The Grammy Awards are a good idea in theory. We like to recognize artistic merits in a variety of disciplines, and we feel good when we come together and come up with some sort of consensus decision as to what is “the best.” The Academy Awards have worked pretty well for film over the years, and the Emmy Awards (despite never giving an award to the greatest television show ever) have done an adequate job as well, so why shouldn’t it be the same for music? And yet, pretty much from the very beginning, the Grammys have always been garbage.
I remember the moment when I completely lost faith in the Grammys, and it should be noted that this happened when I was in middle school, because that is when any hopes and dreams you may have had about the music industry recognizing artistic merit should die, and you can then readjust your expectations accordingly. It was when Radiohead’s ground-breaking, landmark album OK Computer lost out to probably Bob Dylan’s tenth-best effort (Time Out Of Mind) that I decided it was probably for the best that I stop giving a shit about this particular award. I probably should have seen the signs from the previous year, when Beck’s Odelay and the Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness lost out to Celine Dion, but at that point I didn’t have the same investment in either of those albums that I did in OK Computer. Even at that age, I knew that with that album I could divide my history of listening to music as pre-OK Computer and post-OK Computer, and no matter how good an album Time Out Of Mind may be, it wouldn’t be remembered in the same way. If you want to view the award as an acknowledgment of the greatness of Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding, The Times They Are A-Changin’, and Blood on the Tracks, that’s fine, but that’s the only way to defend it.
It was then that my cynicism fully set in and I finally understood the rants of many alternative artists about the quality of the Grammys. Here’s how I can best sum it up: “How many Grammy Awards did London Calling win? That should tell you exactly how much attention you should pay to the Grammys.” This is an album universally recognized as one of the greatest of all time, one that ends up atop best-of-the-decade lists for two different decades (because of its UK ’79/US ’80 release date), and it received exactly zero Grammys. In fact, The Clash won precisely one Grammy in the course of their career, an award in 2002 for “Best Long Form Music Video” for the documentary The Clash: Westway to the World, long after the band had stopped making music. And to top it off, the Grammys had the gall to put together a supergroup performance of “London Calling” to honor the life of Joe Strummer when he died, as if the Recording Academy gave a damn about the group at all when they were around.*
Consider this: Exile on Main Street… Loveless… Nevermind…In the Aeroplane Over the Sea…Are You Experienced?…Who’s Next…Remain in Light…Willy and the Po’ Boys…Unknown Pleasures…Fear of a Black Planet…The Velvet Underground & Nico…Hunky Dory…Doolittle…not a single one of these albums received a nomination. And not only could I list dozens more examples, but I could point to a ridiculous number of artists who never won a Grammy of any kind.
Part of the issue may be with the nature of the Grammys themselves. The sheer number of albums that are produced dwarf the number of films that are released or television shows that end up on the air, so the mere act of getting thousands of academy members to listen to the same records is enough of a challenge on its own. Then consider the wide variety of musical genres that exist, and contrast that with the simple comedy/drama divide that characterizes film and TV–it’s even tougher to build any sort of consensus when you take this into account. And then there is the simple nature of voting, which anyone with a background in political theory can point to as a potential stumbling block. All of these issues make the Grammy Awards an exercise in futility, and yet for some reason people still get up in arms with the results every year.
Was Morning Phase the best album of the year? According to us, probably not, though if one considers it in comparison with the other nominees, we agree with the decision. Though it’s not Beck’s best (which is a nearly-impossible hurdle to clear, considering his incredibly consistent output and the Odelay/Mutations/Sea Change triumverate), if you judge it on its own merits, Morning Phase is a great album filled with gorgeous musical moments and poignant lyrics that will be remembered for years. But let’s consider that if the Grammys were actually interested in honoring the best of the year in music, then they would have had to invite Death From Above 1979 and have them perform, and despite the fact that they’re only two guys they would have melted the faces off of everyone in the audience with their blistering performance, and then no one would be able to work on Monday.
So really, the fact that the Grammy Awards don’t recognize the best music of the year is more of a public service than anything. Just don’t get up in arms when they make the “wrong” decision. They were doomed from the start.
*This is not to disparage any of the performers that participated, all of whom I assume had a great amount of respect for Joe Strummer and The Clash.