Jazz vs. the Grammys
Herbie Hancock, laughing all the way to the bank
No, not the Utah Jazz, but rather an entire genre of music scored an unexpected ‘triumph’ at The Grammy Awards last night with Herbie Hancock’s most recent duets album, “River: The Joni Letters” upsetting both Amy Winehouse and Kanye West for Album of the Year. I use the word triumph in quotes because winning Album of the Year at the Grammys has very little to do with actually ‘winning’ anything (except hopefully more album sales). Yet the result immediately sparked a controversy among commercial music pundits and a strangely surly article by NY Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff that inadvertently exposes the uselessness of the Grammys as a yardstick for creative achievement. I’ve honestly never appreciated the Grammy Awards, mostly because I don’t think they make any cohesive sense and the criteria for winning is shrouded in confusion. And I still don’t understand the difference between “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year’. But to place Herbie Hancock in a category with the Foo Fighters, in the same category with Vince Gill, next to Kanye West and Amy Winehouse is just bizarre. Not only are they not in the same food group, they shouldn’t even be in the same aisle. This is a direct reflection of the unfocused thrashing of the recorded music industry in general. And to choose ‘the best’ of them seems strangely juvenile.
In his article, Ratliff suggests that Hancock’s album (which he calls “Grammy-ish” – red flag there already dear reader) was really an artistic compromise between both the pianist and each of his collaborators that although diluted the mojo of those involved, ultimately soothed the savage Grammy beast with its “chastened” drums and “almost drowsy” properties. “Institutions like to congratulate themselves,” he writes. Not a ringing endorsement for either the album or the validity of the awards. “‘Good taste'” (his quotes) is the suggested reason for Hancock’s win. I suggest that the Grammys should not try at this stage in the game to become tastemakers (too little, too late, I say). Instead, they should be concerned about the most seemingly callous of things: people buying records.
The Tony Awards (for Broadway theatre) were specifically created to drive ticket sales, plain and simple. They are strategically placed in the beginning of the summer, immediately before peak tourist season, to help visitors to Broadway select which show they’ll plunk down their Benjamins for. The record industry should be doing the same thing. Grammys for everyone! It’s almost like that already, given that there are exist (separate) categories for Best Recording Package and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package. (The existence of the oft-ridiculed “Best Album Notes” category doesn’t bother me so much as it points to the non-existence a “Best Lyrics” category. I mean, what’s more important? The words in the song, or the words describing the words in the song?)
The real winner in all of this? Herbie Hancock. He’s too much of a cultural giant to be disrespected by his fellow nominees, and he’s too much of a bad-ass to actually care that he won. He may embrace the recognition (and the extra royalties) but hopefully it won’t affect who he is as an artist. The irony is that the Grammys awarded the one person in the category who doesn’t need it and for whom it will ultimately have the least impact, unless he does nothing more than make duet records for the rest of his career. In the end, like record labels, the Grammy awards are slowly but surely proving themselves disposable.