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The Grammys

Mac Hendrickson | Monday, February 11, 2013

Let’s be honest, watching the Grammys wasn’t your top priority Sunday night. You checked Twitter every so often to hear about botched acceptance speeches, LL Cool J disses and Justin Timberlake’s hair. But you did not really care that much who won and lost. And you couldn’t help it: You do not respect the award show. Most people don’t. Squeezed between its more powerful Sunday-night brothers the Super Bowl and the Oscars, the Grammy Awards just do not command the attention they should.

Both writers and artists have criticized the show since the 1990s on grounds of relevancy and importance. And the major winners always seem to be a poor indication of popular taste. Though many viewers similarly find fault with the Oscars, fans and critics usually agree that the Best Picture nominees, for example, are some of the year’s most impressive works. The Grammys, on the other hand, always seem to get it wrong (How good can a Dixie Chicks album really be?).

The show’s centerpiece award is Album of the Year, and there is a certain kind of album that wins. It’s an engineer’s album, with conservative songwriting and impressive mixing. The band is reliable and established, though still relevant. The album is always listenable, even enjoyable. But it is never exciting – and this is what really annoys us. This year, Album of the Year was awarded to Mumford and Sons’ second studio effort, “Babel.” Objectively, the album is solid and impressive, but it’s a perfect example of what the Grammys tend to both value and ignore.

In recent years, the Grammys have paid small but noticeable attention to some of the underdogs. Last year Bon Iver took home Best New Artist, and this year Frank Ocean received notable attention. But an off-kilter air still lingers around the show for several reasons.

Unlike the Oscars, the categories for Grammy achievement are diverse and convoluted. Most category titles seem too specific. Splitting hairs between solo work and collaboration creates more difficulty for an already difficult nomenclature. What makes urban contemporary “urban,” for instance? And why do I care? I’m just watching to see what Neil Patrick Harris is wearing.

Confusion reigns from top to bottom. In fact, most viewers probably don’t know the difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Record of the Year is an award based on achievement in recording, and thus is awarded to the performers and mixers. Song of the Year is based on achievement in songwriting, and thus is appropriately given to the songwriter. This distinction might seem arbitrary in an age where many performers write their own material. However, these two awards give the academy a chance to recognize two separate achievements.

Take a look at the respective winners this year. Gotye took home Record of the Year for the ubiquitous tune “Somebody That I Used to Know.” In this case, the Grammys were awarding Gotye for what he did in the studio; in other words, they liked the way the song sounded. Fun. walked away with Song of the Year for “We Are Young,” another radio dead horse. In this sense, the Grammys were awarding the band for what they did before they stepped foot in the studio.

But for most viewers, the system is too complicated. It ends up being a numbers game, as in “Frank Ocean took home two Grammys, while The Black Keys earned three.” The specifics are too much work.

Ironically, lack of specificity is one of the show’s major issues. In the age of technological omnipotence, the music scene is more diverse than anyone in the 1950s, when the show first aired, could possibly imagine. The Grammys reduce the music scene to too basic a field. The end result is mostly an homage to the moneymakers with a few pathetic attempts at helping the underdog.

It’s 2013, and tastes are so diverse and albums so frequently enjoyable that choosing an album of the year caters to fewer viewers than it isolates. The result is an award show that no one respects. When Taylor Swift won Album of the Year in 2010 for her album “Fearless,” the indie scene was livid. But when Arcade Fire won the same award just one year later, the larger American public was confused. There is just no getting past the naysayers.

But those are all “awards” issues. The ceremony itself is another story. Last night specifically featured an interesting crowd and a great lineup of performances. Justin Timberlake was MVP of the stage, outfitted in dapper threads. He sang and danced to his brilliant single “Suit and Tie” and another song from his new album. Frank Ocean rolled the dice performing the under-appreciated cut “Forrest Gump” from “Channel Orange.” But the performance was inspired. Anyone not in the know about Ocean and his brilliance received a healthy serving.

Other notable performers included The Black Keys, Jack White and Miguel and Wiz Khalifa. Taylor Swift started the evening with an elaborate performance most accurately described as “thematically confused.” She performed “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to an array of “Alice in Wonderland” scenery and drama. No one, except maybe Swift herself, really knows why.

LL Cool J’s hosting was more or less a hit, and Beyonce, Ellen DeGeneres and Katy Perry led a lively crew of presenters. All in all, it was an entertaining evening.

So no, the Grammys aren’t writing history. The awards they bestow tend to miss the mark and viewership remains less than ideal. But it cannot be ignored that the Grammys are a happening scene. The show is an avenue for discovering new music and seeing great bands perform. Anytime the rich and famous get dressed up and gather, the masses will watch. Justin Timberlake said it best on stage. “As long as I got my suit and tie…” 

Contact Mac Hendrickson at mhendri1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.