A Sales Spectacular: The Honest Quest for “Buzz” at the 2010 Grammys

When the Jay Leno Show was first pitched by NBC, they claimed that it would be so topical that people wouldn’t dare tape it on their DVRs out of fear of missing something important. This was, of course, a complete lie, as the show was irrelevant from the moment it was conceived, but it raised the point that in this age there is this enigma surrounding that singular program that is so current that it must be watched live to be truly experienced.

And so we turn to last night’s Grammy Awards, the yearly spectacle where music’s biggest stars come together to celebrate their achievements. And while all awards shows are looking for ways to appeal to audiences (with flashy hosts, big production numbers, etc.), the Grammys are built for it: at the end of the day, the show is one giant concert, and in the process becomes part spectacle, part promotional tool, and part awards show (that part, frankly, is secondary).

I wonder, though, whether the show is actually DVR-proof. Let’s take, for example, Pink’s performance of “Glitter in the Air,” which in many ways stole the show for live viewers (I missed the first hour, but when I checked in with my parents it was the first thing I heard about). In the performance, she dangles from a white sheet from the ceiling, in Cirque de Soleil style, spinning and twirling while rarely missing a step in her vocal performance. She drew a standing ovation from the audience, and while I wasn’t as surprised as many (having read about this part of her Funhouse Tour in [gasp] a print magazine a few months ago), it was admittedly quite impressive when I reviewed it, on DVR, when the show ended.

Or when I viewed it, as you can now, on YouTube.

In other words, it stayed DVR-proof for about thirty minutes, at which point anyone could access it: if this is really what all the watercoolers will be buzzing about tomorrow, then YouTube has made live viewing more or less irrelevant. In the end, the Grammys are probably fine with this: combined with other performances (like Lady Gaga’s opening duet with Elton John), an online presence will create the impression that viewers won’t want to miss next year’s Grammys so that they can be one of the “first” to discover such performances (unless of course they’re on the West Coast, where clips hit YouTube before the tape delayed show even aired). And perhaps some might be bummed that they had previous knowledge of the performance before experiencing it, and would have liked to have been one of those on the front lines, going to Twitter or Facebook and throwing in a “Holy crap” or some other variation.

The Grammys are not, like the Oscars, self-important: they know that they exist to drum up sales and interest in a struggling industry, and they know that in this day and age what’s more important is engaging with an audience than actually rewarding the best music. And while I’m going to use this TV-driven analysis to justify some music-driven stuff below the jump, it’s important to note that for the Grammys the evening was a success regardless of who won or lost, and I think the way the show is designed (and how it is received by audiences) is a reflection of this. Sure, some complain about CBS using the show as a springboard for their own shows (L.L. Cool J, Chris O’Donnell, Kaley Cuoco, etc.), but considering the show itself is one big promotional tool, it fit right in for me.

And now, some stray observations about the awards themselves – I can’t help myself.

When Taylor Swift won the Album of the Year category, a lot of people were shocked, but looking carefully it’s not a huge surprise. While the category seemed competitive, with multiple winner Beyonce and bigshots like the Black Eyes Peas and Lady Gaga, the category was for album of the year. While some award shows tend to stick to simple categories, like the Oscars dividing itself by trade for example, the Grammys have all sorts of distinctions (Song of the Year (Writing) vs. Record of the Year (Producing), for example) that make things a bit more difficult to figure out. And when it came to album of the year, Swift’s was the only one that held out to any scrutiny: Beyonce delivered a concept album with a forgettable and pointless concept, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas are both there solely based on hit singles, and the Dave Matthews Band record had absolutely no impact on the industry. Swift, meanwhile, delivered an album that gave her country hits, crossover pop hits, tremendous sales success, and what is generally considered to be a solid country album. Without a contender (like say Kings of Leon, who upset many of these contenders in the Record of the Year category) that has a bit more credibility in terms of creating something more substantial, Swift was the logical choice, if not necessarily the popular one amongst some outside observers.

The Grammys can be weird that way, in that Beyonce can dominate a bunch of Pop and R&B categories and yet still lose out on both Record and Album of the Year because Swift was just as dominant in Country categories. The two even competed in Female Pop Vocal Performance, but that becomes an entirely different battle: voters might think that Swift has the better album, but is anyone going to argue that Swift is capable of singing half as well as Knowles? The answer is no, which makes for the sense that someone can “win” at the Grammys (Beyonce now holds the record for the most wins by a female artist in a single year, for example) without winning the big awards.

They’re also weird because of their off timing, with the cutoff taking place in October rather than say December (which meant that Stephen Colbert, now halfway to the EGOT, won for a Christmas Album from 2008). It means that Lady Gaga, here being lauded for “Poker Face,” will be back again next year for “Bad Romance,” as it was part of her followup album (of mostly rejects from the first one) that was released in November, and it meant that Susan Boyle (who Stephen Colbert joked about sending sexy away during his opening “bit”) might well be in attendance a year from now for her hugely successful record…presuming, of course, that we haven’t forgotten about her by then.

As far as what I enjoyed about the show, Pink’s performance was a definite highlight, and Gaga’s duet with Elton John demonstrated again that she is actually quite talented beneath the spectacle and the ridiculous costumes (the one she wore when she returned to the crowd made for some particularly entertaining reaction shots once she lost). Also, as a fan of both Green Day’s recent albums and the prospect of the “American Idiot” musical, seeing their rendition of “21 Guns” was a nice bit of “Only on the Grammys” for this particular viewer. Combine with deserving wins from the likes of Phoenix (in Alternative Album, albeit present off-air), and the joy of watching Beyonce jam out to Michael Jackson with 3-D glasses on and react with actual excitement for Swift upon her win, and it made for an uneven but ultimately worthwhile evening of television spectacle.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m with my brother on the fact that Taylor Swift needs to stop being so surprised: I know she’s young, but she’s winning so often as of late that if she’s actually surprised at this point I’m worried she has short term amnesia and people just aren’t noticing it.
  • Interesting that they chose to put Best Comedy Album on the air: I wonder if we’ll see them put Soundtrack album on the air next year as an excuse to have the cast of Glee (which got mentions both by Stephen Colbert in his iPad aided opening “monologue” and when Lea Michele presented) perform during the event (presuming they pick up a nomination, of course). I’m actually really interested to see whether Glee’s success manages to break into the Grammys, as it is certainly quite popular, and if the Lonely Island (who sadly lost for Rap/Sung Collaboration for “I’m on a Boat”) can grab a nomination then I’d say anything is possible.
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2 Comments

Filed under Award Shows

2 responses to “A Sales Spectacular: The Honest Quest for “Buzz” at the 2010 Grammys

  1. What I find so funny about the Grammy’s is a point that you touch on – it’s role as spectacle and promotion tool. But it seems that the recording industry is too busy congratulating itself that it’s promotion is staid and not very strategic.

    While we all talk about how the music industry is struggling and the major labels are dead, everyone on stage last night (or even nominated?) was on a major label. And performances came from established (in the case of Bon Jovi, no longer relevant) artists, which viewers were consistently urged to purchase the songs performed on iTunes, via Target’s sponsored page. I can see that going with tried and true, big name acts with record-setting sales is a safe way to go. But it seems to me that the Grammy’s as a promotional vehicle could be used better to launch some of the industry’s more up and coming talent. (I’m not sure Taylor Swift counts any more as ‘up and coming,’ given she had the best-selling album of 2009). The Grammy’s just seem like a place where the music industry could really try to reinvent itself, or at least move itself forward; but it’s continually stuck in a celebration of itself and its old ways.

    Other thoughts: the Michael Jackson 3D bit was a total miss, if you ask me. My twitter/facebook feeds were full of people asking where they were supposed to get the glasses, why didn’t they know about this, this is blurry and stupid, etc. I actually watched it with some glasses I had laying around (from a kids book, actually); and even on my HDTV, it was just ‘meh.’ I think I might have enjoyed the actual performance much more without the distraction of the 3D schtick.

    Poor Taylor Swift sounded terrible live, and while pairing her with Stevie Nicks is an interesting idea in theory (joining the generations!), I’m not sure that it worked. Their chemistry on stage was awkward, and their star personas clash a little. Plus, their voices did NOT sound good together, at all.

    • Some great points, Lindsay.

      In terms of the idea of emerging artists, it’s always interesting with the Grammys to see what they present on the air: the Grammys have hundreds of awards, and they can present anything they want. However, in terms of new artists rather than established ones, the “Best New Artist” award is as far as one might get. However, do we give the Grammys credit for introducing us to the Zac Brown Band, who I wish I was never introduced to? The other option would be to present Alternative Album, but they’ve always resisted it, even when there’s big names in the category.

      As for the 3D, it’s an entirely different rant: why, precisely, was it in 3D? And why was there a video at all? That would have been just as effective, and less distracting, if it had just been people who can sing collaborating. It was a blatant example of 3D being used as promotion, despite an illogical and unnecessary involvement (Plus, Red/Blue 3D. Ick).

      And yeah, I didn’t want to harp too much on Swift, but she has no lower register live (she’s better on the faster songs), and Nicks was a good choice thematically (the Grammys love joining the generations, with Prince/Beyonce as my favourite recent pairing) but the chemistry just wasn’t there.

      But, the ratings were apparently through the roof, so it was all “worth it,” I guess.

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