Monday, February 13, 2012

Why The Grammys are Irrelevant... Revisited

20 minutes for vocal warmups and 3 hours to get dressed....
About a year ago, I posted a piece on how the Grammy Awards seemed like a separate entity from actual MUSIC. I had a very weird experience tonight which made me want to revisit this idea.

Ron Steen
Last night, I played at Clyde's Steakhouse in Northeast Portland with the Ron Steen Trio.  This gig was a typical jam session type gig where the house band of myself on piano, bassist Kevin Deitz and drummer Steen played trio for about an hour, then we let people sit in. We had two great singers sit in; first, Marilyn Keller, and then Laura Cunard, two local favorites. Clyde's, as I mentioned in another previous blog, is a very interesting scene with a lot of interesting characters. It's a lot of older folks, and it's a mixed crowd, meaning more blacks and whites that you might see elsewhere in Portland. The older folks dig the music; some of them got up to dance! These people were not self conscious in the slightest; they were dressed super casually, and they were out to have a old fashioned good time.  And they were having a very good time: Keller's rousing rendition of "Teach Me Tonight" had people cheering.

I think Rhianna was a little "flat" in this part

But I kept getting distracted by the big screen television over the bar that was right in my line of sight. They had the Grammy Awards on. The sound was off, of course, but it didn't seem to matter. The visual spectacle was so overwhelming, and so contrasting to the "scene" at Clyde's. It seemed like it was being broadcast from another planet, or maybe the 5th circle of Hell, judging from all the explosions and bursts of flame. Every performance seemed to have 50 background dancers running around in Halloween costumes, doing back flips off of elaborate stage monuments. And it seemed as though a "crowd" was at the front of the stage going wild for each performing artist. It seemed really fake; the celebrities who get invited to the Grammy Awards are NOT going to be up at the front of the stage jumping up and down like teenagers! I tried to look away from this ridiculous show, but the disparity between Clyde's and the Grammys was fascinating to me.

John Lennon-what would HE think about the Grammys?
I'm pretty liberal, and I usually reserve my disdain for the super-rich who are bent on destroying this country by funneling all of the resources upward. But I felt a deep disdain for these...well, they can't really be called "musicians", let's call them "music industry celebrities". I think there were times when the average person could relate to musicians and singers. People like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Neil Young, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and many other artists of days gone by, were trying to communicate with the people of the world. All I got from watching this visual extravaganza was that the music industry clearly has a lot of money to burn. Literally.(It seemed like every time I looked at the TV, a lot of fire was shooting over the stage.)And at a time when Americans are struggling to pay for their homes, to put food on the table, to pay for health care, this over-the-top parade of "music industry celebrities" and their wealth and success seems somehow inappropriate.

Looks like a reject from Star Wars
For the first time, I kind of understood the whole "limousine liberal" phenomenon. We tend to think of entertainers as liberal, as being someone we can connect with, as having a understanding of humanity, as having compassion. The entertainers I see now in the music industry, as well as movies and TV, seem to want attention for being famous and rich. How can we as average citizens connect with Lady Gaga and her crazy outfits? Everyone is constantly saying "Lady Gaga is actually a great musician and she can play piano and sing, blah blah..." But is it really necessary to wear these ridiculous get ups in order to be a successful artist? She looks like a creature you would find in the bar on Mos Eisley from the Star Wars movie.

As we played our be bop and our tin pan alley tunes, I thought that maybe we were the dinosaurs. We were after all, merely "playing music". We had no elaborate stage shows. We were simply playing music, and the regular folks at Clyde's were just sitting and listening to it. There was no Red Carpet leading into Clyde's, no one was wearing fancy gowns or mesh face masks or what have you. The scene at Clyde's had an honesty to it. I'm sure that elsewhere in America, there were countless other similar scenes of regular folks looking for a 15 dollar Prime Rib special and a jazz trio. There were no limousines parked outside Clyde's.

I think the biggest irony of the evening was that singer/songwriter Adele won the most Grammys. Adele, in my view is an artist who seems pretty down to earth, considering here success. She doesn't create a spectacle of herself, but "merely" sings really well and writes really meaningful songs. Maybe there is hope for music after all...


  1. I'm going to sort of disagree here. The Grammys don't tend to reward the kind of pop music I'm interested in (though I love other pop music as much as I love jazz). But in the era of mass media, image has always been part of the message musicians are putting out there. That doesn't mean it should or must overwhelm the music, and it doesn't always represent conscious choices on the part of the artist, but it's part of how the audience connects. You can't read the history of jazz without finding multiple examples of fans (especially those who grew up to be musicians themselves) of jazz in its 30s-50s commercial heyday talking about the impact of the image of jazz musicians' presentation and style. I mean this both in terms of literal style icons - Lester Young! Miles Davis! - and also the social message of seeing black performers carrying themselves in a serious way that contrasted with the kind of roles they were usually relegated to in Hollywood.

    I know this is tangential to what you really talk about in this post, which is more about a particular kind of spectacle (and I would agree that nonstop bombast loses its effect very quickly, which is part of why I think so many people find Adele so freshing - at least any bombast is contained to her voice), but I don't think you can make the separation; presentation is presentation. "Just getting up there and playing the music" is a choice as much as Old-School-Showbiz stage behavior is a choice as much as a bombastic light show. John Lennon wearing his hair "long" in 1964 was a transgression against what people expected from a public figure; actually growing his hair long and growing a beard a few years later was another one. Hendrix, I believe, grew disdainful of how eagerly his audience ate up some of his stage "schtick," but he was also cultivating a kind of image that looks sort of tame today because we've been desensitized to it, but as far as I can tell the teenagers of 1968 thought he might actually be from outer space. David Bowie! Jazz musicians showing up to play shows in t-shirts and jeans was, intentionally or not, received as a kind of statement, including by those who find it disrespectful; at a somewhat later point in time, a group of guys got attention for wearing slick suits again. (And the music they played too, of course, which is and was more important. But people keep talking about the suits.) Now both images coexist, but in my experience usually not on the same stage, which says something in itself. (Entirely apart from the music, one thing I sort of enjoy about The Bad Plus' presentation is that Ethan wears a suit, Dave is in a t-shirt, and Reid splits the middle with a Casual Friday look.) I'm not the audience for Lady Gaga's music, but I actually enjoy the fact that she's out there. Her goals aren't other musicians' goals, which is fine, but I respect someone who decided she wanted to be rich and famous and made it happen more or less through force of will. I also think that compared to some others she does something interesting with her image - in courting the bizarre, she's willing to be androgynous or completely desexualized (though not always) in a way that's pretty unusual for a modern female pop star, and I guess I'd rather have the youth of America thinking "bizarre is cool!" than other messages they might be getting.

  2. HI Alexander, very thoughtful comments. The difference is that Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon were anti-establishment, I think? Lady Gaga, and I believe interviews with her will back this up, knew that she had to do the things that she does to make it in today's music biz. She is a good songwriter and singer.Good I suppose. The first time I heard her songs was at the gym, and I thought they were kind of a joke. Then I found out that she was a mega star. I guess I'm just getting older. My point is, the Grammys ARE the establishment. Obviously entertainers regardless of whether they are anti establishment or not make more money than average folk. But it just seems like today's stars are so far above the average joe. Look at U2 for example. Bono has this pretentious image and talks about saving Africa. Apparently U2 has much of their income diverted from Ireland, so they pay much less tax than they should. They are no better than the corporate swine which is destroying the world. I can't say that every single artist on the Grammys does that, but I think this era we live in has a pretty big divide, and Lady Gaga is part of the 1 percent, not the 99 for sure.

  3. George - I don't disagree with you on the economic aspects. There's a lot of celebration of conspicuous wealth in pop culture right now, and I don't know any voices that are really trying to critique that from the inside. (I mean there are folks - Springsteen, U2 - that talk about this stuff, however personally hypocritical they might be, but they're not the ones flashing diamonds either. Kanye sort of tries, I think, but I also don't think he's good enough to pull it off.) I don't know if I agree with you about the establishment/antiestablishment stuff, mostly because I don't believe you get to be The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix without becoming the establishment. That doesn't mean they weren't critical of it, but they were - and, frankly, still are, even after death - part of a capitalist hit-making machine. What I wanted to respond to was that, on the music making side, I think these musicians are still trying to make music and say things that "connect with the people of the world," whether or not they connect with you or me, and the "is it necessary for Lady Gaga to wear her costumes," or whatever; it's not "necessary," but neither is it necessary for Wynton Marsalis (or Jason Moran) to wear a suit onstage, and I don't think you can really separate the two. (For that matter, a really nice suit is also something that, even if you can literally afford it, to lots of folks is a startling luxury; Wynton isn't sporting Mens' Wearhouse!) I go back and forth on how I feel about the way people respond to the way their music is packaged image-wise, and I delude myself into thinking that I'm immune to all that, but I think you can get into a kind of "that's something THEY do" trap, which I don't think is really accurate.

  4. Interesting posts everyone. However, I'm going to go ahead and postulate that the biggest problem with the Grammys isn't merely the style-vs-substance argument or the fact that it all seems rather fake...but, rather, that the awards themselves are far too insular in the first place.

    A lot of great records came out in 2011, and when I say that I mean a plethora of EXCELLENT records in every genre you can imagine, including oft-disregarded genres such as progressive rock and jazz-fusion. A fair amount of this stuff is produced by large subsidiary labels too, not merely bands who jump on Kickstarter or Bandcamp to get their funding.

    How can anyone truly believe that the Grammys are a celebration of music in any way when you have someone like Adele winning the top spot in multiple categories? All that shows me as a prospective viewer is that coming out top in sales is all that matters to the industry in question. Unless you are an industry favorite, you are simply irrelevant in their eyes.

    1. Wonderfully civil conversation. DrakeSinister, I think sums it up in that "SALES" is (are?) what it's all about. If I commanded the sales of a Lady Gaga, maybe what I think and say would carry more weight with the industry as well as the general public. But, until that day, I intend to keep making music; for myself FIRST, and for anyone else who wants to hear it SECOND.

  5. While I appreciate your POV I will simply offer my own as well. You are fortunate enough due to you and your groups hard work, skills and love for what you do to be playing music for people that dig you. That is an awesome place to be. This great world in which we live is big enough for you, as well as all that encompasses the Grammy world. "Real" music and the skills it takes to create it will never go away. We are currently going through a weird cycle and all things will work out. Don't let that stuff get you down or anger you. Do your thing and keep steppin! That's all we can do. : )

  6. You're spot on George, as usual, except for your like of Adele... uggh! A moaning chav who can't sing in tune live. Sorry.


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