The Grammys Have Never Had Credibility (And We Should Stop Pretending They Mean Anything)
On February 28, 1996, Pearl Jam won their first and only Grammy Award. It was for Best Hard Rock Performance for “Spin The Black Circle,” which had been released as a single nearly 16 months earlier. As the first single on Pearl Jam’s most spotlight-avoiding and experimental album, Vitalogy, the song is a passionate love letter to playing vinyl records, a message from a young rock band already sounding lyrically old and cranky in its rejection of the future of the music industry. The world was still five years away from Napster, and Pearl Jam was already fed up. (True to the message, Vitalogy was released on vinyl two weeks before CD. Keep in mind, people who purchased the vinyl actually got to hear the music two weeks before anyone else. There was no other way to get it.)
Despite not being one of their most memorable singles, easily overshadowed by the boatload of hits from 1991’s Ten, the Grammy Awards still honored Pearl Jam’s three-minute burst of thrashing nostalgia with Best Hard Rock Performance. Here’s the acceptance speech:
As with the changing face of the music industry, Eddie Vedder was pretty much right on.
“We just came to relax. I just wanted to watch the show. I hate to start off with a bang. I’m going to say something typically me on behalf of all of us. I don’t know what this means. I don’t think it means anything. That’s just how I feel. There’s too many bands and you’ve heard it all before. My dad would have liked it. My dad died before I got to know him. He would’ve liked it, so that’s why I’m here. Thanks, I guess.”
Then Stone Gossard, who wrote the music for “Spin The Black Circle” (the lyrics are all Vedder) came forward to give some thanks.
Now, before I’m accused of just sucking up to Pearl Jam, I’ll say that they haven’t released a great album since 1998, and I haven’t listened to any of their albums more than once since 2000’s Binaural, which isn’t a classic, but definitely has its moments.
But, that’s beside the point. The Grammys haven’t honored Pearl Jam since then, and you don’t get the sense that Eddie Vedder gives half a shit. For whatever reason, they seem to have risen above the common human emotions of pride and jealousy. Unless they’re really good actors, they just don’t take it seriously.
Not as much can be said for Kanye West, who is often correct in self-assessments of his talent, but seems so brutally offended by perceived sleights against him or his friends that he is willing to [GASP] not affirm the credibility of the Grammys!
News flash: The Grammys are a big joke and they always have been. Just think of the best music of any era. Okay, now go look at the Grammy winners from that time period. Love New Wave? Don’t get your hopes up. You won’t see Joy Division, Talking Heads or the Buzzcocks on any list of winners. Into the revolutionary indie rock of the 90s that practically invented today’s modern alternative music scene? Good for you. The Grammys do not care about Pavement or Guided By Voices (though, in fairness, Beck did receive his share of nominations before this year). Even today, the awards hardly reflect any critical consensus of what the best music is out there. Take Metacritic’s 2014 list, compiling all major critic lists to form a pretty reliable idea of the year’s best albums. Only a handful were even nominated for anything. The only notable recognition was for St. Vincent’s self-titled 2014 album, which won Best Alternative Album.
Run The Jewels 2, the collaboration between rappers El-P and Killer Mike, #3 on the Metacritic list and #1 on Pitchfork’s list of the best albums of 2015, was not nominated for Best Rap Album. Eminem won for The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which does not appear on either list.
Last year was even more egregious. In a category that had nominated Kanye West’s Yeezus, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, the Grammy Awards honored, with Best Rap Album, The Heist, by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Are you fucking kidding me? I mean, all art is subjective and all, but fucking Macklemore?
No, the song above and the album it came from don’t deserve prestigious music awards. But, am I angry that it beat Yeezus, a landmark of modern rap and an album that we’ll assuredly still be talking about in 20 years? No, not really. Because I know the Grammys are pretty meaningless and they don’t designate what will be loved and remembered by music fans anywhere. It’s for the same reason I’m not angry that Blood, Sweat and Tears’ self-titled album beat Abbey Road for Album of the Year in 1970. It’s not like anyone is arguing in 2015 that Abbey Road is an inferior album. We all know the score.
So, why does Kanye care soooo much? He has always been very fixated on accolades. Throughout his career, he’s ranked his music against others, and others against others. “Gold Digger” was the best song of 2005. Beyonce deserved to win the VMA over Taylor Swift. He even gave his own award away when he felt UGK and Outkast were more deserving at the BET Awards in 2007.
He’s just a fan. So are all of us! We’re fans of what we like. Some of us like Beyonce, some of us like Beck, and some of us like Kanye. I happen to like the music of all three! Sure, I acknowledge that Beck’s Album of the Year is definitely a make-up award for overlooking Odelay and Midnite Vultures, but I get why he won. And I get why Kanye was upset! He’s passionate about it.
But, here’s what you do when the artist you wanted to win didn’t win. You take a deep breath and recognize that awards are just for one night. They’ll have their Wikipedia entry, but awards aren’t what we hum to ourselves in the shower or listen to in the car to get ourselves pumped up for a job interview. It’s the songs themselves that we remember.
Kanye West has released some of the most groundbreaking music in the last 10 years, and he’s done it despite incredible distractions that have threatened to destroy his public persona. He gets to keep making music because he’s simply so damn good at it.