Top of the pops

As the red carpets, champagne flutes, and stressed out assistants are rolled, boxed, and…well, rolled…from the Grammys to the Academy Awards, it might be a good time to reflect on our award culture. I am particularly interested in our propensity to pile awards upon those whom we’ve already rewarded. For example, at the Grammys, the album, song and record of the year are often by the same artist (Adele scooped up all but the last this year), and often by an artist or group already overloaded with opportunity and resources. What purpose does it serve to award an award for achievement in popularity? Wouldn’t a higher purpose be served if we rewarded artists for musical excellence?

Part of my irritation with the Grammys in particular comes from the (one assumes) NARAS-sponsored idea that the major awards are genre blind. But there isn’t a single non-pop artist among the winners of the Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year or Best New Artist, at least not that I could find. And I would argue that as long as pop music rules the Grammys, we’ll never reward musical excellence.

I’m no hater. I love pop music. You might argue that I make my living from it. But making good pop music requires a different set of skills, a different creative team,  different fans, just a different community than making good music. That’s because pop isn’t a musical genre.

I know that sounds insane. Here’s my argument: musical genres are defined by the practices, ideas, and resources that bind together industry performers, critics and fans in making a distinctive form of music. Music crafted for specific types of venues or alluded to by reference to a commercial category should be treated as non-genred music. Non-genred music is created to attract an audience, but not to attract “fans,” because fans discriminate on the basis of musical distinctions and conventions. Pop is best considered as a chart, a way of doing business, or as a target demographic for producers, but not a musical genre. And so it’s kin are Tin Pan Alley, Broadway show tunes, and other commercial music (e.g., MOR, music for lovers, easy listening, and world music).

One good illustration of the fact that the Grammys celebrate pop (and not musical genres) is demonstrated in one of the new 2012 Grammy categories: the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category pitted the Foo Fighters (who won, incidentally) against Mastodon and Megadeath. That’s almost as insane as having The Beach Boys reunite in order to perform with the band of a reality TV show judge. Oh, right.

We obviously have other models of contests. There are beauty pageants, spelling bees and other amateur skills-based competitions. We also have competitions based on expert opinion within music. The Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Critics Poll is one important example. The poll surveys hundreds of music critics who specialize in a wide range of styles and then sums the results into album and singles categories. This year’s high scoring artists included the truly wonderful and inventive tUnE-yArDs, PJ Harvey, and Wild Flag, along with top commercial artists including Adele and Jay Z and Kayne West. Heck, Azealia Banks’s self-produced single “212” won the 6th spot and Lana Del Ray’s “Video Games” tied Britney Spears for #7. Banks and Del Ray consumed more column inches than artists with twice-longer resumes, and are certainly both (for better or worse) innovative in their way.

The danger that popularity contests pose for musical innovation will be the subject of my next post. Until then, I look forward to reading your thoughts on our award culture.