Why The Grammys Are The Problem (And Why Justin Vernon Is Right)

Be sure to read our first post on the Grammys from earlier today.

When I set out to live-blog the Grammy awards Sunday night, I admittedly did it with a touch of naivete.  You see, I know that the entire broadcast is a giant commercial for the labels.  I know that much of the deserving music released throughout the year is ignored.  I know the voting process is a disaster.  What I didn’t know was how far the Grammys had fallen.

Not too long ago, winning an award on the broadcast meant something.  Between commercial breaks and awkward celebrity presentations, the award still represented the pinnacle of recorded music in any given year or category.  Consider when Elton John

Elton represented the Grammys at its best (photo via Flickr user Sean Biehle)

joined Eminem on stage and proved, at least for a night, that art could trump all else; although profit motives and the allure of musical spectacle were the driving forces behind the performance, it was memorable.  Even today, it’s hard to avoid any biographical account of either artist’s career without being spoon-fed how important that performance was.  And you know what?  It was important.  It was important for the obvious artistic, political, and sociocultural issues we know it to be important for.  The performance was also important because it was the Grammys at its best: celebrating music of all varieties, and paying homage accordingly.

Since then, the broadcast has been a swift decline.  It became very clear to me Sunday night that only the tiny minority of “major” awards would be announced, interspersed between an unending barrage of live performances.  The entire broadcast was a glorified concert, and few (if any) seemed to speak up about how little value we place in awarding deserving art.  That is a shock, because other genres haven’t gotten away with it.  During the Oscars, Emmys, or Tonys, we still see a decent number of awards given out in a multitude of categories.  Yes, there is glitz and distraction and advertising at its worse.  There is also a semblance of formality and tradition.  Not so at the Grammys.  It seems to be an anomaly that the Grammys progressively gets worse while its sister award shows manage to squeak by with just a little bit of self-respect.

To make matters worse, this decline can’t be attributed to advertising and consumerism.  Let’s be honest: there are dozens of awards shows that provide more than enough trash to go around (Peoples’ Choice Awards?  MTV Awards?)  Why is it that the Grammys have managed to fall so much further than the other top award shows, when competing shows are abundant in each artistic genre?

Let’s get the obvious candidates out of the way because we are (or should be) all familiar with them: payola (anyone paying attention knows this is still an issue); media consolidation; the Internet; shifting demographic concerns; consumption habits; and yes, consumerism.  Is pointing the finger enough, though?  For those who seem to be so invested in awards and pop culture, there is a large group of people only making the situation worse.

Case in point: Justin Vernon.  Prior to the Grammys, Vernon kicked up a massive controversy (by Internet standards, at least) by

Justin Vernon (photo via Flickr user Angela N)

refusing to play a collaborative set and generally disparaging the awards show any chance he got.  The faux-condemnation of Vernon was appalling and nauseating.  For example:

If they manage to do that, maybe indie darlings like Justin Vernon can get over their inner conflicts already—and perhaps get a sales boost at the same time, whether they want one or not. (Slate)

Whether or not Bon Iver’s decision was truly about the integrity of the music, it comes across like they were butthurt about having to share the stage. (Gawker)

Oh, but Gawker (whose content I usually am a fan of) had more to share:

Fuckin’ give me a break. Turning down an offer to perform at the Grammys is, depending on how you look at it, a very noble or very stupid move. It’s all in how you spin it. And Vernon seems content with presenting himself as that guy who corners you at a party and tells you all about his music, even though you couldn’t possibly understand. Ugh, why am I even trying to explain this to you?

Let’s put aside the questionable vocabulary and attempts at audible scoffing and dig a little deeper here.  By the writer’s logic, Vernon was either very noble or very stupid.  Because he did what he believed was right, and dared to speak about it, he was “that guy who corners you at a party and tells you all about his music, even though you couldn’t possibly understand.” Can you think of a more arrogant, petulant, snotty, and dismissive thing to write?  How easy it must to be to attack someone for trying to stick to his personal morals and defend the heartless money machine that is the Grammys.  Gawker, a usually even-keeled and objective snark distribution mill, lost me when they posted one video after another of performances and Adele and Whitney Houston and oh-dear-god, can we give the Grammys a little bit of objective criticism?

Drew Magary of Deadspin/Gawker, a writer I truly do admire and enjoy, put it best:

There’s so much more to make fun of at the Grammys, and really, that’s the most important contribution any awards show can make to society.

The best Gawker could offer in terms of criticism was essentially more celebration!  As I said, Magary (and Gawker Media in general) earn a lot of respect from me.  It just stuns me that the open criticism of Vernon was so tolerated, when he seemed to be one of a few artists standing up to the entire charade.

Oh, but there’s more:

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, well, you’re either already sick of hearing about him or have no idea who he is. (Life as Kanye West’s token indie-rock collaborater will polarize one’s image this way. (ArtInfo)

Again- “sick of hearing about him.”  Why?  Because he didn’t want to play the Grammys?  Isn’t it just a little bit disingenuous to act like Justin Vernon has over-saturated the news when half the country had a discussion of the Jersey Shore girls filming in Jersey City?  Or, isn’t it a little bit ridiculous to feed into this sudden meme that Justin Vernon is all talk?  Isn’t it a self-defeating premise to compare Vernon’s over-saturation with Kanye West’s when you are the one creating a false equivalency between the two artist’s collaboration and their national notoriety?

The list of pretentious snark flying Vernon’s way is too long to recap, but we all got it.  Yet at the same time Vernon was making a point about how far downhill the industry has gone, commentators and blogs and every other outlet were feeding into the problem.  Think about how often the likes of Gawker, the news, independent bloggers, or (gasp!) MTV over-report on Nicki Minaj or Ke$ha or Lil’ Wayne or god knows who else.

So what happened when Vernon took the high road?  It certainly had to be tough for him to accept awards on stage (like Best New Artist), as he had just sat through hours of trash and debased content being force-fed to millions through their television set.  And guess what?  He did it, and he did it with grace.  Vernon claimed it was a tough situation, thanked who he should have, and walked away.  So how did Gawker handle it?

Bon Iver Frontman Justin Vernon’s Speech Dripped with Ironic Detachment

Right there, you have the entire nutshell.  Playing into the stupid, overused, worn out, and overly broad concept of “hipsters”, Gawker goes for the “ironic detachment” joke.  Oh, well let’s all just have a great chuckle over such original use of humor and stereotypes.  Give me a break.  Watch the video- Vernon was a classy as possible and put forth a truism that is all too easily ignored: many artists are screwed by the Grammys.  It’s a simple fact that the industry ignores scores of deserving artists, and Vernon rightfully said he probably shouldn’t have been in the position he was.

So that was Vernon, handling the affair with class.  Meanwhile, the Grammys itself had this gem to offer earlier in the night:

Did you catch that?  Because it had it all in a disgusting 52 seconds.  Mocking “indie cred”, as if standing up for the integrity of music is somehow an issue that is divisive and can be mocked.  Equating Bon Iver with trash in the alley.  And this was an official broadcast by the Grammys! Putting aside the other truism that Jack Black is unfunny, desperate, and irrelevant, this cuts to the core of how art (and music) have developed in the mainstream: accept what you are given, and mock anyone who disagrees.  So

Jack Black channels his inner irrelevance (Photo via Flickr user moses_namkung)

what if Vernon was technically right on all counts?  So what if he acted like an adult and accepted his award without a major scene?  As long as we can make fun of “ironic detachment” or brush aside criticism as him being a prima donna, then all is right with the world.

It should have been painfully obvious to everyone watching Sunday that something needs to give: either the Grammys needs to give up the act of being the pinnacle of the industry, or its creators need to do some serious self-reflection as to how much credibility they are losing one year after another.

A few people seemed to understand the real issues here.  For instance:

Besides Bon Iver and Foster The People, the awards show was essentially a pop contest — which makes sense given its Prime Time TV audience. (Indie Shuffle)

Ferris also made a strong point on the matter, but I’d like to zero in on this:

But it’s time for the Grammys to make up their mind. Every year in this category, the Grammys compare apples and oranges. They’ve got to make a decision. Either it’s only artists who have released their debut album in the past year or remove the word “new” from the guidelines and the title

We’re assuming that the Grammys care.  They don’t.  As the Jack Black segment illustrates, the entire organization could care less about Bon Iver or the Vernon controversies.  They care about ratings, plain and simple.  Until the Grammys (and more important, critics) start to point out these glaring inconsistencies, the entire charade will continue  There are two related points, I believe.  First, “new” is subjective.  As all of the “Who is Bon Iver” nonsense shows, the group wasn’t visible until this year- that’s a new artist in the purest audience-, demographic-, and sales-driven definitions of the term.  Second, let’s keep things in perspective: the classification is largely meaningless because the entire ceremony is meaningless.  Although I respect Ferris and his opinions, I think that this trend was a symptom of a larger problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.  Within a few years, the Grammys may not even bother to broadcast the Best New Artist award.

I initially intended to respond to Ferris’ post directly, but he largely summed up frustration with one aspect of the Grammys.  I’ve named several more.  The bottom line, though, is that the incessant cheerleading and sharing of “interesting” Grammy content (see: Gawker’s near-RSS feed of Grammy highlights) makes this all a moot point.  Vernon was proved right more than he probably wanted- by Gawker, by writers across the spectrum, by Jack Black, and by the Grammys.  Someone took a serious stand, but nothing at the Grammys is going to change until that person is taken seriously.

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