A friend alerted me to a tweet early Monday morning, as I cleared the cobwebs from Sunday night's Grammy Awards from my head and guzzled some coffee in a vain attempt to trick my brain into somehow making sense of it all.
The tweet was from a tenured recording engineer and record producer who has a mantel's worth of Grammy trophies of his own, and is a member of the Recording Academy. He offered an insider's intelligent analysis of the Grammys in 2017, and that analysis got to me. Soon I was scribbling the following on the napkin beneath my coffee cup:
It's time to rethink this whole Grammy thing. The music industry could do some actual measurable good with all of the money it's spending on this spectacle/debacle, during a time when the arts in schools are already in trouble, and that trouble is only likely to get deeper, considering the belief system expressed by the new secretary of education.
Can people in the arts really afford to throw themselves a huge party, one with all the trappings of a political rally whose attendees are paid to applaud in the right spots, when the very future of the arts is at stake? And does the populace really deserve to be entertained right now?
Upon reflection, I'm not so sure. One could make the argument that tough times demand some sort of escapism for the masses. But isn’t that at least partly how we've gotten into this mess? Aren’t we dangerously close to – as Roger Waters put it, paraphrasing the title of Neil Postman's 1985 tome "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" – being "amused to death?"
[Column: Grammys were all about Adele, Beyonce]
The author of the tweet – Adam J. Odor, proprietor of Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberly, Texas – appears to be pondering the same quandary. Odor – whose credits include work with Ben Harper, Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, the Court Yard Hounds, Raul Malo, Asleep at the Wheel and Shawn Colvin – has an insider's view on what many of us on the outside have been witnessing, consciously or otherwise, over the past 15 years or so of Grammy ceremonies.
— adam odor (@adamjodor) February 13, 2017
"Most of my friends who are nominated and win are a part of the Grammys that are awarded earlier in the day," Odor writes. "(B)efore it was called the Recording Academy, the Grammy Awards were hosted by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences … a group of people representing all the major record labels in the 1950’s (that) came together to honor recording and industry professionals.
"Over the years, as the event has become more televised, the elements that have built the Grammys have been pushed to 'during a ceremony earlier this evening' and the 'hit' Grammy Awards are the only thing on television, with performances ranging from 'amazing, full-on tears' to (me) answering 30 text messages all asking the same (question) – 'For the biggest night in music, why does it sound so terrible?' "
It seems screamingly obvious that the producers of the event are more concerned with spectacle – some of it admittedly impressive, but none of it having anything to do with actual music, really – than with the very things they have gathered all of these industry folks together to honor. (They being, oh, I don’t know, excellence in the realm of the recording arts and sciences, or something.)
"As the world has changed dramatically over last few months, I find myself wondering, 'Is this spectacle all worth it?' " Odor's post continues, going on to note that "as a member of The Recording Academy, I wonder if there’s a better use of our money. I still believe my peers should be honored, and it should be an event, but maybe we can be a little more economical in how we do this."
Another great point. Most of the good work the Academy is doing is being done off-screen, earlier in the day or during Grammy week, where the "less sexy" awards are doled out – and for "less sexy," read things like jazz, music education, classical music, most of the rock, alternative rock, blues, Americana and anything else that doesn’t have the names Adele or Beyonce attached to it. Why not just do what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame does – work out a deal where an edited version of the big show is played on a premium cable network, and give equal representative time to the "off-camera" winners?
Unquestionably, the RIAA has done some good work in terms of community outreach, honoring educators and generating money to support music education in our schools. But let's face it – much more could be done. If a fraction of the money that was surely required to present Beyonce's visually stunning performance was earmarked for the Grammy Foundation or the Grammys in the Schools program, the Grammys would be initiating real change in the lives of real people.
It's time for this to happen. The Grammys, and the pop music super-structure they exist to venerate, have become bloated, out of touch, inconsequential, and frankly, in poor taste. If you really want to "empower young people," why not hire 50 fewer dancers and send the money you save to an ailing school's music program?
Odor can have the last word:
"I don’t know what the answer is. I just hope a dialog will be started about it. Because honestly, I’m scared. I’m scared of what’s going to happen to the arts. But I do know that if we don’t stick-up for the musical side of education, no one else will. And if we lose music education, we will lose music as a form of expression."
And then what?