Monday, March 15, 2021

At The Grammys

Despite having been a huge music fan almost all my life I've never paid even the smallest passing attention to the Grammys. It's not for any moral objections to the concept of competition in the arts. I'm down with awards in principle. It's more that until really quite recently the Grammys never got much traction where I live. Not with my peer group, the general public or even the media.

In my teens and twenties I bought all the music papers and magazines there were. They all held annual write-in polls and I filled them out and sent them off. Weeks later, when the results were printed, I pored over the winners and losers, fulminated about the injustice of my favorites being ignored and crowed when the people I'd voted for came out on top.  

Those polls, parochial as they were, seemed like a big deal at the time. Later, in the eighties and nineties, when television picked up on the theme with big events like the Brits and the Mercury Music Prize, I'd watch those on TV and talk about them afterwards, ironically in the case of the former, more seriously for the latter.

The Grammys, though? Nah, they never figured. The music papers in the seventies and eighties didn't seem interested. They'd report the winners in a small news story but I don't remember ever seeing a feature article on either the results or the ceremony, not even once. 

Partly I think it was because the nominees and winners seemed so incredibly old-fashioned. The lists of names that got printed looked like a snapshot of your parents record collection, or possibly your weird cousin's, the one who didn't quite move to the same beat as everyone else. And those were the names I recognized. Most of them were people I'd never even heard of and at the time I prided myself on the breadth and depth of my popular music knowledge. 

Sometime much later, probably during the decade or so when I wasn't paying much attention to anything other than mmorpgs, it seems the Grammys changed a little. Not an awful lot, just enough to make them look about as in touch as the Brits used to be. That's a low bar but at least it's there.

I still never paid much attention. It was easy not to. The Grammys still don't get much traction in the British media, something that, now I come to think about it, is slightly strange, considering how the Oscars have always received major TV and press coverage. 

A few years back, though, I started following Pitchfork and they do take the the awards seriously. By which I mean they report every single winner in every single category and post video of all the performances. I'm not sure whether the writers at Pitchfork actually care much for the results per se; they report the whole thing with enviable clarity and precision but no critical evaluation whatsoever. It's pure, factual news. 

I still can't pretend I care. I can see that the nominees these days are intended to be some kind of snapshot of current trends, which I'm certain sure wasn't the case back when I was getting my music news from the inkies, but like the Brits it always looks as if something has to have penetrated the popular consciousness pretty deeply already even to make it onto the Best New Artist shortlist (I mean, Phoebe Bridgers? Doja Cat? Megan Thee Stallion? How new is new?).

Without intentionally trying to come off as any more hipsterish than usual and bearing in mind that I am over sixty years of age, even I find most of the nominations a tad mainstream. Which made it somewhat disturbing for me yesterday when I realised that possibly for the first time ever I actually own two of the big winners of the night. What's more, I'd bought them as soon as they were released.  

At the time, if I'd thought anything about it at all, I might have flattered myself my choices reflected some kind of eternal youth. Now I'm wondering if it was an indication of the exact opposite.

The two albums in question are the winners of Best Album of the Year (Taylor Swift's Folklore) and Best Alternative Music Album (Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters). What's more, I actually had Folklore playing while I wrote yesterday's blog post. I was literally listening to the Grammy Album of the Year on the day it won.

That feels very weird.

It's significant and possibly even more concerning that both of the awards in question were for "Albums". Just typing the word makes me feel old. It surprises me a little that albums as a concept still exist, given the extraordinary changes to the way music is distributed and consumed in the 21st century but there they still are. 

Wreckless Eric, whose blog I've been following since his Covid19 scare last year, popped up with alarming synchronicity this weekend to make that very point: 

"I keep recording stuff but it’s not easy to find the motivation to assemble it into a coherent record, an album. And I’m not a fan of putting tracks up on Bandcamp or whatever as and when. I admire other people for doing it but it’s not my thing. I love albums - LPs - collections of material designed to sit together and be listened to in a particular order Something to be considered, not cherrypicked and discarded. I know it’s an old fashioned view but it’s where I come from"

The figures show that's not how most people experience music these days and yet the album persists. I suspect that even now it's a format that makes emotional and creative sense to artists and musicians, even those who were born in this century, more than it does, or maybe ever did, to the people who end up listening to it.

 Either that or it remains an effective marketing tool. One or the other.

This week is actually a really big one in my personal music calendar and that's all because of an album. Friday sees the release of Lana del Rey's Chemtrails over the Country Club. I have it on pre-order. I should get it on the day of release. 

Of course, I could just stream it and have it at the nanosecond of release but apparently I still have to have the physical evidence of its existence or it doesn't count. Meanwhile there are already people out there doing breathtakingly good re-interpretations. Art moves fast these days.

It's either her sixth or her seventh official album, depending whether or not you count the almost-eponymous Lana del Ray, which came out in January 2010 and then got pulled from all outlets, physical and digital, for reasons that remain unclear. 

I have a download of it and gallingly I actually had it in my Amazon basket back in 2010, when I'd just discovered Lana and was wondering whether to buy it. I dithered, it vanished. There's a lesson there.

There's also the album Sirens she recorded four years earlier under the name May Jailer but never released, which I also have safely downloaded, courtesy of YouTube, and the spoken-word album Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass, which I own in both digital and physical format as well as in the form of a book of poetry.  

Her last official musical release, Norman Fucking Rockwell, one of the best collections of songs I've heard in fifty years of listening to music and one of my top ten (maybe top five) favorite albums of all-time, was nominated for best album at the 2020 Grammys, when it lost to Billie Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? I'm not quite sure why I don't own that one, too. I love Billie Eilish.

So maybe my owning two of this year's winners isn't quite so surprising after all. Had things gone slightly differently, I might have been able to write a post very much like this a year ago. 

Even so, I really shouldn't care even a little bit about the Grammys, I realize that. It may have toned up its cultural attitude to try and look somewhat less dusty and befuddled but only because to do otherwise would have risked slipping into utter irrelevance. The Oscars have been attempting a similar makeover with equally limited success but I guess we have to give them both credit for at least trying (although I'm not sure one of this year's big winners, Fiona Apple, would wholly agree).

I do remember being quite miffed last year that NFR didn't win, although given what did my irritation was necessarily muted. This year I was annoyed to see that Jack Antonoff hadn't walked away with Best Producer (Non-Classical). I mean, what does a guy have to do?

It's all good fun, though. The whole point of awards is to take them seriously enough to fight over the results but not to take them so seriously the fights matter. I guess the Grammys are worth a quick glance for that, at least.

It's a step up for them in my book. I'm sure they care.


  1. The Oscars are the only awards I can get into really, and that is largely because the potential candidates for nomination are a pretty small list. The Grammys, the Emmys, and whatever it is the Golden Globes covers, tend to cast such a wide net that I haven't any context for half of the categories, much less the actual nominees.

    But I also used to go and see a lot of new movies back in the day, while I tend to listen to older music, so that might play into this as well. Pop music, for example, appears to have ended around the time of Uptown Funk if you look at my iTunes library.

    1. The Oscar categegories are very straightforward, whic works hugely in their favor, I think. They separate the technical awards from the main event and they don't try to have unique awards for every different genre. I mean, they could have Oscars for Action, Romcom, Comedy, Drama, Musical, SciFi... but very sensibly they just have the absolute top definitons.

      Compare that to the Grammys, where they go down to Rock/Metal/Alternative/R&B/Progressive R&B/Rap/Melodic Rap (what the hell is that?)... by the time we're getting to Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano) aor Best Large Jazz Ensemble you have to imagine they've lost most of the audience.


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