The 2013 Grammy Awards played it safe and got it wrong
Mumford & Sons accepting the Album of the Year at the 2013 Grammys. Ho hum.
If the Grammy Awards are indeed 'Music's Biggest Night,' then it's no wonder that the industry itself is in so much trouble. Despite the Academy's best efforts in recent years to draw the "alternative" music fan into the mainstream self-congratulatory love fest that is the Grammys -- even going so far as to bestow some of the biggest awards to Arcade Fire and Bon Iver in the past two ceremonies -- the show typically plays out in rather bland, predictable fashion where the biggest-selling albums and most recognizable/marketable artists are rewarded for doing their part to save a struggling industry, while a majority of innovative music consistently gets ignored.
While criticizing an easy target like the Grammys is as tired and tedious as most of the performances from last night's ceremony, is it futile for music fans to ask more from what is supposedly our 'Biggest Night'?
The Academy has created a long laundry list of somewhat baffling musical categories, ensuring that just about any music fan will feel represented and included. However, of the 81 Grammys presented last night, only 10 of them are actually awarded on the TV broadcast, thus relegating those deserving winners (and the fans of those artists) to the fine print buried at the end of articles touting the greatness of the night's biggest winners, Mumford and Sons, Gotye, the Black Keys, and Fun, with the majority of those same winners also taking up precious air time with their uninspired live performances.
I suppose the simple fact that I was watching the Grammys for the third year in a row (after a lifetime spent ignoring them) should prove that in a small way, the Academy's efforts to draw in a wider audience has indeed succeeded. But I feel obligated to watch the Grammys these days, making my living as I do as a music journalist, so that argument isn't quite as valid. (Though a surprising number of my music loving friends tuned in as well -- so perhaps it it does hold a bit of water.)
But, other than live performances from Jack White (amazing) and Frank Ocean (lackluster), I had no real interest in much of the broadcast, which I believe is more of a failure on behalf of the Recording Academy than it is a fault of my own. I want to be entertained by the Grammys, but each successive year I'm left underwhelmed and dismayed by the proceedings. When one of the most memorable events of the evening is made by Prince, who created more of a stir with his mere presence as a presenter (and a few mumbled words) than most musicians did with their songs, than the event itself has serious issues.
Nevermind that the only true hip-hop performance of the night (other than Jay-Z's sleepwalking verse in Justin Timberlake's new song, "Suit & Tie, and Wiz Khalifa's forgettable turn alongside Miguel) was crammed into the end of the ceremony after the Album of the Year was presented (as the sponsors were thanked and the credits rolled). The fact that two way-past-their-prime MC's (Grammy host LL Cool J and Public Enemy's Chuck D) were the best that the Academy could muster proves just how out of touch they are with modern hip-hop.
In addition to that, it seemed that the newly created category, Best Urban Contemporary Album, was derived simply so that Frank Ocean would be guaranteed to win one award during the ceremony. He was nominated in an impressive six categories (including Album of the Year), but other than the Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy, Ocean only took home a Best Rap Collaboration Grammy along with Jay-Z and Kanye West for his work on "No Church in the Wild."
And sadly, his off-pitch and awkward performance of "Forrest Gump," one of the weaker songs off of Ocean's otherwise engaging breakthrough album, Channel Orange, certainly won't garner him many new fans, either. Which is unfortunate, because the cover star of this week's New York Times Magazine deserves to break out to a wider audience.
With most of the night's "lesser" awards already presented and never discussed on-air, the broadcast depends on memorable performances to make or break the show. And that (in addition to awarding Mumford and Sons with the Album of the Year), was the Grammys biggest failure. Other than Jack White's fiery renditions of "Love Interruption" and "Freedom At 21," there was very little passion or soul in all of the evening's performances.
The misguided Bob Marley tribute seemed to forget that they were there to honor an artist far more original than Bruno Mars and Sting, as they forced in a tepid take on Marley's "Could You Be Loved" only after Mars and Sting had played their own material. A full-fledged tribute to the Beastie Boys Adam Yauch (MCA), instead of the half-assed version we got from LL and Chuck D during the tail end of the show, would have been far more appropriate and reverential, especially given that today's musical audience have much more of an attachment to the musical legacy of MCA than they do to Marley's indelible reggae.
The Levon Helm tribute was touching, but mostly to fans of the Band, leaving Tyler, The Creator and others scratching their collective heads about the significance of the song and who Helm was in the first place. And the performance of "The Weight" was spoiled a bit by the producers trying to cram as many musicians as they could into the segment, as a result the song lost it's focus as it dragged on.
It just seems impossible for the Grammys to capture the raw intensity and boundless spirit that we all consistently witness at live shows throughout the Twin Cities and beyond, so they frequently turn to gimmicks (Taylor's Swift's clumsy trip down the rabbit hole and Carrie Underwood's psychedelic dress) and forced collaborations (Ed Sheeran and Elton John was as strange as it sounds, while Alicia Keys and Maroon 5 made less sense live than it even does on paper), with most of the musical experiments becoming instantly forgettable and ultimately regrettable.
There needs to be an edge to the Grammys that can only come from the Academy and CBS itself being willing to take some chances and not consistently play it safe. Having it rain on Fun., or Rihanna delivering another sleepy ballad isn't going to cut it anymore. Music is in a better place than this, and giving us fans anything less is insulting and insufferable. The Grammys needs to start taking some actual risks with their scheduled performances, and not be so predictable with their awards, or else they are in jeopardy of losing the audience they are trying so desperately to cater to, while drifting ever closer to irrelevancy -- especially in the modern musical era where artists can make their entire career from the isolated comfort of their own bedrooms, with no need for the outdated support of labels and award shows in order to reach a wide audience.
There are exciting things happening in music that have nothing to do with Mumford and Sons, Adele, or Taylor Swift, and while those artists certainly pad the bank accounts of record executives and retailers alike, they aren't the only musicians who warrant having a spotlight shone on them. Music isn't supposed to be this safe, and until the Grammys recognizes this simple fact they will continue to get it all wrong.
But maybe expecting them to change their ways is perhaps the biggest mistake of them all.
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