- The nominees are better, and so is the show. Now if only the Grammy people could do something about those darned winners….
Three days after the Grammys, critics are in virtual agreement: the 2005 edition of the music industry awards show was the best – or at least the most memorable, or maybe just the least embarrassing – in years.
Of course, the pundits can’t agree on what they liked. Slate’s Jody Rosen calls the theatrical reading of “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West “the night’s best performance,” while John Pareles at The New York Times labels it “strange.” Of a Janis Joplin tribute, Pareles says flatly that “neither the young English singer Joss Stone nor Melissa Etheridge could live up to the Janis Joplin songs they worked over”; while the folks at HITS say Etheridge’s take on “Piece of My Heart” was “the night’s most poignant moment,” noting that “the hairless Etheridge” was making her first appearance since announcing she had breast cancer. Salon’s Neal Pollack calls the all-star tsunami-relief performance of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” “absolutely magnificent,” while the Times’s Pareles calls it “earnest but shaky.” (I’m with Pareles on that one.)
About the only thing the critics all agree on in is this: Marc Anthony, please don’t ever, ever sing with your tone-deaf wife again.
Still, despite assorted nitpicking, you can sense the general shock from the peanut gallery – sound the trumpets, the Grammys were interesting! Salon’s Pollack summed it up best: “It feels like the moment when the music business has finally matured; culture has met commerce at the crossroads, and they’ve shaken hands in friendship.”
Even U2’s Bono – not exactly a man who’s had a bad time at awards shows – sounded stunned when he declared from the stage, “This is the best Grammys I’ve ever seen.” (Bono is a smarmy performer but a witty music-business pundit. Sometime, I have to dig up an interview he did a few years back with the Times in which he brilliantly identified record-label staff as “silkscreen-jacket-wearing men,” code for a particular brand of New York bridge-and-tunnel goombah. Genius.)
The Grammy show tends to showcase performers who are up for awards that night. So the show gets better when the nominees get better – and this year’s nominees were pretty darn good. Salon’s Pollack points out how the Grammys – in their modest, mainstream way – covered a surprising number of acclaimed releases this year: “Kanye West, check. Green Day, check. Franz Ferdinand, check. Modest Mouse, Loretta Lynn and Jack White, Alicia Keys, check, check, check.”
Truth is, if you’ve been paying attention, the Grammy nominees have been getting gradually less embarrassing for about a decade now. As I chronicled two years ago in my 2003 Grammy blog post, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) made an important overhaul to the nominating process around 1995, right after Tony Bennett won Album of the Year for an Unplugged record that probably never should have been nominated. Stung by criticism that only aging or slick performers got nominated and won, NARAS took away the nominating responsibility from the entire Academy voting body and assigned it to hand-picked committees, which sift through the year’s recordings and come up with the nominees. This way, at least the voters have decent stuff to choose from.
This nominating system is vaguely similar to the Motion Picture Academy’s system for the Oscars, and it has the same pros and cons. For the Oscars, nominees are chosen by their peers – actors by actors, cinematographers by cinematographers, documentary features by documentarians. Obviously, we all have complaints with the people the Academy chooses to nominate (Roberto Begnini, anyone?), or not (Paul Giamatti, anyone?), but on the whole it’s a sane system, guaranteeing that at least some of the deserving people and films will get a nod. Not to be elitist or undemocratic, but as lame as the Oscars are, imagine what would happen if the entire Academy – from studio execs to prop men – were choosing, say, screenplay nominees. Imagine the five pieces of shit the voters would have to choose from if the nominating process were open to everyone.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine it: prior to 1995, this was more or less the Grammy system, the one that brought you a Best New Artist nomination for Milli Vanilli.
The thing is, Milli Vanilli didn’t just get nominated for Best New Artist, they won. Had there been nominating committees in 1990, perhaps Rob and Fab would not even have been nominated, and the voters wouldn’t have been tempted into making Grammy’s most embarrassing blunder. Still, 15 years later, Grammy voters haven’t learned their lesson. This year, presented with a Best New Artist choice of Kanye West, Gretchen Wilson, Los Lonely Boys and Maroon5, the Grammy voters went with…wait for it…Maroon5, the cheesiest, poppiest choice of the bunch.
Which brings us to the downside of both the Grammy system and the Oscar system: you can lead a horse to four pools of tasteful water and one pool of schlocky water, but you can’t make him drink out of the tasteful pools. You can lay out a huge plate of crunchy vegetables and a small bowl of Skittles, and the candy will be gone. You can, in the spirit of inclusiveness, nominate both Kanye West and Maroon5, both Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, but you should expect the Maroon5s and Gumps to beat the Kanyes and Pulps every time.
This is how Ray Charles’s well intentioned but third-rate Genius Loves Company beat Usher, Kanye and Green Day for Album of the Year. Include a cheesy, comfort-food choice among the nominees – something that makes the senior-most members of the Academy sigh with relief – and the voters will gravitate toward it. Occasionally, in this race, we get lucky: just last year the Grammy went to OutKast’s forward-looking double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. (A rare moment of taste for the Grammy voters? Maybe – but don’t forget that middle-aged people really liked “Hey Ya!”) But more often, Album of the Year goes to someone like Santana or Steely Dan, about 25 years after they were actually interesting.
Record of the Year was even more embarrassing. Presented with a choice of Usher’s “Yeah!” (the year’s most popular single), West’s “Jesus Walks” (the year’s most acclaimed artist), Green Day’s “American Idiot” (the year’s biggest comeback act), Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” (the year’s most-beloved country song) and a somnolent, little-heard duet between Charles and Norah Jones, which song would you pick to sum up 2004? Clearly, you are not a Grammy voter.
The obvious followup question is, why do the nominating committees give the voters that option in the first place? Who knows? The committees probably include a number of old-school voters. And it must be hard not to include those middle-of-the-road favorites; I can’t fault the nominators for wanting to recognize Brother Ray in the year of his passing.
In fact, the committees tried to skew things the right way, nominating Charles eight times and the more-deserving Kanye 10 times, the most nominations of any artist going into Grammy night. But guess who finished with more statues? Final score: Charles 8, West 3. It’s heartbreaking to see the Grammy voters making such poor choices when the organizers worked so hard to make everything else on the show go right.
In short, if you want to enjoy the Grammys, think like a Cubs fan. Enjoy the season. Enjoy the big show. Just try not to pay attention to who gets the trophy. And remember, there’s always next year….