Ongoing Discussion: Popularity, Shittiness, and Why the Grammys Tend to Reward Shittiness

So yesterday, we started talking about whether or not I think there’s a correlation between music’s popularity and its shittiness. The short answer was “not really” and you can click the link for the long answer, if you missed it.

Today, I want to talk about why I do think that the Grammys specifically tend to reward shittiness. It was a post-Grammy discussion that started me talking about all this stuff anyway, and I want to try to bring things back around to that; here at Bollocks!, we like to give our readers a real sense of closure.

I think the problem with the Grammys starts with their nomination process. Members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences get to vote on the Grammys, but only a select few take part in the nominating process.  And, to make matters worse, individuals and record companies can submit albums to be considered for nomination. Now, I don’t know how an individual goes about submitting an album for nomination, but I do know that record companies have absolutely no incentive whatsoever to see great music rewarded on the Grammys. Record companies, especially now (insert your granddad right here saying, “what with all the downloading”), are all about the bottom line and if they’re submitting an album to be nominated for a Grammy, it’s because they’re hoping, like the desperate little money junkies that they are, that they’ll see even the tiniest bump in sales from a Grammy win. Could we subvert this process by starting a grass roots movement to nominate our favorite bands for Grammys? Maybe, but I’m not interested in that because I’d much rather just lose the Grammys completely. Good bands don’t make music to win little trophies.

The nomination process dictates that the broader section of  Academy members – musicians and technical folks who might have a little more refined taste – are choosing from pre-screened nominations, many of which were sent in by record companies who want to push those albums and singles. If nothing but shit is nominated in a given category, you have to vote for someone shitty to win the Grammy. Yeah, sometimes an Arcade Fire or Esperanza Spalding gets through, but that’s rare, which is why so many people were talking about it this year (and why some delightfully uncouth Justin Bieber fans took verbal shits all over Spalding’s Wikipedia entry). And while it warms my frigid heart just a little to see the Academy choose good music over bad, it doesn’t give me any urge to preserve the annual orgy of self-congratulation that is the Grammys. As the saying goes, if the Grammys were a horse, we’d all stand around wondering how it was born with an ass for a face. And then we’d shoot it.

When I said that a band is, statistically speaking, a  shitty band if they’re nominated for a Grammy, I was engaging in a little hyperbole for the sake of a joke. But I’m not going to distance myself from the grain of truth that I see in that particular quip – the Grammys reward shit because a lot of record companies sell shit and they do that because they’ve spent the last two or three decades chasing duplicates of the last big sound (for a while, they wanted everyone to sound like Nirvana. Now I think they want everyone to sound like Beyoncé, who doesn’t really sound that distinctive to me). That may seem like a cynical position to take on the music industry, but I submit to you that the real cynics are the suits who think that the music-buying public can’t be trusted to purchase real musical art.

But now about this good music I keep mentioning: my tastes, for the most part, could be somewhat adequately described as “indie” if you were in the mood to create a single, arbitrary genre of music and lump everything I like into it (why would you ever be in that mood?). That does not mean that I think any band on a major label sucks (Radiohead was on a major label; Wilco is on a subsidiary of a major label). Nor does it mean that I think a band is good just because they’re “indie.” There are plenty of bands revered by the indie kids that I think suck just as much as Nickelback or Maroon 5. Portugal. The Man comes to mind, as does Sufjan Stevens, who I think is probably the most overrated musician to ever receive almost awkwardly fawning praise from the goodish people at Pitchfork. If I’m gonna say that there is no real correlation between music’s popularity and its shittiness, I hope we can all agree that I’m also saying there is no correlation between music’s lack of popularity and its awesomeness (but I will say that I’m completely fucking baffled by some bands’ lack of popularity. For instance, why doesn’t the whole world love The New Pornographers?).

Obviously, as I’ve said before, I can only answer this question in terms of myself, but I wanted to talk about it in order to help illustrate a few guiding principles of Bollocks! as a place where you (in your less productive moments) come to read about music: firstly and foremostly, great music can come from anywhere. The only thing that matters is if you like the music. For me, I’ve gotta like the sound of a band, what it is they’re saying, and whatever ethos I detect behind what they’re saying. If you don’t care about any of that shit, you’re probably pretty easy to please as a music listener. Second, principle number one means that I have to accept the possibility, however remote, that John Mayer or Portugal. The Man might someday record something that I think is really good. It’s far more likely, of course, that the Hold Steady will do that (because they already do), but I long ago made a solemn vow to only let music piss me off on a case-by-case basis. Third ‘n’ finally: why do I bother even talking about all this shit? Believe it or not, Bollocks! doesn’t exist because I love my opinions about music. It exists because I love music. I wish listening to music supplied me with nutrients so I could spend my grocery money on records and still survive.

If the last two days of discussion have felt a little inconclusive to you (these are some of the most qualified statements I’ve ever made on Bollocks!), it’s because I am extremely loath to make any assertion that might cut people off from music they love, even if I hate it. If you genuinely love, say, Coldplay’s “Fix You” (a song which I abhor) because maybe your boyfriend sang it to you the night your grandma died, I’m not gonna tell you not to listen to that song. I’m sure as hell not gonna like the song more myself, but I’m gonna love hearing your story about why it means so much to you. See, I’m not one of these guys who learned the wrong lesson from High Fidelity – I know that I’ll learn more about you as a person by hearing why you bought an album than I will by simply noting, with approval or disapproval, that you own the album.

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