In a new series on HeadCount’s blog, Jeff Simonds — a professor, writer, and HeadCount Team Leader — tries to understand the world of politics, music, and pop culture. The opinions expressed are his own.
I was in the middle of an argument with a friend when I read that Kathy Griffin had won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album (beating Tig Notaro’s incredibly well-received, much hyped album “Live”). I was arguing that the Grammy’s were still relevant and in touch with the trends and attitudes of pop culture.
It’s a weird feeling when you realize you can’t win an argument — but you’re still in the middle of that argument. It’s kind of feels like a lawyer defending an alleged murderer, and turning around to see the defendant is still wearing the bloody shirt.
But, I like the Grammys, and I want nothing more than for them to be valid. So, I kept arguing. I argued that all awards are subjective, and that all awards are subject to questionable decisions (The Oscar passing up “Saving Private Ryan” for “Shakespeare In Love,” The Emmy consistently going to “Frasier” over “Seinfled,” The National Book Award never going to my self-published memoir “Jeff Simonds: World’s Sexiest Genius”). I argued that it was probably a one-time error. A fluke.
Then, I read that Kathy Griffin has been nominated for Best Comedy Album every year since 2008 (meaning she has more Grammy nominations than Louis CK, Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari and Chris Rock combined). Kathy Griffin, a comedian who’s biggest claim to fame is a TV show that highlights how “D-List” she is, has as many Grammy Awards as Nirvana and has more Grammy nominations than The Who.
At this point, it felt like the lawyer turning around to see the defendant holding up a sign that reads, “I totally did it.”
And that’s just the comedy category. If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences can give the award to Kathy Griffin (beating not just Notaro, but also great un-nominated works by alternative comedy favorites like Pete Holmes, Maria Bamford, and Kyle Kinane), than how can they possibly hope to handle the wilder trends and shifting opinions of the music scene?
Well — they can’t. They just can’t. The Grammys are dreadfully out of touch. How else can you explain it? Every award show is subject to questionable decisions, but the Grammys seem to be disconnected from pop culture in a significant way.
For example, look at Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 2000s. Of the top ten albums on that list, only four were nominated for the Best Album Grammy (Kanye’s “College Dropout,” Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP,” The White Stripe’s “Elephant,” and Radiohead’s “Kid A”). And none of them won the prize. In fact, of the ten Best Album Grammy winners that decade, only four showed up on Rolling Stone’s countdown (OutKast at #16, Norah Jones at #54, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss at #55, and U2 at #68).
Y’know who won a Best Album Grammy in the 2000s? Steely Dan. Steely Dan. In 2001, Steely Dan beat Beck, Eminem, Paul Simon, and Radiohead. Steely Dan, whose biggest hit came in 1974, beat Radiohead’s “Kid A” in 2001. Steely Dan. As in, “Up next, on VH1 Classic, we’re gonna play a little Steely Dan.” That Steely Dan beat Radiohead in 2001. When you search for Steely Dan’s “Greatest Hits” on Amazon (and this is not a joke) it says “Customers who bought this item also bought: Boz Scaggs and Foghat.”
The Grammys are out of touch and I’m not sure if it’s even their fault. I think it’s possible that the music industry is just too big and too weird to establish consistent criteria for an award.
Take this year’s Best Album award. The award went to two Frenchmen who dress as robots. They beat out a 24-year-old country music-singing multi-millionaire and a guy who raps about wanting to wear your grandpa’s clothes. It’s like comparing apples… and French robots. It can’t easily and precisely be done.
Obviously, music is subjective, and obviously I’m not the first person to accuse this award ceremony of being out of touch. But there’s something interesting about the Grammys to me. There’s something interesting about the fact that the award itself is a statue of a phonograph (or gramophone) — a device that hasn’t been relevant for decades. There’s something interesting about how they never changed the statue to a golden boom box in the age of the cassette, a golden Walkman in the CD era, or a gilded iPod Touch in the digital era. And now, as vinyl is coming back in style, maybe the Grammy Awards have a chance to be relevant again. Maybe it’s already started. The last four Best Album awards have gone an indie favorite, a pop mega-hit, an international hipster folk band, and a 70’s throwback electronica duo. Maybe the Grammys can find their way back in touch.
But, I bet Kendrick Lamar might disagree.