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Grammys Love Company of Dead Artists

By Drew C. Ashwood and Chris A. Kukstis, Crimson Staff Writerss

Chris: Another year and another night of Grammys, and slowly the awards slip further and further from any kind of relevance. Pomp and show, tribute and politics; it’s possible I’m just being cynical but I have no other way to explain how little I care about the outcome of last week’s Grammy awards. Nonetheless, I shall bash. This year’s Grammys simply hardened my opinion that the mainstream critical and commercial machinations are perfectly content with a steady stream of tributes to elder generations and a short list of inoffensive “approved” artists that sound like they’re from an elder generation. Ray Charles! The Pepsi guy, before he died this past summer, dropped Genius Loves Company, a compilation of duets with a broad selection of some contemporary artists and some contemporaries of the artist. It’s not an uncommon thing for aging artists to cut a CD of duets, but this is the kind of thing we expect more from pseudo-lounge singers like Rod Stewart. They pair up with young artists to raise record sales by bridging the gaps between their audiences, as in the case of the his duet with Norah Jones on “Here We Go Again,” for which Charles won 2005’s “Record of the Year.” Maybe some old-time Charles lover will enjoy the duet and go out to buy a Norah Jones record, and maybe a younger Norah Jones fan, liking the single with Charles, will try to explore his back catalogue. It helps out both parties, but is rarely the kind of thing that makes for a good record, let alone the album of the year: Charles is doubtless a brilliant songwriter and an incomparable singer, but how good can an album be when each song features a radically different incorporation of voices? An album is a cohesive statement, a unified document in music: this selection as the best record of the year shows the way the award is consistently used honorifically, as tribute to the recently-passed artist rather than an actual critical decision as to which album was best. This choice surprised no one, and when the Oscars roll around there will be a similar tacit hunch as to the direction the film academy’s choice will take when Best Actor is announced. This predictability is a shame, as if the academy realized they waited too long for an obligatory “lifetime achievement” award. It bothers me even further that “Album of the Year” wasn’t enough for them—the deceased great had a massive run of the Grammys, with Genius Loves Company taking eight awards, and...but that’s enough venting about this one thing. Drew, where’s the beef?

Drew: K-man, let’s pause here for a moment. So you’re right about the Grammys being a blowhard event nowadays (well, always, but even more so nowadays), but let’s look at Mr. Charles’s wins a little more fairly. The duet with Norah Jones? Contrived, yes, but worse duets of its nature have been conceived—touching or not, I still think Natalie Cole and Father was a dumb idea. At least Jones and Charles are interesting as a pairing, since they’re both pianists, they both straddle the line between jazz, blues, and rock sensibilities, and they both have proven that they’re willing to defy conventions, albeit to vastly different degrees.

And, okay, Genius Loves Company probably wouldn’t have picked up album of the year without the industry’s collective guilt over Mr. Charles’s untimely demise, but it was at least a full-fledged concept album—and in that sense, a unified document in music—not just another case of “slap on another voice to old tracks.” Then again, it was promoted/sold heavily at Starbucks, so I’ll buy into your anti-commercial argument. But for both Charles wins, this isn’t a case of “bad” awardsmanship as much as horrible nominations. I mean, Los Lonely Boys “Heaven” and Usher’s “Yeah!” may have their individual merits, but could either have been “Record of the Year?” Maybe the Charles projects would have been unexceptional had events transpired differently this year, but given the choices, they aren’t bad picks.

Now, the real problem is with “Song of the Year,” which went to John Mayer for “Daughters.” I know, I know, he’s a “sensitive” guy, and wow he has a column in Esquire so he must be more than just teeny-bopper fluff—but, good grief, “boys will be strong and boys soldier on / but boys would be gone without warmth from a woman's good, good heart?” Does he really have so much trouble getting laid that he needs to write crap like this? This is by far the dumbest song he’s put out, and that includes “Your Body is a Wonderland,” which until now was the best proof out there that he’d stopped trying to think of worthwhile lyrics a long time ago. I’m not saying the guy is a total waste—“No Such Thing” at least had some nifty chord changes in it, and he legitimately can rock a lead guitar if he needs to—but no one, not even Ray Charles, should be able to win “Song of the Year” for a song about being good to your daughters so they don’t screw over their passive-aggressive singer-songwriter boyfriends twenty years later.

Chris: Now the philippic begins, Drew, as you’ve deftly swung the discussion back to a point I started to make above: Mayer, along with Norah Jones, winner of 3, Alicia Keyes, winner of 4, U2, winners of 3, Springsteen, winner of 1, Maroon 5, and even best alt album winners Wilco are part of this bland, inoffensive slate of artists with an immense populist appeal that never does a whole lot to challenge convention.

The critical tastes of the Academy have seemed bent towards artists of this nature, short on innovation and high on traditionalism. I hesitate to lump Wilco in there, especially because A Ghost Is Born is certainly more experimental than some earlier releases, but look at what it beat out: Björk’s Medulla, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Like Bad News, PJ Harvey’s Uh Huh Her, and Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous release. A Ghost Is Born is just tired Americana and distorted guitar. Franz Ferdinand’s album barnstormed first into intense critical approval, universally, and then into national ubiquity on the strength of “Take Me Out,” which lost to “Vertigo” by U2 for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. U2? “Vertigo”? The iPod anthem is by no means a bad song, but isn’t U2 established enough at this point that these cookie-cutter songs are coming out on a conveyor belt? Especially compared to the crisp tones of “Take Me Out,” or even Green Day’s “American Idiot,” which was also nominated and snubbed, “Vertigo” becomes indistinguishable from “Beautiful Day” or any other anthemic Bono bonanza. But they’re U2. It’s this specter of the establishment, creeping into criticism, that makes me so dubious and ultimately diffident about where these awards go.

This year I was rooting for Kanye West. I liked College Dropout, loved the cover art, hated the skits, and was lukewarm towards the oh-so-blatant righteousness of his recusatio in “Jesus Walks” (“They said we could rap about anything but Jesus / That means guns, lies, sex, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”) though intrigued by the song’s popularity—if anything, this rapper was different. West’s name was all over the nominations list—album of the year, record of the year, rap album of the year, rap song of the year, best new artist, to name a few—and though Dropout didn’t win album of the year, it did win as rap album. What song was best rap song? That’s right, “Jesus Walks,” Kanye’s creed about mingling his open faith and his rap career, beating out favorite “99 Problems” by Jay-Z. Kanye’s soft and faithful rap seems to me the only kind of innovation that the Academy seems to favor.

Drew: Kukstis, I’m going to go out on a limb here, and I’m going to argue that you’re wrong, that there was one other innovative winner: Britney Spears, whose “Toxic” won “Best Dance Record.” Clearly, she’s not really an “artist” but rather just a “performer,” clearly she’s a persona non grata in most musical circles, and clearly to give her the credit for anything she does (musically, at least; the marriages as inadvertent publicity stunts were all her) takes a good leap of imagination, although I understand you have to give the credit to someone. But here’s the thing—“Toxic” is not a song, it’s concept art. It’s an exercise in hyperbole at every single level. I’m not trying to make the “kitsch” or “camp” arguments; this isn’t exactly “so bad it’s good” though it’s something close. I’m suggesting that this song is the best example of how the mainstream music industry machinery no longer makes songs, or records, or even music, but rather commercial media entities. This kind of synergy may be bad or good depending on your take, but it’s undeniable. Bubble-gum pop has always been around to sell itself, but “Toxic” takes that to a new level—it sells everything it touches, and it does so without any apparent intrinsic value. Normally, I wouldn’t condone this. I mean, lyrically, the song is ridiculous (“With the taste of your lips / I'm on a ride?”), you can’t understand most of what she’s saying, her singing is at its worst (by now that “throaty growl” isn’t sexy, just grating), she gives her vocal absolutely no soul whatsoever (I mean, sheesh, Cher on “Believe” sounded more into it), and the production uses every single instrument in the GarageBand (or whatever they use) arsenal. But, if you listen really carefully, right before she starts singing, you can hear the ringtone which everyone downloaded at some point during the year. And I know there are many people—so, so many people, admit it or not—who Googled “britney spears toxic video” within a week of its release, and in doing so lined the pockets of the advertisers who were banking on so, so many people doing just that. So why does that make it innovative? Why does that make it different than any other mass-marked, ramped-up bubble-gum release? Because, stupid lyrics and all, it’s impossibly catchy, and—and I don’t know how this works—somehow, really, really good. That, I believe, is a feat more worthy of a Grammy than any of the other winners managed to pull off.

-- Staff writer Christopher A. Kukstis can be reached at

-- Columnist Drew C. Ashwood can be reached at

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