What should I be doing instead of this?
December 12th, 2008 By mbreen | Music | Posted In: Music Commentary

Grammys Better But Still Pretty Sucky

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Tags: Grammys
Let me start by saying that I know complaining about the Grammys is about as effective as complaining about Grandma’s driving at night. And I know it’s about as tired as bitching about people driving while talking on their cell phone.

Still, when the Grammy nominations are announced every year, I just cringe. There has been a lot of talk the past  few years about how the awards have gotten better — Kanye West gets nominated album of the year, Jethro Tull has not been nominated once for the Heavy Metal Grammy since 1989, and the program has gradually reflected the times by adding Electronic and Dance music categories.

But for every stride the Grammys make to reflect what is really going on in the music world, there are innumerable examples of what they get wrong.

The primary problems seems to be that the vast nominating committee (composed of engineers, artists and other music biz types) is still composed of a lot of out-of-touch people.

I used to joke that if James Taylor farted, the recording would be up for Song of the Year. While there are no flatulence recordings nominated this year (unless you count John Mayer’s stuff), there are still many prevalent “elder statesmen” nominations that suggest that the Grammys’ nomination process needs be, if not completely overhauled, at least seriously tweaked.

As the “chairman” of the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards nominating committee, I realize that, no matter how diverse or relevant the nominees are in any given year, there will always be a fair share of detractors. Hell, even I was shocked by what artists weren’t nominated for a CEA in 2008. (Though I didn’t think anyone nominated was undeserved.)

What the Grammys and CEA selection missteps come down to is the difficulty of finding judges who know a lot about a lot of what goes on within their genre of expertise and beyond. Classical studio engineers aren’t asked to only nominate Classical recordings — they get to chose in “general” categories, like Record of the Year and Album of the Year too. Likewise, for the CEAs, a judge’s expertise in one or two areas of music is often tempered by their pretty peripheral perception of local music in general. (This is not a knock on the judges; I fall in this category as well).

Yes, everyone knows that the Heartless Bastards are very popular, and many know that 500 Miles to Memphis is a kick-ass band. But sometimes the people asked to nominate artists are chosen because of their expertise in a certain field.  For genres they are less familiar with, it’s almost inevitable that these judges simply nominate the “household name” artists in other styles.

Now, I don’t exactly know a completely fair solution to any of this. The Grammys try by having judges pick in only the four main categories and four more than presumably fit into the realm of their expertise.

For the CEAs, I have expanded the judges pool ever year, with the hopes that more judges would mean more diversity. Still, the “big-name” artists seem to have an advantage over newer acts. When a “Jazz” judge thinks about who the best “Rock” band in Cincinnati is,, they usually just pick someone they’ve heard of before. It’s not completely out of line — Cincinnati music is a far more shallow pool than “the entire musical universe,” which the Grammys deal with — but it’s obvious that nominations are skewed towards artists with name recognition. To get that, artists need to work really hard and that often makes them worthy of a nomination.

But on the Grammys’ scale, judges are asked to pick from a much broader spectrum of talent. So, if you are a 64-year-old nominator that has recorded Brazilian Folk songs all their life, the chances of you nominating a newer band like MGMT over an established fogey like Phil Collins are pretty slim..

Once again, when I saw this  year’s list of Grammy nominees, I was struck with the feeling that “judges” pick the best of a category they are really familiar with, but, when asked to chose in a less-than-familiar category, they simply go with the names they recognize.

There are several categories in this year’s Grammys that seem fine. Not that I agree completely, but Adele, Coldplay, Leona Lewis, M.I.A. and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss are certainly worthy of the “Record of the Year” trophy. Similarly, the “Song of the Year” nominees are fairly diverse and definitely laudable.

But scroll a little deeper down on the Grammys Web site featuring the list of nominees and I think you’ll feel my pain.

For “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance,” Kid Rock, Ne-Yo, John Mayer and Jason Mraz seem appropriate when it comes to representing the past year in music.

Paul McCartney and James Taylor are two artists that have, at various times in their career been deserved of several nominations. But this year?

McCartney is nominated for a track called “That Was Me.” I might be the biggest Beatles fan you don’t know, but I have never heard of this song. Turns out, it comes from a limited edition, four-song EP called Amoeba’s Secret. The release featured four songs (three newer ones and “I Saw Her Standing There,” which is nominated for “Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance”) performed live at the Hollywood location of Amoeba Records, one of the best record stores in the world. Seeing the nomination on the Grammys Web site is the first I’ve ever heard of the release.

James Taylor released a covers album this year, titled, most imaginatively, Covers. For doing tired versions of classic songs, James has been rewarded with a few nominations this year, including one for “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.” The song? “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell.

That’s a great song and James’ version isn’t horrendous, but is it the best song that came out this year sung by a male vocalist? Hardly.

Mainstay artists like The Eagles and AC/DC received nominations this year with what no one (other than the artists themselves) would define as their best work.

Oh, and white-bread comedian Wayne Brady is nominated in the Traditional R&B Vocal Performance category. Seriously. (To be fair, the guy can actually sing surprising well, and not just in that Broadway Show kind of way he’s known for during his improv comedy performances. But could it be the best thing available to nominate in that category? No.)

It’s clear that these stand-by artists are simply picked for their name-recognition. I can just imagine a Polka producer, presented with possible nominees this year, examining every nook and cranny of every Poka record released this year. Then, when forced to choose in the other categories, they simply go, “James Taylor? Sounds good to me Paul McCartney? I’ve loved that dude since I’m four!”

It’s not that I think these veterans should be shut out. Al Green made an amazing record with Lay It Down this year and it is properly nominated in the “Best R&B Album” category. But the fact that Paul McCartney got two nominations for a live release that hardly anyone ever heard is proof enough that the Grammys are still stuck in their behind-the-times rut.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. Some awards are given out on the basis of sales. But at least the Grammys, on the surface, seem to honor people based on peer vote and the musical recordings’ actual creative and technical merits.

The fact is that shows that arbitrarily reward artists are silly. There is NO completely sure-fire, completely “fair” way to pick nominees and winners. Perhaps a “weighted” nomination process (where workers in a particular field are asked to nominated only in the areas of their expertise) would do the trick. But segregating categories and judges might water-down the process even more.

The one thing the Grammys are good for? I know when Phil Collins or Randy Newman release something new. The perennial Grammy faves were not nominated this year. Had they put out something, they would have been.

Will the Grammys forever be a bit of joke? Probably. But until someone invents a new way of doing things, I’ll be happy to sit on my couch, watch the ceremony and then turn it every three or four minutes when it gets boring.

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