The Grammys are a Music Industry Infomercial. This is Not Breaking News.
It's Taylor Swift's world. We just live in it.
For 21 years, in my duties as Music Critic for The Buffalo News, I covered the Grammy Awards. Remotely, of course. I never attended in person. Daily newspaper expense accounts never really stretched to accommodate the needs and desires of music critics, even back in the relative salad days of the early ‘00s. I mean, it’s not like we were covering a football game, amiright?
For each of those 21 years, I would pen a post-Grammy column that offered a version of the same idea - that the Grammy Awards were not so much about honoring adventurousness, craftsmanship and vision in the world of recorded music, but were simply about selling more of the music that had already sold well during the year leading up to what the Recording Academy had taken to calling ‘Music’s Biggest Night.’
By the time I left The Buffalo News in the Spring of 2023, the Grammys had become something I approached with a sense of existential dread and a faint nausea born of a loathing to write essentially the same thing over and over again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain ad infinitum. (OK, it was easier than rolling a boulder around. I mean, I don’t want to be hyperbolic or anything. But it wasn’t fun anymore. Let’s leave it at that. I apologize for the false equivalency, Sisyphus.)
On Monday, the 66th Annual Grammy Awards took place in Los Angeles, in the middle of a serious rainstorm that caused some significant flooding in the region.
It was also raining in my heart, as the 8 p.m. start-time approached. I mean, I’d gone independent. No one was making me offer my opinion of the Grammys anymore. Why in the name of all that is holy and musical was I willingly putting myself through all of this again?
Well, I’m an optimist. I never fully give up hope. Maybe this year would be better. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, my son plays bass for SZA, who was nominated for multiple Grammys this year, and he would be performing as part of her band during the ceremony. I’d be a liar if I suggested that I wasn’t psyched about this. And proud, too.
Nonetheless, like Charlie Brown falling for Lucy’s promise that, this time, she’d actually let him kick the football and not pull it away at the last second, leaving him to fall flat on his big, round face, the Grammys did it to me again.
There were moments that filled me with genuine emotion. Tracy Chapman performing ‘Fast Car,’ a well-crafted song with a timeless lyric, for instance. I dug SZA’s performance, too, though I can’t claim complete objectivity there. Billy Joel performed the first new song he’s written in 30 years, backed by a string section that included the excellent singer/songwriter Laufey on cello, and his voice sounded remarkably strong, even after all this time. There were also some great performances and worthy awards handed out during the day-time portion of the show, broadcast on the Recording Academy’s YouTube channel. They even talked about jazz! And let some serious musicians play it live! Gasp! (This daytime portion is where the real musical action takes place; I recommend tuning in next year, if you’re more interested in musical accomplishment and creativity than pop spectacle.)
But let’s be honest with ourselves here. This year’s Grammy hootenanny was essentially a prolonged advertisement for Taylor Swift. And we all knew this would be the case, didn’t we? Just like we knew, as much as we tried to deny it, that Swift was going to come to Buffalo and watch her boyfriend’s team beat our Buffalo Bills by three points. It all smacked of some sort of twisted inevitability.
The Grammy Awards portray themselves as a ceremony with deep tradition, overseen by the august body that is the Recording Academy of Arts & Sciences, who I don’t believe wear actual robes and powdered wigs when they vote. In fact, they were probably wearing free Taylor Swift merch when they decided that Swift is such a complete and total musical genius as to be worthy of four Album of the Year Grammy Awards in a 10-year period, which puts her on par with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Frank Sinatra. Joni Mitchell, who performed this year, has never won a single Album of the Year award. I mean, seriously, who are these chumps, compared to Taylor Swift? And don’t talk to me about “harmony,” “chord progressions,” “musical virtuosity” and “vision.” Vision doesn’t sell, pal! Taylor Swift sells!
The Grammys are an infomercial. The product they are selling is a vaguely music-related lifestyle accoutrement that they want you to stream through your phone, so that the industry gatekeepers can then pay the artists hardly anything at all while they keep the advertising loot your streaming habits generate.
They can speak ad nauseam about female empowerment, their commitment to diversity, and the fact that apparently no male persons made music worthy of being honored in the top categories this year as if they’re social activists bent on pushing the envelope toward progress and equality, in the arts and life in general. But the truth is, only a handful of people are being ‘empowered’ by this dog & pony show. (I apologize to dogs and ponies, both of whom appeal to me much more than most humans do.) And most of those people are wearing clothes you could never afford and eating power lunches at boutiquey restaurants that charge more than the cost of your mortgage payment for the privilege.
Pointedly, Swift seemed to realize all of this. She took the Grammys for what they are - a massive platform for publicity. She accepted her biggest award, thanked her fans, pointed out that the pressure brought by that rabid and massive legion of fans surely swayed the Academy’s voting - thereby saying the quiet part out loud - and then promptly took the opportunity to announce the imminent drop of her new album, causing a sizable wrinkle of ‘OMIGAWD!’ in the Swift-o-verse.
Was this cynical? Or simply well-played? In 2024, is there a difference?
The funny thing is, I don’t dislike Taylor Swift. Her music makes an awful lot of people happy. She seems like a cool person. She treats those she works with well, by all accounts. She gives off positive vibes. She’s smart and incredibly hard-working. She doesn’t need me, or anyone else, to point this out.
But none of this excuses the Grammy Awards.
I mean, I laughed as hard as anyone when host Trevor Noah, pointing out that Universal Music had removed its whole roster from TikTok, joked “Shame on you, TikTok, for not paying artists - that’s Spotify’s job!” I bet the top execs at Spotify laughed, too. And then they went right back to screwing artists out of their royalties.
All of this is getting old. Which in all likelihood will not stop me from acting like Charlie Brown and trying to kick that football one more time, next year.
Good grief. What a blockhead!
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