Every year, musicians love to use the Grammys as the whipping boy for our collective frustrations about the music industry. It’s unfortunate, but difficult to resist, and we’ve all fell victim to it over the years.
Like a lot of pro musicians, I’ve found solace in beating the Grammys into a bloody pulp each year for their sell-out and over-popped tendancies. But in the past few, I’ve been rethinking my views on what the show actually means. And I think I’ve come up with a theory.
The Grammys actually follow a basic formula each year that pretty much corresponds with how high school homecoming is structured: a massive orgasmic celebration for the popular, pretty and most palatable kids (the Justin Biebers, Lady Gagas, and Ushers of the world), a stoic nod to the alumni (Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand and Mick Jagger), and a generally cool, but willing inclusion of the truly diligent and talented band geeks who make sure the game has a soundtrack actually worth listening to (Esperanza Spalding, Lady Antebellum, John Mayer, Norah Jones, Mumford & Sons, etc.)
It always appears that the popular kids are going to rule the roost and be driving the train towards success. But just like in life, the Grammys prove that our human tendencies toward homogenous comfort don’t necessarily translate into a lasting feeling of real musical triumph. Kind of like when the homecoming game is over and the floats are torn down and everyone realizes they have to get up and go flip burgers at McDonalds the next day. Reality bites. And musical reality is really no different.
Running right down the middle of every Grammy show is the simultaneous story that our musical history has and always will be shaped mostly by those band geeks. Unpopular kids who somehow much later in life find their voice and their skin and in doing so manage to hours of nerdy solitude into something that blows other people’s minds.
That becomes brutally clear in those moments when a major coup occurs – like in Esperanza Spaldings completely unexpected smackdown of the pop stars to garner Best New Artist. A black female bass playing jazz singer stole the homecoming crown last night. On top of that, we saw Arcade Fire walk off with the show in a mixture of raw brutal outright musical bashing befitting your favorite local garage band rock club.
Yes. It happens. And when it does, it is a graceful reminder that it is and always will be the geeks who started this party and will always keep it moving.
Last night’s show saw plenty of spectacle, from Cee-Lo Green’s amusing Muppet-filled performance to Lady Gaga’s egg entrance, but was really carried by those people you would put in the “real musician, no effects” category: the geniusly sung tribute to Aretha Franklin by Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, Yolanda Adams and Florence Welch; a perfectly rendered acoustic version of Joleen by Norah Jones, John Mayer, and Keith Urban; and Lady Antebellum’s finely meshed vocal harmonies layered over the virtual textbook of great modern songwriting. These people remind us that there is no amount of dance or computer generated lighting cues that can substitute for musical skill. And they do it without beating us over the head with it.
Which is why each and every year we need the Grammys to keep happening. Because in their understated magical and masterful way, the music nerds subtly keep a tradition of musical education and real genius alive.
Sure – there is room in music for the full range of styles and purposes that people find in it – as in life, the Grammys don’t need to be one size fits all. They can continue to be both frivolous and important, showing us the range of reasons we love music: that in one moment it makes us silly, while in the next can make us cry.
But most importantly, whenever we go too far towards frivolous, there is something about the musical pendulum that tries to swing us back towards the middle.
And it’s happening just when we needed it most.