The Blessing and the Curse of the Grammys

[6 March 2011]

By Will Layman

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?

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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