The Muddled Memory-Making of the 2011 Grammys
February 13th, 2011
Tonight, the Grammy Awards opened with an extended retrospective. As a collection of contemporary female vocalists paid tribute to the music of Aretha Franklin, it established that this was a night to reflect on Grammy history. It was a narrative picked up by Miranda Lambert’s performance of “The House That Built Me” later in the show, which she dedicated to those performers who came before (and who appeared on the screens behind her in a nostalgia-tinged multimedia component), and cemented with a “rare performance” from Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger’s first ever Grammy performance.
However, earlier in the show, Lady Gaga took to the stage to perform her brand new single, “Born this Way.” Although one could claim that this too is a bit of history, given that the song borrows liberally from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” the song premiered only last week. In another performance, a trio of young performers (Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, and B.O.B.) were introduced by Ryan Seacrest as being the next generation of Grammy legends, albeit in a performance which had a definite tinge of nostalgia given Bruno Mars’ black-and-white, Jackson Five throwback performance of “Grenade.”
It’s no secret that the Grammys have long ago stopped being an “awards show,” having transitioned into a concert event so blatantly that everyone noticed (if you’ll forgive me the inversion of a classic Simpsons line). However, during tonight’s show (and especially given the few hours I spent half watching the non-televised portion of the awards online), I realized the degree to which this shift has seemingly been designed to disguise the fact that the Grammys, more than any other awards show, utterly fails at capturing the last year in its respective medium.
And how, despite some unquestionable success at making the show “memorable,” it sort of confounds the notion of memory altogether.
During the non-televised portion of the awards, Mavis Staples won her first Grammy Award in a fifty-year career. Admittedly, I didn’t know who Staples was until last year, when her collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on her Grammy-winning You are Not Alone caught my attention. Her win was true Grammy history, as a 71-year old music legend finally achieves music’s “greatest honor.” Soon thereafter, Neil Young took to the stage to accept his award for Best Rock Song, which is the first Grammy he has won as an individual performer (after winning a Best New Artist Grammy with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and an award for box set art). Both speeches were the kind of inspirational moment that other award shows tend to focus on: think Martin Scorsese finally winning his first Oscar, Susan Lucci breaking her losing streak at the Daytime Emmys, or Kathryn Bigelow breaking down gender barriers at last year’s Oscars.
It’s no surprise, of course, that they were part of the non-televised event: I doubt “Best Americana Album” has ever been presented on the telecast, and Neil Young (while nominated for Best Rock Album, which was presented during the telecast) is fairly removed from the mainstream. While there are circumstances where the presence of non-mainstream artists on the telecast is impossible to avoid, like the wins in major categories for Robert Plant and Allison Kraus in 2009 or Herbie Hancock in 2008, generally speaking the awards presented on the telecast are carefully chosen to chase the zeitgeist.
Of course, the irony is that the awards themselves are almost incapable of chasing the zeitgeist. Because of the bizarre eligibility rules, the Grammys are not honoring the best music of the last year: they’re honoring the best music from as far back as October 2009, which is an eternity in the music business, and are unable to honor music which might be most popular at the current moment. The Grammys actually actively avoided certain problematic optics by shuffling some key wins by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” an enormous hit in the Fall of 2009, to the non-televised portion to keep from seeming too anachronistic. Compare with the Emmys, which are often honoring shows which are premiering in just a month’s time, or the Oscars which often reward films which are currently in theaters. As a result, in order for the Grammys to feel like something of a celebration of the period in between these awards and the last awards, the performances become pretty well the only way of doing so.
However, at the same time, the Grammys want to be memorable – to be a reflection of just that year in music would be to risk being forgotten, which explains the shift towards spectacle. It’s not Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers – it’s Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, and Bob Dylan. It isn’t enough for Cee-Lo Green to perform, and it’s not enough for him to perform with Muppets, he also needs to perform with Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s a quest to remain relevant at the water cooler, to deliver those moments that you will only see on the Grammy Awards. And, frankly, I don’t consider this a bad thing: there’s not a great deal of live music on television anymore, and I quite enjoyed Cee-Lo’s ode to the Muppet Show (right down to stealing Elton John’s outfit) and Dylan jamming (read: mumbling) with the future of alt-country (although mostly for the future of alt-country).
These are the memories that the Grammys want us to leave with, no question: they don’t care if we know who won Song of the Year, they care that we saw Lady Gaga crawl out of some sort of futuristic cocoon. However, as someone who appreciates a good award show narrative, the Grammys have none: the awards are too sporadic to create much in the way of momentum until the last twenty minutes (unless you saw the non-televised awards, which made Lady Antebellum’s mid-show domination fairly predictable), and the night has a real start-stop mentality perhaps best exemplified by Barbra Streisand being followed by Nicki Minaj and Will.i.am presenting the award for Best Rap Album. Every performance is an attempt to one-up the last, but however impressive they are they are not really part of something larger – if they make it onto YouTube the morning after, they would have basically the same meaning.
To recap, the Grammys are interested in celebrating history, making history, and rewarding music which is often history by the time the awards air, while also trying to reflect this very moment in music history. I think that many of these are noble goals, and I think the show actually succeeds in achieving most of them at one point during its telecast (which I’ll get to in a moment). The problem, I think, is that the Grammys feel like the most ephemeral of the award shows, as the winners (and the vast majority of the umpteen performances) are forgotten by the time the next year arrives (or, frankly, by the time the show is over – did you remember that Lady Antebellum performance?). Because everything keeps being rewritten, their value seems to be in the moment: the only reason to watch the show live, and not just wait until the next morning to see the best performances online, is to take part in a live chat, or to spend time on Twitter responding in real time to the spectacle unfolding.
There were some skeptical responses to the fact that people were watching, or live-tweeting, the Grammys based on their fairly negative reputation as far as legitimacy is concerned, but I think live-tweeting (or chatting) is hardly an acknowledgment of legitimacy. If anything, it’s the ultimate proof that they have become pure spectacle, must-see TV only in the sense that they will hold no meaning except for when they are broadcast. And the night’s final moment is the perfect evidence of this, as Canada’s own Arcade Fire shockingly broke through in the night’s biggest category, taking home the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Technically, the moment encapsulates everything the Grammys want to be. Babs and Kris Kristofferson presenting the award, The Suburbs becoming (as far as I can tell) the first “Alternative” album to win Album of the Year – it’s living history and making history all over the place. However, there’s very little chance that this reflects a larger trend towards critical indie records taking home the evening’s top prize, as what “history” it might represent will probably be undone in a year’s time. Instead, its sense of history is very much a sense of the now, of living through this moment as the entirety of my Twitter feed (and my Instant Messaging client, as my brother Ryan shared his euphoric disbelief) exploded with shock and (for the most part) delight. It isn’t that history is actually made, it’s that we get to feel as though history is being made (which, in my case, means a good two minutes of fist pumping).
In truth, I started writing this piece before Arcade Fire won that final award, before the moment when I could officially say that tonight’s Grammy Awards have become part of my pop cultural (and, as a Canadian, cultural) memory. Once I settled down from the initial euphoria and realized that had happened, I thought my argument was shot: here was proof that the Grammys are more than ephemeral, that the Grammys could linger on beyond the watercooler and beyond this particular moment. However, I then realized that the “we” I mention in the last paragraph is very specific. As both a Canadian and a fan of Arcade Fire, this moment takes on incredible significance – to the vast majority of viewers, this moment will be forgotten as soon as the “What’s an Arcade Fire” questions disperses in a few days.
What the Grammys struggle with is making my moment into everyone’s moment, to create memories as opposed to simply facilitating them: it can create spectacle, giving performers like Lady Gaga and Cee-Lo Green the resources to go as over the top as they might desire, but it is pulled in so many different directions that it has no way of communicating the meaning of more subtle, but much more narratively rich, events. Instead, it’s all a big jumbled mess, a “Choose Your Own Memory” book which self-destructs as soon as you reach your ending of choice, leaving behind our own personal, incomplete remembrance of the evening’s spectacle.
And even that might be gone in just a few weeks.
- I quite liked the collaborative elements of the Mars/Monae/B.O.B. performance – even if they weren’t actually playing the instruments in question (see: B.O.B. on guitar), I thought it was a nice touch.
- I think my favorite smaller moments from the show would be Nicole Kidman singing along to “Teenage Dream,” Will and Jada Pinkett Smith looking like awfully proud parents as Jaden took to the stage with Justin Bieber, and Lea Michele saying “wimmers.”
- I sort of loved the non-televised ceremony (which was streaming online): Kathy Griffin had a lot of fun presenting a series of awards, some of the nominees read their thank yous off of iPhones, and the whole thing had a really scrappy feel to it which I enjoyed a great deal.
- For more on the euphoria side of things, my brother has his insta-reaction to the moment up at his blog.