Friday, February 8, 2013

Music Meets Snobbery: The Grammys

                Depending on who you are, music can serve a variety of different purposes.  For some, it’s what keeps them going during early morning traffic jams on the way to work. Others, an acute depiction of their feelings and where their life currently stands. Still for more, it can be simply background noise to break through the void of silence in their homes. By the by, music plays a role in all of our lives, and even though we all enjoy it to some extent, it seems that everyone has different views about what constitutes the “best” in music. However, as surefire and foolproof as we think our ideas may be, is it really worth even thinking about music this way?  The answer to that question follows.

                Several months ago, I was driving with a female coworker of mine when Lady Gaga’s Born This Way played on the stereo. My coworker immediately became very excited and turned up the volume. When the exuberant chorus began, she could not help but belt it out (quite loudly) along with the music. Needless to say, she is not a singer by any definition and my kneejerk reaction was to berate her singing ability (unfortunately this didn’t stop her). A week or so later, we were sitting in the office when I offered up a mini-revelation that I had had to her. I told her that I had been foolhardy in criticizing her singing. I explained that everyone must have that one song (or many songs) that they just cannot help but sing (yell) loudly along with. There is a part of their emotion that is tapped by that song, and it simply overwhelms them. I am not particularly a fan of the song Born This Way, but my coworker is, and she was compelled to sing with it. I had thought about it and came to the conclusion that I have sang along poorly and loudly to MANY songs of my liking in the same fashion, and judging from my coworker’s music tastes, she would also think that I was being a moron. The reality is that we both have our own preferences, neither of us is wrong to sing along with our songs because they reach us differently on our own emotional levels. This begs the question, what is good/bad music?

                I believe that today’s country is horrific, death metal is unlistenable, and Taylor Swift is some incarnation of the devil. However, there are thousands of people that think just the opposite on each of those counts (probably millions in the Taylor Swift example). How can we know which viewpoint (along with millions of others) is correct? Enter the Grammy Awards. Here we have a system/event that can “definitively” determine the value of the music that has been released year by year. Do people ever fully agree with the Grammy results? No. The ironic part of that last question is that even though we love disagreeing with the Grammy results, deep down, we are the Grammys.

                For as much as music lovers everywhere piss and moan about Grammy results, they are very quick to offer up their own opinions about what was the best and worst music of the year/decade/century. I am no different, I regularly have conversations with a friend of mine about what the album or song of the year was. The more I ponder it however, the more I realize that this way of thinking is wrong. I have no qualification to comment on what the album/song of the year is. For instance, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (Kendrick Lamar) and channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean) are my favorites for album the year, but I haven’t heard the album El Camino (The Black Keys) yet. El Camino has garnered considerable momentum for being one of the best albums of 2012, but because I have not yet listened to it, it is out of contention for me. I am just one person, and there are countless songs and albums that I did not hear in the year 2012, so how can I possibly be qualified to ordain the best or worst music of that year? This doesn’t just go for me, but for everyone. Consider the mass volume of music that must be released every year and the amount of it that you never even hear.

                Even if we are limited by our collective inability to listen to every album and song that was released in a given year, there must be some existing value system that allows us to narrow down what truly were the best and worst of that year. Wrong, no such system is in play, meaning that all musical judgments are subjective. The flaw here is that music clearly affects people in different ways depending on their tastes. Consider this exchange between me and my cousin. He is a steadfast supporter of indie music and shies (if not runs) away from anything mainstream. I started to play a song (cannot recall which one exactly) that was a generic party/dance song popular at the time. He asked me if I was serious, that this was something that his 12 year old niece would listen to on the radio, and promptly changed the song to something more agreeable with his taste. I mulled over that exchange for some time. Why would a song on the radio be bad? Isn’t that the point of music? To be excellent and gain notoriety through that excellence, hopefully garnering national attention by receiving radio play?

                The Grammys are no different in this regard; each member of the Recording Academy (people who can vote) is different. I did a little digging and found this article that goes into a little detail about how the Grammy voters are determined. According to the article, there are a certain amount of “experts” that decide on the nominees and then vote on them. What determines being an expert in music? To quote the article,

 To become a voting member of the association an individual must be a music industry professional with creative or technical credits on six commercially released tracks (or their equivalent). These may include vocalists, conductors, songwriters, composers, engineers, producers, instrumentalists, arrangers, art directors, album notes writers, narrators and music video artists and technicians.”

 That’s it, that’s all you need. There are further restrictions on voting jurisdiction and frequency, but if you want to know what they are, go ahead and read the article. The point here is that there is a fairly lenient process by which the Grammy voters are selected. I readily admit, I’ve never worked on a music project, but does working on a minimum of six qualify you to be an expert? While I’m sure that some (perhaps many) of that “expert” group have a dearth of musical knowledge and know-how, can it really be more than a fair share of normal people that aren’t a part of the Recording Academy?

                Compiling on that problem is that the Recording Academy has no criteria to draw from in order to choose winners and losers. Just think about it, college football has the BCS system currently and a record of each team’s wins and losses and yet we STILL cannot reach a consensus of who the national champion is each year. In music no such easy guidelines exist. Sure, there are record sales, but does that accurately depict what the good and bad music of the year was? One Direction, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift have legions of fans who will buy their albums no matter how poor their music is, whereas many independent musicians produce superior music that goes unnoticed and unheard each year because the general public simply does not know that they exist. You could maybe make a case for how well an artist sings as a voting criterion, but then you automatically disqualify rap, EDM, many forms of metal, and plenty of soul-type music, all of which are not known to be strong singing genres. Also, with today’s technology, is the ability to sing really a measure of greatness? Purists will answer that question “yes,” but honestly, isn’t today’s music more about creating a track or album that really gets in touch with its audience. Be it by vocals, background music, storytelling, or pace, music overall is more than just an artist’s singing ability.

                It would be nice if the Recording Academy had a webpage where they specifically explained their process in voting and what aspects of music they looked at while they cast their votes for the Grammys. For them, it would be an intelligent move in that they could definitively say what it was that made them choose a certain song, album, or performance as their winner in each category. For example, in 2011, Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist. I was stunned, mostly because for me, Drake was clearly the best new artist of that year. When I looked closely at the field of nominees Esperanza defeated, I was even more shocked. Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons, Florence + The Machine, and the aforementioned Drake; I would have easily picked any of them before Esperanza, but somehow she still managed victory. Since that time, I’ve listened to some of her music, and while I admit that she’s quite talented, I simply can’t understand how she received the votes to win. If an artist like Esperanza Spalding wins Best New Artist, we should not be seeing other artists who are more well-known winning the bigger awards (record of the year, artist of the year, etc…). Those awards should be going to the truly musically gifted, such as Spalding.

                In the end, the Grammys have made it difficult for us to decipher what they are, and in turn difficult to make a clear-cut choice on what the best music of the year is. It almost seems as though the Recording Academy is feeling a pressure to vote on what is truly the most popular and listened to music of the year (think Call Me Maybe, Gangnam Style, and anything Taylor Swift), but also feels obligated to show that they have a sort of higher knowledge about music than the rest of us. Again I return to the 2011 Grammy awards. Arcade Fire’s album, The Suburbs, won the prestigious Album of the Year award. I’d never heard of them, and would venture to guess they were by far the least known of all the nominees. A couple of days later, I bought their album and listened to it extensively. I admit that it is good, but looking back now, was it really the album of that year? I do not think so, and attribute their victory to the Recording Academy flexing their musical knowledge and parading the idea that they somehow know more than the average person. Is that really the right viewpoint to take when declaring the best and worst of music? I don’t know; the millions of records that Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift sell are hard to argue with. If that many people clamor to acquire that music, it has to be worth something, right? On the flipside, even though we probably agree that Mozart is a far better musician that Justin Bieber, is there any doubt that Bieber would sell far more records if both were making music today? How can we really tell what the best is? I’m not entirely certain myself, but I do know this, the Grammys Recording Academy will make their decision. After they do, I’ll applaud and complain their choices, and immediately begin jamming to my own, personal, favorite song of the year. Nobody can take that away from me, and I won’t give a damn how few or many awards that song has won, it’s my song.

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