The Grammys. An event where people who don’t care about music pretend to do so, (with authority, mind you) and boast about their critical relevance to an art form they don’t even remotely understand. And I say this not in the direction of just Grammy viewers, but voters themselves. They’re the recording industry elite, those at the very top of the cloud blinded by the haze of stardom and the glare of success. Media outlets cover the awards ceremony as though it means something, that their rich broadcast deal and ejaculate-soaked red carpet somehow verify its validity as an authority in recognizing artistic achievement. In regards to “the business,” there is some truth to the claim. Awards are historically given to those who commanded the most attention or made the most money in the previous year. So, for what its worth, a Grammy is basically a gold star on the top of a tax return. Cool. But what about the music?
This year’s Grammys took an unprecedented step in the direction of actual respectability and relevance. In December, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced their list of nominees and headlines naturally championed media darlings Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and most of all Eminem with his leading 10 total nominations. In the “Album of the Year” category, arguably the most “prestigious” of Grammy awards, names like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Eminem and Lady Antebellum shined so bright they drowned out the humble, less glamorous fifth nominee. Among those stars listed was an indie band from Montreal, Quebec, Canada by the name of Arcade Fire.
In the independent music world, Arcade Fire is no underdog. They are, and have been, one of the most recognizable and well-known acts for the past decade. For people like myself who are so used to the attention the band gets from indie media outlets, its easy to become jaded and not immediately recognize their relative obscurity amongst the mainstream. They didn’t capture any headlines (yet), but their subtle mention in publications you’d never expect to utter their name was still pretty surprising.
Even more shocking was what happened at the Grammy Awards a few months later. To be honest, I haven’t watched or remotely cared about the awards since I was about 11, when I finally came to and formed my own opinions about music rather than accepting solely what the radio played for me. But this particular Grammy ceremony was different. As some of you may recall, Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” topped my column’s “Best Albums of 2010” list. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the distant chance that an institution so far out of my threshold of respectability could actually, for once, agree with me.
That wasn’t enough to warrant my whole attention for the three-hour circle-jerk of an event. I had heard that Arcade Fire would be the final performer and would play coincidentally (maybe not?) right before the “Album of the Year” announcement. How convenient. So I finally tuned in to the East Coast feed about a half hour before it was scheduled to end and caught the tail end of a performance by Rihanna and Drake. If there was ever a confirmation of why I didn’t watch the entire broadcast, this was it.
Following an awkward introduction by Jason Segel, Arcade Fire broke out into an energetic rendition of “Month of May,” complete with camera-equipped BMX riders capturing the performance from a unique perspective.
The BMX bike riders were obviously suggested to supply some additional entertainment value to the performance, but they were distracting and entirely unnecessary. Even the strobe-like lighting was a bit much. But, as we’ve learned from the “Grammy people,” the music itself just isn’t enough (case in point, Lady Gaga’s egg). This is a corner of Hollywood, and there’s gotta be some showbiz glam to spice everything up, or the ever-rising expectations of the short attention spans viewing the show will be disappointed.
Immediately following the performance, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (talk about irrelevance) took the stage to present the award for Album of the Year. Following a suspense-building stutter, Streisand read off the last words I’d expected to hear, “The Suburbs, Arcade Fire!” It all made sense. The band was billed to close the show and perform a last song following the Album of the Year announcement, even if they didn’t win (yeah, right). I instantly found myself in a peculiar situation—I was was given a faint tickle of excitement by the Grammys.
Hilarity ensued in the aftermath of the announcement. From the reaction of the band in their “holding area” while Streisand read their name and the awkward post-show interviews to the outrage of viewers who were unfamiliar with Arcade Fire, it was a compelling time to be a fan of the band. In fact, there were so many people tweeting, blogging and generally whining about not knowing who Arcade Fire is that a hilarious tumblr page was started titled “Who Is Arcade Fire?”, aggregating the angriest social networking posts complaining about the band. The general consensus, according to the entries on the blog, toes the line of “a band is only good if they’re popular and sell millions.” I laughed my head off.
A week later, I’m still generally perplexed as to the how or why this all could have happened. I’d read up on major publications’ predictions for the award, and by their estimation Arcade Fire was not even in the running. And yet, the voters made the right decision and chose an album not on popularity or gimmicks, but on the music itself. Maybe it was an attempt to rebuild the image of The Grammys into a respectable institution that can accurately recognize good music. I’d like to think this was the case, but the fact that Arcade Fire didn’t even win the award in the more specified category “Best Alternative Album” undoubtedly left many people scratching their heads (that honor went instead to The Black Keys). How can you have the best album of the year but not the best in your own “genre?” Logic isn’t required to vote for the Grammy Awards.
The Grammys also caused a stir with the award for “Best New Artist” going to Esperanza Spalding, a jazz artist whose popularity is dramatically overshadowed by those she beat out for the award—Justin Bieber and Drake, to name a few.
Talent trumps tinsel, for the second time in one night.
Were these the first steps to putting the Grammys on the right track? Who knows. The overhyped popularity contest has a long ways to go before I give it an ounce of critical respect. It’s still an exercise of bigwigs in a dying industry patting themselves on the back in-between an embarrassing and degrading minstrel show. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant surprise to see a legitimate band that writes legitimate music receive recognition in the faces of hundreds of stars that don’t. It was a big win for the little guy, and everyone loves an underdog story. The Grammys aren’t necessarily the World Series, hell, they’re not even the local Little League game, but it was still fascinating to watch it all unfold.