Understandably, a lot of attention among music-minded people this week has been focused on the 2014 Grammy Awards. It’s a blue chip event that is always nationally-televised during prime time and this year it attracted over 28 million viewers. But these awards are something of an anomaly in a society where there ceases to be less and less of a normative American culture and where the mainstream media continues to have less and less of an impact on how people get their information. The Grammy way of compartmentalizing music into a dazzling array of ever more meaningless-seeming genre categories often feels forced. And, though lip service (if not actual airtime) is given to a whole host of musical traditions from Tejano to bluegrass to opera, Album of the Year and Record of the Year (for a single) are still the most important awards and are inevitably given to commercial popular music, making all the other awards somehow feel like consolation prizes.
In 2011, there was quite a kerfuffle among “beliebers” when jazz bassist, vocalist, and composer Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy, since jazz was not supposed to get such a mainstream endorsement. It actually made me very hopeful. An award like Best New Artist (aside from perniciously promulgating the specious concept of a “best”) at least does not attempt to segregate music according to marketers’ notions of who the potential audience for it will be, so theoretically it could be won by someone making any possible kind of music. The award this year, of course, went to the duo of rapper Macklemore and DJ Ryan Lewis. Their “Same Love,” a persuasive rebuttal of the all too frequent homophobia and misogyny in hip hop lyrics, ultimately did not snag the “Best Song” award, though as everyone who has interacted with news media this week already knows, their performance of it during the Grammy ceremony while Queen Latifah officiated weddings of 33 couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, stole the show.
But all of this made me wonder: how might the Grammy Awards operate if they jettisoned the whole concept of genre distinctions? The fear, which is justifiable given the history of these awards, is that if the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences were to eliminate all of these various niche specificities, the only music that would receive their kudos, and ultimately all the publicity that comes along with that, would be “pop songs” since they are allegedly the most “popular.” But we all know that popularity is coded language for “commercial viability,” something that is difficult to fairly access since—in our society—how something gets propelled into the public consciousness to the point of being able to be a “hit” is largely the result of well-coordinated and well-financed promotional efforts.
Loads of people used to complain about how Tower Records’ classical music department was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the store, something which further fostered the notion that only initiates were welcome there. But at least that extremely well-stocked department was in a store that contained all other kinds of music. Compare that to the paucity of selections offered in stores that don’t have separate departments. This is not just an issue limited to “classical” music. As for the Grammys, back in 2011, the Recording Academy downsized its awards from 109 to 78 categories and music that was formerly called attention to further receded into oblivion. I, for one, miss the polkas!
After those 31 awards were eliminated, Bobby Sanabria, whose funny and poignant anecdotes livened up one of the plenary panels I attended at the 2014 Chamber Music America, led a crusade to have NARAS reinstate the Latin Jazz Grammy and he succeeded. Paquito D’Rivera, a remarkable musician who can navigate his way both compositionally and interpretively through any musical tradition, fetched this year’s honors. So that’s a victory, but it’s somehow bittersweet in that it puts a limit around how people who watched the awards will identify him. I was delighted that Maria Schneider, a previous winner in the jazz category, was the recipient of the award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition and that Cyndi Lauper—who had previously been nominated for Best Female Rock Vocal, Best Traditional Blues, and Best Dance Recording and won Best New Artist back in 1985—won this year for Best Musical Theatre Album. And yet, there’s another best composition award called “Best Instrumental Composition” (usually reserved for non-classical recordings despite the fact that most of the winners of the Best Classical Contemporary Composition category have been non-vocal). The 2014 winner for this category was Pensamientos for Solo Alto Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra by the late Clare Fischer (1928-2012), among the favorite composition students of H. Owen Reed (whom we paid tribute to on NewMusicBox earlier this week). Though Fischer was “classically trained” and Pensamientos was composed for and performed by “classical” musicians, Fischer also worked with Prince and Celine Dion which I suppose made his composition qualify for this “non-classical” honor.
Many of the most creative minded people in American music cannot be pigeon-holed. By awarding their achievements on the basis of such specification, we are ultimately doing a disservice to their achievements.