The Grammy paradox.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 8 2006 1:51 PM

The Grammy Paradox

They're awful. But they're good for pop music.

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Mariah Carey

"I don't know what this means," said Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, accepting the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. "I don't think it means anything." As acceptance speeches go, it's more or less what you'd expect from a grunge-rock god—party pooping is part of the job description. But Vedder isn't the only one confused about the Grammys, whose 49th annual ceremony will be broadcast live tonight from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Each year hundreds of millions of viewers tune in to the awards show, but it's doubtful that any of them extract a coherent message from the garish mixture of live concert, fashion show, celebrity ego-orgy, and music-biz promotional stunt.

As for the prizes themselves, they're even more bewildering. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the body that oversees the Grammys, has gotten some of the big-picture stuff right: Ray Charles has won 17 Grammys, Aretha Franklin 16, Frank Sinatra 10. But they also refused to acknowledge the existence of hip-hop until 1989 and didn't get around to giving the Rolling Stones a Grammy until 1994. In 1991, Milli Vanilli took the Grammy for Best New Artist. In 1980, the year of the Clash's London Calling, Prince's Dirty Mind, and Talking Heads' Remain in Light, soft-rock wimp Christopher Cross won a clean sweep of the top four prizes. Such calamities have made the Grammys the butt of endless jokes among music fans and, especially, critics. Slate has published several swipes at the Grammys' awfulness and blandness over the years, including one in this space last year by yours truly.

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The sniping is understandable. But as University of Pennsylvania professor James F. English points out in his new book about arts prizes and awards, The Economy of Prestige, carping critics play a crucial role in supporting institutions like the Grammys. English writes, "The tones of satire and condescension have become so standard a feature of prize journalism that to eschew such tones is to appear dull-witted or naïve … [But] the more crippling naïveté rests with the masters of condescension, who have failed to consider their own position in the larger system. Modern cultural prizes cannot fulfill their social functions unless authoritative people … are thundering against them."

English's theory is that one of the main functions of cultural prizes is to uphold the myth of art's transcendence—and that critics' moaning about the stupidity of those prizes buttresses that very myth. By howling that the Grammys always get it wrong, we sustain the idea that real music, true art, occupies a rarified realm beyond commerce, beyond record-industry politics, beyond the hauteur of divas and divos and the sinister ruffling of Mariah Carey's gown on the red carpet.

Probably the most ubiquitous complaint against prizes like the Grammys (and the Oscars and the Pulitzers) is that they sully the arts, reducing them to sports-style contests with winners and losers. The truth is that there are many similarities between athletics and the arts, and pop music in particular has always been a fiercely fought contact sport. Think of the jazz greats who honed their skills in cutting contests, the Brill Building songwriters who strove to outdo their colleagues in the office down the hall, the rappers who refined their flow in rhyme battles. Brian Wilson was inspired by the Beatles' recording studio experiments to create Pet Sounds, which in turn prompted Paul McCartney to undertake Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which scored a kind of TKO, cowing the emotionally fragile Wilson into abandoning his Pet Sounds follow-up, Smile. The exceptional sonic richness of today's hit radio is the result of intense competition between hip-hop producers vying to top each other with stranger and more inventive beats.

Despite what Eddie Vedder says, the Grammys have plenty of real-world meaning. They can propel a musician from cult status to superstardom, boost CD sales by millions of copies, and give a jolt of life to a moribund record industry. More important, they speak to musicians' competitive drive, providing the recognition and affirmation that all performing artists seek, even those who mumble disclaimers into their flannel shirts. If the Grammy really didn't "mean anything" to Vedder, why did he bother showing up to accept it?

On tonight's Grammy broadcast, pop's competitive spirit will be on display, and not just in the preening parade down the red carpet. Recent Grammys have radically scaled back the number of prizes presented and put the emphasis on live performances, transforming the awards ceremony into something more like a variety show. This makes sense: Why spend three hours watching pop stars making gracious acceptance speeches (something they're not very good at) when you could watch them playing music (in theory, their forte)? Ken Erlich, the show's executive producer, told Reuters that the 2006 Grammys will be especially heavy on "water-cooler moments": unlikely collaborations, all-star jams, and the like.

These are often train wrecks, but they at least hold the promise of breaking up the torpor for a few minutes and add an extra layer of tension to what are already rather tense proceedings. Even for the world's most famous musicians, the Grammys are not an ordinary gig. You're playing to a huge global TV audience and, more significant, to a roomful of your most formidable peers. It's one thing to hit a bum note on a Tuesday-night tour date at the Savvis Center arena in St. Louis, quite another when you're singing to Bono and Beyoncé. This is not an easy room.

Meanwhile, tonight's show will offer some intriguing dramas and subplots. Madonna, who in the past has made a specialty of Grammy succès de scandales, will try to capture some of her old magic when she performs live—sort of—with the British cartoon band Gorillaz. The real pop-diva story is eight-time nominee Mariah Carey, who in 2005 reined in her showboaty melisma, took dead aim at Beyoncé, and made a terrific hip-hop-inflected album, The Emancipation of Mimi, which was also the year's top-seller. Most people expect a Mariah coronation at the Grammys. If that fails to materialize, look out below.

On the men's side, soul crooner John Legend, who also has eight nominations, might just steal off with the big prizes. Legend is classic Grammy bait: He's young, comfortingly old-fashioned, and he plays piano, the dowdy instrument that signals authenticity to so many Grammy voters. (The wise Grammy office-pool bettor will always lay his money on the ivory-tickling balladeer, or the elderly legend, or—safest bet of all—the dead guy. Or Bonnie Raitt.)