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Why the Grammys are bad for music

Time and again, many Americans have proved that they favor the symbol over the thing being symbolized.

Our politics is enthralled with symbolism, much of it empty. Our pop culture (and popular music in particular) also loves a good symbol. This is not always a bad thing. Symbolism abounds in literature, and the idea is to make us think and perhaps engender some sort of thoughtful interior or exterior discourse on the ideas and issues conjured by the symbols. It stops being a good thing, however, when we skip the part about thinking, and simply embrace the symbol, and go on with our lives.

Which brings me to the Grammys, and why I have developed a strong distaste for them. If I could avoid watching Monday’s Grammy Awards broadcast, I would. I can think of a dozen things I would rather do for four hours. But the Grammys are big news on my beat, and I cover that news.

And, unless the trend of the past decade is miraculously reversed on Monday night, I’ll once again be pounding my fist on the coffee table, scaring my dog, annoying my wife, and making my son laugh hysterically, when some blatant example of empty symbol-embracing takes place.

What does this mean?

It might mean the doling out of an award to some relative unknown in order to project the image of credibility, and then promptly handing out the next four awards to the biggest-selling records of the year. (Grammys are supposed to be awarded based on merit, not sales.)

It might mean some horribly misguided “tribute” to the recently departed musical icon David Bowie, one that includes a performance by Lady Gaga, meant to show Bowie’s “enduring influence” on … what? Diva-pop? Bad outfits? I dunno. (I like Lady Gaga, but I don’t see the musical connection between her work and Bowie’s, because there isn’t one, really. Sartorial flamboyance alone does not a David Bowie make.)

It could happen if Kendrick Lamar, with 11 nominations for his bold, defiant and abundantly creative “How To Pimp a Butterfly,” ends up losing out to Taylor Swift’s overrated and controversy-free “1989.”

The Grammys have become an awful lot like the Super Bowl halftime show: They are all about the grandiose gesture, rather than the subtle substantive statement.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, I caught some grief for criticizing the halftime show as a “trainwreck,” not the celebration of African-American self-empowerment and gender tolerance that some readers saw. I didn’t notice a lot of this symbolism, because I was concentrating on the music. And the music was not noteworthy.

Coldplay was boring. Beyonce was dramatic, but I didn’t think her new song was all that. Bruno Mars was cool. It didn’t add up to much, musically speaking. Later, when I re-watched it, I caught the symbolism in the show itself – the colors celebrating LGBT pride, the references to “Black Lives Matter.” Why did I miss them the first time around? I guess I value sound over symbols.

Taking the opportunity to broadcast messages of tolerance and unity to a divided country, to the largest television audience available, is something we should applaud. However, I doubt a single racist or bigot had an epiphany at halftime. This may have been a symbolic performance, but it was also an ad for Beyonce’s upcoming tour, for “Formation,” and for Pepsi.

And yet, the battle over the appropriation of symbols rages on. Just as winning a trolling battle on Facebook lends the illusion of one having actually done something, so too do the Grammys continue to tout their claim to a “rich legacy and ongoing growth as the premier outlet for honoring achievements in the recording arts and supporting the music community” – so says – while simultaneously ignoring all but the most screamingly obvious 1 percent of that music community. There are occasional upsets – Beck taking “Album of the Year” over Beyonce last year, for example – but for the most part, the Grammy Awards serves as an advertisement for the industry’s cash-cows.

So Taylor Swift, who will probably go home with a handful of trophies on Monday, is a symbol of “strong young woman making entrepreneurial headway in a traditionally male-dominated business,” rather than “middling songwriter who claimed to be a country artist but hopped on the dance-pop parade float as soon as she was able to.” That way, we can all feel good about her continued deification. Swift is just one example of this sort of symbol-embracing masquerading as artistic validation. There are plenty more where she came from.

I’m tired of being asked to get in line behind this platitudinous posturing. We’ve had enough of the symbols. It’s time for the real thing.


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