to be making albums. Clearly, she has some acumen for writing pleasant pop-country songs; she’s a fresh-faced, seemingly humble presence who has a chance to develop into a serious talent. She is only 20 years old, after all. But it’s ridiculous to think of her as a fully formed artist who outclasses everyone in her field.

Nor is it to say that albums that sell a lot of copies are inherently lacking in artistic achievement. Indeed, best-sellers are sometimes also accomplished works of art, including recent Grammy album of the year winners such as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for “Raising Sand” in 2009, OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” in 2004, and Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999. What the Grammys overlook with increasing frequency, however, are the great albums that aren’t commercial blockbusters, especially in years when the blockbusters aren’t up to par musically.

As the academy’s Grammy Web site states: “The Grammys are the only peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.”

Clearly, artistic achievement matters only a little in these ratings-obsessed times. The marketing hook of Swift appearing on the show (along with other performer-celebrities such as Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Fergie of Black Eyed Peas) is what drives ratings, not the ability to write or sing great songs. So we had Gaga jumping into a cauldron and emerging with “charred” facial makeup, Fergie cavorting with robots, Green Day collaborating with a Broadway chorus and Pink twirling like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat.

All this bombast to keep us watching, never mind that the music generally was pretty pedestrian, if not downright awful.

Yet the best performances on the Grammys barely had any gimmicks at all: Maxwell in a dark suit belting out a soul ballad or Jeff Beck working his guitar like the Les Paul disciple he is. And I can only imagine the reaction had a performer with a voice that can shake walls like Neko Case or Mavis Staples been allowed to cavort with the pop celebs in prime time.

Case’s sixth studio album, “Middle Cyclone,” was nominated for a minor award (best contemporary American folk album) and didn’t win. Yet Case is exactly the type of artist that Swift aspires to be: an accomplished singer, songwriter and producer who keeps getting better with each year. Case is at the top of her game right now, and her breathtaking voice is a powerhouse of longing with a tart edge. She drummed in punk bands before embracing her love for mountain-soul ballads on her solo albums, and along the way she’s honed her chops as a lyric-writer and arranger, developed as a guitarist and pianist and learned how to use the studio as an instrument to enhance the rich atmosphere in her voice and songs. The strike against artists such as Case is that they’re too esoteric, too underground, for a mainstream audience. But that’s bunk. A “Middle Cyclone” song like “People Got a Lotta Nerve” is as catchy as anything Swift has ever written.

Mavis Staples was a teenage prodigy in the ‘50s, her deep voice belying her youth as she toured with her father and siblings in the Staple Singers, first on the gospel circuit and then working soul and R&B. The Staples were Martin Luther King’s favorite vocal group, and they helped write and perform the soundtrack for the civil rights era.

OK, great, you’re saying, but what has she done lately to merit the music industry’s attention? Check out her recent recordings or attend any of her concerts, and it’s apparent that Staples’ voice is still in full roar. Her nomination for best contemporary blues recording (“Live Hope at the Hideout”) didn’t produce a Grammy. The album presents an artist who knows exactly what she’s about and how to connect with an audience. It’s a moving document of a great artist still in peak form.

But the Grammys aren’t really about shining a spotlight on artists who are making great art outside the industry marketing machine. If Swift had sold 100,000 albums instead of 3.2 million, chances are she never would’ve been nominated for a bunch of awards, much less won the biggest of them all. That’s not to denigrate the people who bought her music. There’s only so much time in the day to spend on ferreting out new music, and most people will reach for stuff that’s accessible to them. They can only buy what they know about.

But the Grammys purport to be about more than that. The academy has the power to expose artists who deserve our attention, who aren’t household names but should be, no matter how many recordings they’ve sold. The academy doesn’t have to bend over backward to make that happen. It simply needs to follow its own guidelines.

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