The Grammy Awards were Sunday night and a couple things happened. Lady Gaga flouted all conceivable fashion conventions and showed up encased in an egg. Sweet(?). Bob Dylan growled at the microphone and breathed into a harmonica until he got his obligatory applause. Legendary(?). Eminem gave an impassioned performance of a lackluster song, then Dr. Dre came out and they didn’t perform “Guilty Conscience,” “Forgot About Dre,” or any of their many other stellar collabs. Weak(!). I’m not going to talk about those things, though, because something else happened. A band that (sort-of) deserved to win the night’s major award actually won the night’s major award. I’m going to talk about that, and what it means for the Grammys.
I’m not going to pretend that this has never happened, but it has certainly not happened for many years. The nominees for Album of the Year have, for at least the past ten years, included one or two artists that deserved a nomination, and four others. One of those four others usually wins. Indulge me while I provide some Wikipedia-found evidence:
2010: Taylor Swift, Beyonce, The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, and Dave Matthews Band are nominated. Taylor Swift wins.
2009: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Coldplay, Ne-Yo, Radiohead, and Lil Wayne are nominated. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss win. (Not an epic tragedy, but still not right.)
2008: Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters, Vince Gill, Kanye West, and Amy Winehouse are nominated. Herbie Hancock wins.
The list goes on in this same fashion for a stretch. With the exception of Radiohead, I’m not certain that these artists definitely did have the best album of their Grammy year, but I can tell you with certainty that Taylor Swift and Herbie Hancock definitely did not. So while the Academy might not have been able to hit the nail squarely on the head with the nominations they had given, they had the opportunity to at least strike the board, instead of throwing the hammer through the window.
Let me give you a comparison. The Grammys are—supposed to be—to music what the Oscars are to movies, right? Well, if the Oscars were more like the Grammys, this year’s Best Picture nominees would look something like this: Country Strong, Just Go With It, Season of the Witch, Black Swan, and Piranha-3D. Black Swan probably shouldn’t win in a fair fight, but this isn’t a fair fight. It’s a frame-up. When you say the words “Album of the Year” or “Best Picture,” there is no post script; it doesn’t read, “Ablum of the Year…When given a choice of these five albums, as if no others were made in 2010,” because it leaves out any real competition. A list like that one is downright disrespectful, and it undermines the medium as a whole.
I’m really not trying to take anything away from Arcade Fire. The Canadian septet made an impressive album this past year. When I made a top-ten list in my head I think it ranked 5th, because you wouldn’t know it from watching the Grammys, but this was an impressive year for music. The group of nominees this year should have made this a clear victory, but the way the night was going I was sure those neo-country frauds Lady Antebellum were going to sneak away with another trophy. So again, really not trying to take anything away from Arcade Fire, but they should know that they weren’t given a whole lot either.
Therein lies the quandary. When the contestant pool has become so diluted with fluff, does a win really mean anything? Like I said before, I had Arcade Fire ranked 5th on my list, meaning that in my fantasy Grammys they would have been nominated, but would ultimately have lost. In that parallel universe they would have been underdogs, but the phrase, “Its an honor just to be nominated” would have meant something.
There has been some talk about how the Grammys may have become relevant once again, overnight, because this one award was given to a band that matters. If you are one of the few optimistic musicophiles touting this theory, think about something else. If Arcade Fire had lost, like so many of their predecessors, how meaningful would this award have been? I’m wagering a guess at, not at all.
But wait! Doesn’t the sheer fact of AF’s victory make the Grammy worth something? Not really. The Suburbs was a great album, but it came out the same year as a lot of other great albums. The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences picked it, and none of those other albums. It is as if this happened by chance. It would have been essentially the same scenario if the Academy had nominated four pieces of rotten fruit, and Arcade Fire, and Arcade Fire won. Congratulations indeed.
I was going to write a conclusion paragraph here, summing up my argument and bringing everything full circle, but I came up with a better idea. Here’s a quick list of some classic missteps by the Academy, which illustrates its tradition of incompetence better than I ever could:
1967: Frank Sinatra’s A Man and His Music beats The Beatles’ Revolver
1969: Glen Campbell’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix beats both The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends
1970: Blood, Sweat, & Tears’ Blood, Sweat, & Tears beats The Beatles’ Abbey Road
1981: Christopher Cross’ Christopher Cross beats Pink Floyd’s The Wall
2001: Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature beats Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead’s Kid A
And, for the record, here is what my Album of the Year category would have looked like:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left-Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – WINNER