Art, the artists and, sure, the Grammys
I didn’t watch the Grammys this year. I’ll just say that first. I did, however, watch the pre-telecast, which was sufficient, since I got to see Janis Ian (whom I love), and John Fullbright performed. The recipients of all the folk, roots, and Americana categories (of most interest to me, obviously) were there. I missed out on the Levon tribute, which only disappointed me because Mavis Staples is a hero. I was never a huge fan of the Band. I know, I know, how dare I, etc.
I share all this because, here’s the thing. Music is so important. Next to painting, storytelling, and dance, it’s one of the best vehicles we have for destroying fear, for confronting our best and worst selves, for letting love blow us wide open. At its best, music is where we interact with the most vulnerable bits of our humanity. It’s where we admit everything to each other, to strangers, to ourselves, in a way that is safe and embracing, and promising, and full of hope. At the end of a song, we can close the figurative container and go back to Life, renewed.
The Grammys, of course, don’t entirely celebrate just these things. They’re aimed at marketing campaigns and sales, charts, labels, business types. The artists are showponies; the music is a sidenote. Somehow, to win a Grammy still means something, probably because most musicians grow up watching the show. At the Grammys, we saw Whitney Houston slay “The Greatest Love of All”. We watched weird combinations of players – from genres that make no sense together – trading licks the way a Russian immigrant might find something to talk about with a Swede and someone from Peru, in a New York bar, through thick and differing accents. It was watching the Grammys when we saw Janet Jackson send a message that you should never give up hope on your music; or where we saw a woman entering middle age sweep the whole thing with an album ironically titled Nick of Time.
Sure, if you focus some scrutiny on the Academy or the television program, you’ll find something to snarl at…if you’re one of those people who looks at the world in search of something at which to snarl. But, come on. Why the ire? I couldn’t find a number with a quick Google search, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that, between all the engineers and producers, label execs, session players, singer-songwriters, publishers, artists, and performers…we’re probably talking about thousands of people here. Thousands of people whose interests range from engineering to money to figuring out how to creatively express both devastation and fascination within the course of a single guitar lick.
So, the Academy is imperfect. It doesn’t perfectly represent the interests of the artists, because not everyone in the Academy is an artist. Not even everyone in the Academy has any clue what an artist needs or wants or cares about. Hell, most artists don’t even know the answer to that question. Knowing all this, does it even matter that it’s not all about the music? Does it matter that an industry trade group is focused on more than just one thing? Is that surprising? Is it deplorable? Is it even embarrassing or worth mentioning?
I don’t think so, personally. It’s called the Recording Academy, not the Music-As-Art Academy. So, whatever. It is what it is. It is what it’s always been. Some people get something out of the telecast. My sisters were bonkers over the reggae tribute. Many people thought Mavis was on fire. Many were perplexed by something having something to do with Elton John. (I’m judging by Twitter.) Far as I’m concerned, it’s a television show full of pretty people with the occasional live song.
Ever since the Great Chorney Debacle of 2011, I’ve seen so much ire about the Grammys and their process. First of all, nothing having anything to do with the music industry is as important in the grand scheme of things as folks make it out to be. Ask someone in Mali; ask a young girl in Afghanistan. This here, the American music industry, is not important in the bigger picture.
Except that it’s one of the most important things. Not the business, but the art itself. Music, at its best, is a survival tactic. A musician who makes music in this way can no more lay down her instrument and not make music than she can hold her breath for 365 straight days, or refuse to use the toilet, or go without sleep. That kind of music is vital. And silence hurts everyone.
When I started writing this, I was trying to figure out if we have an organization in this country (or, I’d venture to guess, in the world) which exists for the purpose of celebrating the very fact that people make art. Then I realized, of course we do. It’s called an audience. It doesn’t vote on things or hand out awards, but it does seek out the best it can find. It spends its time and money and energy on artists who are worthy of these things. And we live in a nation where more than 60 award categories exist to honor people who spend some portion of their life confronting fear, exploding love, expunging loneliness and defying mortality by manipulating sound with strings and wood items and other items into which they blow their breath. Those people who dig into their hearts and souls to admit to the fear and love, the loneliness and mortality, have some organized, televised, writ-large group who wants to not silence them or condemn them, but to celebrate them. Improvisational jazz and classical choirs. Pop stars being chased by paparazzi, and random dudes from Oklahoma. Guys in annoyingly unnecessary suspenders, and Dr. John. There’s room for all of it.
So, relax. Put on that Bruce & Kelly record, or something. Breathe. No matter who walked off with a trophy last night, the music is all still here.