Guilt by Association: The Grammys, The Recording Industry, and Representing Popular Music Culture

Curator's Note

As a University of Texas grad student, my colleagues studied film or television and I focused on recording industry research. After attending numerous Oscars parties, I invited grad school friends over to watch the Grammys. A few moments into the broadcast, I regretted my decision. Unlike the festive atmosphere of the Oscars, watching the Grammys was an ordeal.

Of the three biggest award shows – The Oscars, The Emmys, and the Grammys – the Grammys debuted last. Without the Oscars’ glitz, the Grammys rely on performances and personalities above all. Who wants to celebrate the recording industry, anyway?

In his essay, “The Industrialization of Popular Music,” Simon Frith critiqued the “music as self-expression” vs. “music as commodity” dichotomy. The immediacy of music makes us suspicious of a music industry, Frith argues. Might my own residual distaste for the Grammys be tied to its role as gaudy symbol of music as commodity?

Not exactly. My problem has to do with the recording industry’s inability to represent the breadth of its output. This is likely an unrealistic desire. The recording industry’s low barrier to entry has meant that the trends shift at breakneck speed. The Grammys have struggled to keep pace. Having missed Disco’s meteoric rise, Grammy voters sought to catch up in 1978, when A Taste of Honey (“Boogie Oogie Oogie”) was named Best New Artist over Elvis Costello, The Cars, and others. This made the Grammys late to New Wave, having missed Punk altogether. In cyberspace, people still debate whether A Taste of Honey deserved the award, while leaving the show’s formula for odd couples – in this case, Eubie Blake and John Denver – to speak for itself.

Second-guessing award shows is crucial to their reception, and the Grammys are no different. This year’s major revision of Grammy Award categories led to protests. This year’s Grammys were also controversial for awarding lesser-known artists, as fans debated Esperanza Spalding beating Justin Bieber for Best New Artist or the Arcade Fire’s Album of the Year win. While I imagine a Grammys that could better represent the scope of the recording industry’s output, these debates underline the award show’s continued importance. The Grammys still matter.

Comments

Karen Petruska's picture

Naming the Best Brings Attention to the Rest

Thanks for starting off our week with some attention to the Grammys, Kyle.  I’m intrigued by a number of observations you make here, including the ever-present tension between art and commercialism.  More about that below.  

But I think I’m most interested to hear more about how awards programs may (intentionally or otherwise) draw attention to lesser-known artists.  There seems an interesting push-pull within the Grammys in particular between acknowledging the hits (drawing the performers audiences want to see) and awarding the less commercial artists that reinforce the Grammys authority.  Sure, they give Taylor Swift a Grammy, but as long as the Taylors are balanced with the OutKasts and the Arcade Fires, the Grammys can keep it real.  

I bring this up because, of course, the Grammys are themselves a commodity.  As a nationally televised program (and it is my understanding, the Grammys have enjoyed an unusually long relationship with CBS—is that correct?), the Grammys need to attract a large enough audience to make the advertisers buying all the commercial time happy.  They need Beyonce with that baby bump.  

How do you evaluate the Grammys success at legitimizing commericial artists and publicizing the lesser known?  Is the significance of this awards program such that they can "make" an artist—either making them more popular or more respected?  Can we have it both ways?  Perhaps even more to the point—does the discourse that arises to celebrate or trash the Grammys in fact reinforce its necessity?  I think this is where you end with your post, so let me know if I’m reading you correctly.  Because that will mean the haters actually play a role in supporting the need for the Grammys.

Grammy's: People's Choice?

 I think part of the problem with The Grammy’s is also the glut of other music-oriented awards shows, all created to boost sales (and create ratings).  What differentiates a Grammy from an American Music Award?  Or a People’s Choice Award?  Or a Billboard Award?  An MTV Music Award?  Because most viewers don’t understand who is voting — and for what — situations like what occured around the Bieber-loss/Esperanza-win occur.  (I’d say the same for the Oscars: the anger usually results from confusion about who votes for what, and what the politics are behind that voting).  

Now, you could say that this is the same for awards shows that concentrate on other media, but I’d argue that the Oscars hold a particular place of esteem, while everyone realizes that the Golden Globes are JV.  (And, because of more and more media coverage of the politics of the Foregin Press Association and its iffy politics, has become more of a joke).  

Myles McNutt's picture

Some great thoughts here,

Some great thoughts here, Kyle, and quite the odd couple video to go with it.

This year’s Grammys really were, as you indicate, a perfect case study for questions regarding the plague of the lesser-known artists: Twitter was alight with anger towards Spalding, and confusion regarding Arcade Fire (I can’t help linking to this Tumblr: http://whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com/), during this year’s awards, and it captured the perils of when lesser-known artists break into what one would generally consider major categories.

Of course, hundreds (although now likely dozens) of people 99% of viewers have never heard of win Grammys, but they win the untelevised Grammys. I watched a lot of that ceremony last year, seeing wins by acts like La Roux and Tia Carrere (for an award, Hawaiian Album, that will no longer exist), and it was like a whole different world. The Grammys, as an awards "show," is a concert with occasional award breaks. The Grammy Awards, as an objective body, is perhaps the most committed to genres outside of the mainstream out of the major award shows. The question becomes what it means when they marginalize that commitment to an untelevised (but livestreamed) event, and whether it counts if the acts aren’t on the "big stage."

It’s something that the Emmys do with technical awards, and something the Oscars don’t do, but the Grammys are unique in that entire genres and subgenres are relegated to those brief interstitials within the broadcast which announce those who won earlier. It’s good that they’re there (although their number is shrinking, as you indicate), but is this just a token gesture that fails, as you note, to actually reflect changing generic trends?

Kyle Barnett's picture

Thanks for the insightful comments...

Karen, we agree that there is a tension between the Grammys rewarding the hit-makers and recognizing lesser-known acts. There must be pressure on Grammy voters to recognize the moneymakers in what is the recording industry’s most difficult era since the Great Depression.

 I think that is why this year’s nod to lesser-known acts seemed all the more unusual. The Grammy Awards broadcast has not been a likely place for new artists to “break,” though some choices have appealed to indie credibility in hopes of regaining a certain equilibrium. I think breaking established global stars have fared better (Shakira, Ricky Martin, etc.). The difficulty in reaching a balance between constituencies points again to the incredible breadth of what the Grammys has to represent. 

I absolutely believe that the discourse surrounding the Grammys and other award shows most certainly adds value to the broadcast, keeps it relevant. Haters like me play no small part in this. 

Annie, there is something to the Grammys’ prestige in relation to a growing number of music award shows. Compared to the Oscars, the Grammys may be more susceptible to credibility poaching by newcomers. I also agree that various awards shows can lead to criteria confusion. In that context, it’s understandable that Justin Bieber fans were outraged that the Grammys doesn’t always behave like the People’s Choice Awards, etc.

Myles, I’ve never seen footage from the untelevised Grammys, but would love to do so. I think you could understand the Grammys in general as “a token gesture that fails,” and that’s why we love to hate it.  You hit on the point I had initially planned to write regarding the Grammys and the recording industry in general: the recording industry’s historical connection to musical performance and how this influences it. The added dimension of live performance is for me the heart of what makes the recording industry – and the Grammys – different.

 

John Vanderhoef's picture

Excellent Beginning to the Week

Thanks for starting the week out by bringing up concerns that probably span all the award shows we’re covering, Kyle. Namely, concerns about art vs. commodity, the transparency of the politics behind the voting process, and the delicate balance between promoting what’s popular while recognizing what’s niche but equally worthy of praise.

I especially enjoy the way you begin to construct the hierarchy of these award ceremonies we all acknowledge in the back of our minds. The Oscars hold the top spot with the Emmys and the Grammys following even while being the pinnacle award in their respected media. It’s important to point out that the popularity of the awards shows reflect the cultural status of the media they represent. And even within the medium of sound and music, you recognize that live performance is considered superior to recorded sound. Which do the Grammys really want to celebrate?

To your point regarding the scope of the music industry and the problem with representing and celebrating the hundreds of genres and sub-genres, I can only agree it’s an unrealistic desire, at least when it comes to what’s conceivable for a televised awards show meant to attract and hold an audience. Less popular awards are routinely given off-air, during the void of commercial breaks, and these decisions should always be interrogated to understand what categories are valued over others, what genres are given precedence, and what niche performers/bands are forgotten even as they are recognized for their efforts.

As we continue this discussion throughout the week, I think we’ll see parallels between all of these award shows, especially in terms of art vs. commercialism and the ways the industries behind the media we love drive the awards process in ways that we as scholars and fans do not always appreciate or agree with. You’re post brought the most basic question to my mind: What is the purpose of the Grammys? Going forward, I’d like to explore an even broader question: What is the purpose of a televised media awards ceremony?

Kyle Barnett's picture

I see parallels

John, after reading your piece from today, I really see strong parallels with my own attitudes and yours about the cultural hierarchies of various awards shows. Here I was feeling all bad for the recording industry and its lowly Grammys for always playing second fiddle to the film and TV industries. But after reading your post on the Spike VGAs, the Grammys seem downright steeped in tradition and respect. For me, the question about awards ceremonies is tied to larger questions about the way we evaluate what counts and doesn’t count as media that matters.

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