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Music on Trial: The Grammys: what are they even good for?

I can’t say that I care about the Grammys all that much, but certainly I pay attention to them. As football is to the Super Bowl, so music is to the Grammys; even if you don’t think that the Super Bowl necessarily portrays what is best in football, you still think there is something noteworthy about the event, if only by virtue of the fact that it’s such a big deal.

About a week ago, however, the events that transpired during these latest Grammys left me really bewildered and got me thinking about what it is the Grammys are supposed to do.

In what seemed to be a sort of self-deprecating joke, Kanye West pretended to run on stage after Beck won Album of the Year for his album Morning Phase, presumably to make another speech like his infamous “I’mma let you finish” moment. Later, Kanye West claimed that Beck needed to “respect artistry” when he won the Grammy for Album of the Year over Beyoncé and give the award to Beyoncé.

Regardless of whether you agree with Kanye I have admittedly listened to neither album, which makes me a terrible music columnist, it does seem to make sense that music’s biggest award night should be an event about respecting artistry in music, given that other awards such as the Oscars, the Emmys, etc. seem to be about rewarding excellence and “artistry” within their respective mediums. Yet, the notion of artistry is itself a strange one, one that I am skeptical the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences captures through the Grammys.

Artistry in music does not, first and foremost, necessarily translate into popularity, though if Grammys were straightforwardly awarded based on popularity rather than some abstract notion of “artistry,” the whole thing would be a whole lot less complicated. That’s because popularity translates into easily accessible numbers; we can empirically prove which artist or song was the most popular in 2014.

Once we start accessing things like artistry or excellence, things become more complex and much more subjective. For one thing, when we start talking about artistry, we bring in a whole slew of other concepts such as accessibility, songcraft and authenticity that befuddle rather than elucidate what artistry is supposed to be.

There are also the numerous genres of music to consider. What makes excellent pop music can be very different from what makes excellent rock/hip-hop/R&B. While they might share some things in common, it seems difficult to choose an Album of the Year or Best New Artist if the candidates are from very different genres. Comparing Beck and Beyoncé seems to be, generally speaking, absurd.

The question becomes even more difficult when what makes music good on paper does not necessarily translate into good music. You can have a technically “good” R&B album that completely fails for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with “artistry.” The album might just be boring, stale or too derivative. In this case, the enjoyability of the album is based on purely subjective experience. Whether or not Beck or Beyoncé deserved to win becomes a question of taste and enjoyment rather than some abstract notion of artistry.

If it is mere taste and enjoyment, why precisely do the Grammys exist in the first place? Are we just honoring the artist’s ability to entertain rather than make art?

The answer – looking at the usual list of nominees for the biggest awards in the ceremony – the answer seems to be yes. Sans one token rock artist or hip-hop artist, the nominees for Best Record, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Best Song are almost always pop artists.

Personally, I would suggest just ignoring the Grammys and developing musical tastes on your own. There is too much music out there to confine yourself to what a bunch of mysterious judges think passes for good music these days.

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