The Grammys: glitz, glam and sham

by Moe Berg, The Globe and Mail, February 22, 2002

A few years ago, I was interviewed about my band, The Pursuit of Happiness, on a national television show. I arrived 10 minutes late - but 15 minutes before my interviewer. She sat down beside me and said, "I'm late. Lucky it's only you. I'm going to do my makeup - order me a cup of tea," and wandered off to the ladies' room.

She wasn't being familiar; we weren't good friends. To her, this was appropriate treatment for anyone without superstar status. If her interview had been with, say, Celine Dion, she would have been on time, in full makeup, to meet pop royalty. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, it's not how good you are, but how high your sales are.

To some extent, of course, it's always been that way. But today it seems almost impossible to judge art outside of its market value. Nothing is more exciting than commercial success and the marketing machine that makes it possible.

So top-selling artists have a lock on the nominations for this week's Grammy awards and the upcoming Canadian equivalent, the Junos. Only in minor categories does celebrating excellence even seem to be a factor.

While rock culture supposedly idealizes outsiders and rebels, the Grammys in particular have always been a safe, mainstream awards show. The artists who challenge and influence the culture are rarely the ones who get awards. In the sixties, none of the artists who played Woodstaock won major Grammys. Even the Beatles - arguably the most influential group in rock history - got only one album of the year statue, for Sgt. Pepper's in 1967.

In the 1970's, Stevie Wonder got what he deserved, but his co-winners were often the likes of The Captain and Tennille, Glen Campbell and Barry Manilow. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss and the Rolling Stones won nothing. And when punk emerged late in the decade, the Grammys honoured the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac and ignored the minor cultural revolution in progress.

Fast-forward to the present: Besides mainstream commercial acts like Celine Dion and Shania Twain, some relevant critically acclaimed artists (Garbage, Lauryn Hill) are up for album of the year.

So things are better, no? No, the Grammys are just doing what they've always done, reflecting what is on the charts. What has changed is that, with the advent of Soundscan, the charts more accurately reflect what music listeners are actually buying. It isn't that the Grammys have become more hip or quality conscious.

While the members of "the academy" vote on the awards, no one gets in without topping the charts. so the Grammy hype will never serve to promote music not first embraced by radio and TV. You won't see independent artists on that stage, because they're listed only in the small, ghettoized categories.

When Beck gets nominated, it's for his DGC releases, not his (sometimes superior) work on indie labels Bong Load or K Records. What's being rewarded is less his artistic than his contribution to the great music business machine.

It's not surprising that artists, being only human, go wherever they can get their head patted. Without the giant marketing departments of the few major labels, performers end up marginalized as cult heroes, living in much less than rock-star affluence. And since money is our society's ultimate head pat, even the more meaningful artists are playing the game.

A few years ago, there was a watershed moment in pop history. Seminal nineties band Pearl Jam decided they were uncomfortable with what they perceived as Ticketmaster's monopoly on issuing concert tickets. They felt the company's surcharges were interfering with their desire to keep their affordable for fans. They put a concert tour on hold and engaged Ticketmaster in a legal battle that eventually failed.

One of the most successful bands of the time was tking a loss for its beliefs - and if a few of the other top concert acts had thrown in with Pearl Jam, they probably could have changed the system. But what seems significant is that none of their contemporaries dared join in.

Today even credible artists are embracing the idea of being commodities. Back in the eighties, it was considered practically evil for a serious artist to sell a song or likeness to promote a product (remember Neil Young's This Note's for You?). Now even ultrahip bands like Luscious Jackson and Everclear can be seen shilling for the Gap, like athletes before them. Marketers have convinced musicians that commercials are a legitimate route to their young fans, just another way of getting on television.

In fact marketing threatens to turn all popular culture into a gigantic glass-bead game. The hottest new marketing device for both recording artists and movies is the movie soundtrack (three song-of-the-year nominees are from soundtrack albums). With movies remaking old television shows, the three biggest art forms of the second half of this century have been combined into one enormous, easy-to-sell cookie.

At one time, critical opinion helped balance marketing power. But music critics, like political pundits, now pose as insiders predicting the outcome of the race. Alanis Morissette's debut, for instance, struck a very personal chord with a huge fan base. Yet when her second album came out, the question in the media wasn't how her music had developed, but whether she could match her past sales.

Musicians in turn have become obsessed with publicity. Marilyn Manson is alleged to have had a Spin magazine reporter assaulted - not because of a bad review but because of his appearance on the cover. When Courtney Love dresses and behaves to suit whatever career opportunity comes along, it beomes difficult for her fans to believe her as an artist committed to anything other than being famous.

Award shows exaggerate all that is wrong with our culture. They celebrate celebrity and reward those who have already been rewarded with money and fame. They contribute to the notion that it's more important to be a celebrity than an artist.

Graphic artist Tibor Kalman once said, "Consumer culture is an oxymoron." That may be overstating it, but I fear it's dangerously close to becoming the truth.

©1999 Bell Globemedia

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