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The Grammy Awards: The Great Compromise

| Monday, January 27, 2014

Grammys_Compromise_WEBSteph Wulz

Since their establishment, major Grammy awards have gone to solely popular artists. For this reason, a shockwave went through the music community when the 2011Grammy for Album of the Year went to Arcade Fire, a Canadian indie-rock band.

Although musical hipsters (myself included) nationwide rejoiced, most Americans responded with dismay and confusion.

Twitter blew up with so many “Who the **** is Arcade Fire?” tweets that the phrase became a meme. The Arcade Fire win seemed a symptom of a systemic change for the awards. Perhaps, hoped music enthusiasts, the Grammys were adapting to two new forces in music: the independent label and music blog-based criticism.

However, the next year saw indie music disappear from the album of the year nominations. Then, in 2013, Mumford & Sons’ “Babel” won the award over several albums with far greater critical acclaim. In this context, Arcade Fire’s win seemed like a fluke. The Grammys seemed to be fading back into a mere extension of the Billboard 200.

One would have thought the 2014 Grammy Awards would either open or close the door to Grammy-seeking indie acts. Instead, it was left propped between the two. In almost every situation, the Grammy Awards compromised, awarding the major prizes to acts that toed the line between mainstream and independent music.


Daft Punk was the darling of critics worldwide, gathering acclaim for their first studio album in eight years well as their contributions to Kanye West’s Yeezus. “Random Access Memories” found immense commercial success as well, earning the duo Record of the Year as well. The combination of critical and commercial success allowed “Random Access Memories” to triumph over Taylor Swift’s “Red” (more commercially successful) and Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” (greater critical acclaim). In this way, Daft Punk’s dominance demonstrated a compromise between critical acclaim and commercial success.


Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, despite achieving immense fame and commercial success, remain independent artists with a strong following. The unrivaled prominence of singles from “The Heist” lead them to received several awards in the Rap category even against several artists whose work gathered far more critical acclaim (Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar) and are more well-known (Jay-Z, Eminem). Again, the duo’s success at the show represents a compromise between critical acclaim and commercial success (although Drake also fits that mold).


Filling a similar role as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in the Pop Category, Lorde was an artist who worked within the indie R&B style (see also Grimes, Purity Ring, the Weeknd) and earned hype on independent blogs until breaking into the mainstream. This independent edge wasn’t shared by any of the artists she beat out for song of the year and pop solo performance (ignoring Macklemore. Maybe they thought four Grammys were enough for the guys).

Overall, the Grammy awards this year seemed eager to please everyone, critics and casual listeners alike. As a national T.V. event, it’s probably for the best that the awards were essentially another Great Compromise.  Music on, America. Music on.

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

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