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SoundCheck: Why do the Grammys keep taking one step forward, two stumbles back?

No matter what they do, the Grammys just can’t seem to get it right. For every step forward, there are two awkward stumbles backward. It’s sad. And yet, it’s also hilarious.

But the humor is delivered in a bouquet of razor blades, if you count yourself among those for whom music is something more than an occasional diversion. You can giggle at the absurdity of Katy Perry’s over-the-top marriage of vampire chic and strip-club pole-dance decadence, or scratch your head and chuckle as classical pianist Lang Lang is teamed with Metallica for seven minutes of bombast that serves neither artist’s considerable abilities. But if you really care, then the humor is fleeting. Laughing at the train wreck that is a Grammys broadcast is a bit of a hollow victory, because in the end, it sure seems that the joke is on us.

Popular music is in ill health. And since popular music both reflects and affects the broader culture, that means our culture as a whole ain’t looking too good. So “music’s biggest night” devolves into music’s biggest nightmare 15 minutes or so into the ceremony, year after year after year. The simple solution would be to turn off the television, ignore the Grammys and concentrate on things that are actually worthwhile. That’s not a luxury a pop music critic can afford, however. And it’s still happening, whether we are paying attention or not.

So what happened Sunday, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences threw itself a party and attempted to have its cake (a consequent post-show bump in record sales) and eat it, too (by bestowing honor upon the occasional deserving artist)? Well, the hollow laughs came fast and furious. They started when Beyoncé kicked things off as if she was concocting the world’s most abundantly funded audition tape for a stripper’s gig, and then continued as Taylor Swift sat at the piano banging out a limp ballad, clearly thinking she was channeling Joni Mitchell while, to the rest of us, what came out was far more Disney tween situation comedy.

And on it went. All the way until the final moments, when a much-touted “supergroup” composed of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Dave Grohl and members of Queens of the Stone Age collaborated to end the show. Trouble was, the curtain came down on the assemblage roughly halfway through an epic performance. Yes, folks – the Grammys saved what sure looked like it was going to be the best for the very last, and then cut to the credits right smack in the middle of the collaboration it had been bragging about for the week leading up to the event. Ouch.

Even some of the good things this year, Grammys-wise, happened off-screen before the official broadcast. For example, the winning of the Best R&B Song award by the consistently cutting-edge ensemble Snarky Puppy and collaborator Lalah Hathaway. In fact, the entire day’s proceedings were streamed via throughout Sunday, and they featured performances that routinely eclipsed those we saw on television later that evening. A torrid blues stomp featuring Grammy winners Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite was just one example of the high level maintained throughout the streamed “pregame.”

For glaring examples of the Grammys getting it wrong this year, one need look no further than the rather strict confines of the biggest categories. Daft Punk, for example, made a groove-centric, funky dance party of an album in the form of “Random Access Memories.” But was it really Album of the Year, as the Grammys decided? Probably not, unless your listening habits in 2013 were limited solely to Top 40 pop. Incredibly strong records by the likes of Steven Wilson, Jason Isbell, Japandroids, Mike Kenneally, Clutch, the Sword and dozens more didn’t even make the nomination cut. Daft Punk made a fun record, but if the Grammys want to be taken seriously as a credible organization that bestows honor upon deserving artists – and be assured, they do want that – then throwing several statues at DJs in robot masks is not the best way to go about it.

What is the problem, the fatal flaw that makes the recording academy repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Well, it’s a tough gig, if you’re attempting to pacify (and stoke profits from) the mainstream while simultaneously expecting to be taken seriously from the standpoint of music-as-art. Remember when Justin Bieber told the audience at the Billboard Music Awards that he demanded to be taken seriously as an artist? The Grammys are a bit like Bieber. They want to be popular, and they are willing to play the game to get what they want. Then they cry foul and demand to be taken seriously when the wheels start to come off.

Pressured to succeed as a television show, the folks responsible for “music’s biggest night” front-load the nominations in the biggest categories with stuff they know will draw viewers. Most of the time, that stuff has nothing to do with art and everything to do with schlock.

For decades, the Grammys have given us marshmallow fluff and expected us to accept it as caviar. Perhaps it has succeeded at this swindle for long enough.