The Good, The Bad, and the Clueless

This year’s Grammy awards show made it impossible to ignore how utterly clueless today’s music industry is.  The past year has seen a marked shift in popular music, with a crop of artists both old and new figuring out innovative ways to relate their work to the world at large.  On the whole, with a few notable exceptions, it’s obvious that National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences didn’t get the memo.


The night started off strong enough, with Lil Wayne winning dominating the Rap categories.  In fact, Wayne‘s performance was perhaps the best of the night–a stirring reminder of New Orleans‘ ongoing battle with neglect and racism, complete with NoLa piano legend Alan Toussaint and one of the city’s iconic jazz marching bands. 


Weezy wasn’t the only MC who stole the show that night.  TI’s collaboration with Justin Timberlake was an impressive performance.  And the presence of M.I.A. and the incorporation of "Paper Planes" into the performance of "Swagga Like Us" brought this already solid single a whole new, mind-bending dynamism.


Watching arguably the five biggest artists in Rap absolutely dominate on that stage was truly a thing to behold.  It was like watching the present and future of Hip-Hop all at once, and it gives you a pretty good idea why after years of abuse, this whole genre is far from "dead."  In fact, it’s only getting started.


The same can be said for Radiohead.  The group who created a blueprint for indie music has been notoriously elusive of award shows.  When they finally did show up at the Grammys to rep In Rainbows, it was with all the originality one would expect from them.  Though this wasn’t their first nomination, their full-marching-band version of "15 Step" was further confirmation that risky choices make for good art.


But here is where the innovation and creativity ended.  The rest of the night’s performances were anywhere between textbook mediocrity and flat out reactionary.  I wish I could say the limits of this writer’s disgust were with Stevie Wonder’s collaboration with the Jonas Brothers (why Stevie?  Why?), but the truth is that was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.


Katy Perry’s performance of "I Kissed a Girl" was just like the single itself–soft-core porn masquerading as bad pop.  For the Grammys to lend credence to the idea that lesbianism only really exists as a straight man’s fantasy, even as a new movement is sweeping major cities to demand basic rights for this country’s LGBTQ communities, is simply perverse.


Kid Rock’s onstage medley was even worse.  How does this neanderthal still has a career?  His single "Amen" is little more than a string of cliches and stereotypes mouthed by a dispossessed conservative, where his major gripe with racism is that it has him "feelin’ guilty for bein’ white."  Kid has long been an outspoken Republican, but in today’s context he sounds like he’s about to go start a militia in mountains of Montana.


Then there was the matter of who the actual awards went to.  This is the real display of where the Grammys’ loyalties lie.  For the most part, they played it intensely safe.  In other words, boring and predictable.  With so many fascinating, groundbreaking music being made today lion’s share of statuettes went to… Coldplay?  John Mayer?  Robert Plant and Allison Krauss?  


Just about the only acknowledgment from the Grammys of these new and volatile times came when NARAS president Neil Portnow took the stage to sing the praises of the new President of the United States (and Grammy winner) Barack Obama.  Portnow asserted that the change in administration means that NARAS’ charitable mission to build up music and arts programs in public schools was as good as accomplished.  One might wonder what Portnow thinks of Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who systematically oversaw the closing of school

and slashing of programs in Chicago for almost a decade.


This is far from the first time that the Grammys have been accused of being out of touch.  This year’s show made the disparity seemed ten-fold.   It was a manic, touch-and-go display of two musical worlds irrevocably at odds with one another.  At times it seemed obvious that we were witnessing a rapid shift in music, with an insurgent, dangerous crop of young upstarts chomping at the bit to take over the world itself.  Throughout the night, though, we couldn’t help but be reminded that it was all brought to us by a music industry completely oblivious to the shifting ground under their very feet.  



Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago.  He is a columnist for SleptOn.com, and a regular contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.  


His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.

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