Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Conspiracy Theory?

A little over a week after the 2011 Grammys, which was without a doubt one of the most widely received programs of live pop music in years, the Academy is being slammed in another department: their distribution of awards.

Steve Stoute, a music executive with 20 years experience and a number of famed pop careers under his wing, took a full-page ad out of the Sunday New York Times to speak his mind on what he feels to be a conspiracy of Grammy distribution in the past five years.

"Interesting that the Grammys understands cultural relevance when it comes to using Eminem's, Kanye West's or Justin Bieber's name in the billing [but not when giving out awards]," says Stoute. "How is it that Justin Bieber, an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, did not win best new artist?”

The Academy has thus far refused to respond to Stoute’s qualms with the selection of winners, which tells us one of two things: they aren’t interested in dignifying his foot-stomping with a response, or they recognize that their choices were based on honouring talent only, regardless of how widely known that talent is. I'm going to side with the former...

I have to say, on this particular issue, I have many conflicting thoughts. I think the Grammys are extremely forward-thinking and contemporary in that they recognize people that even I was surprised to see recognized on such a grandiose level. Therefore, I truly believe that Stoute generalizing that the majority of the awards handed out were poorly chosen, is going too far. He can’t argue that the biggest musicians on earth being asked to perform, and then not winning awards, is a conspiracy. It’s the biggest musical night of the year, and the exposure, recognition and praise that the performing artists receive is none other than rewarding and in their favour. It’s just as beneficial to the artists (if we consider the YouTube hits and blog buzz that follows the next day) as it is to the show and their ratings. Did I mention it was the most-watched Grammys since 2001?

I do, however, slightly agree with Stoute’s argument regarding the Best New Artist category. I think the recognition of (without a doubt) unbelievably talented new musicians is merited, but we also need to have a winner that represents the larger audience’s preference and is a depiction of not only skill – but hype, craze and modern-day obsession. He makes a valid point when he says that certain categories, such as the Best New Artist category, need to consider many things – a large one being their effect on pop culture.

Although I personally didn’t want Justin Bieber to win Best New Artist, that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve to. I also don’t think that the beautiful and mindblowingly talented Esperanza Spalding should have. I think in this sort of category, which clearly needs to have its criteria published from here on out - it’s legitimate to point out that the Academy may seem out of touch. A Grammy “nod” or maybe even a performance from an artist like Spalding is a clear honour and testament to their recognition of her unbelievable ability. But a win in the Best New Artist category, over the top-selling, hysteria-garnering teenager who has, whether we want to admit it or not, taken the music scene by storm and surprise? It didn’t quite add up. Album or Record of the Year for Bieber? Maybe not. But an award that recognizes his scene-crashing career? Perhaps.

Now, on the other hand – Stoute challenged Arcade Fire’s Album of the Year win. All of my biases aside, his argument surrounding this showed Stoute's own bias (Stoute was vouching for the kinds of artists he used to oversee as an executive) and lacked fact. He says, “As the show was coming to a close and just prior to presenting the award for album of the year, the band Arcade Fire performed Month of May — only to ... surprise ... win the category and, in a moment of sheer coincidence, happened to be prepared to perform Ready to Start." Now, as I mentioned in a previous post, the closing performance was uncleared. And without knowing that fact, he could have observed the confused and bumbling (but charming) start to the song, and Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand’s befuddlement, and figured out that this performance was unscheduled. In a category like Album of the Year, the consideration lies in everything from vocal, instrumental and songwriting skill to creativity, innovation and sales. I can’t argue anything other than – Arcade Fire may have upset the other airwaves-dominating pop nominees, but regardless, produced an entire album that was nothing short of unbelievably deserving of this honour. Sorry if you aren't a fan of Arcade Fire, Stoute, but this isn't about you - times are a changin'.

In the end, Stoute insisted the Academy mend their processes to "truly reflect and truly acknowledge your art." Fair enough, and he definitely made himself heard – but this sort of advice needs to be given without generalizing the entire selection process. Certain criteria and selection justification might need tweaking - but for the most part, you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken.


  1. This article belongs in the Huffington Post, or Rolling Stone, or somewhere grandiose, where music lovers round the world would be able to learn from a true visionary like you. One day. And if not, then In the Round will soon be amongst the list itself.

  2. Part of me agrees with Stoute. It's fine and dandy for the Grammys to promote Justin Bieber, Eminem and Lady Gaga on stage for live performances, but another thing all together to give them awards? They're using these popular (and dare I say, more culturally-significant) artists to increase viewership and ratings but leaving them out to dry in the award categories.

    I'm not saying the Grammys owe these artists anything, but as talented as Spalding may be, her cultural impact is next to zero. Now, don't get me wrong, Bieber is a commercial fabrication, but his songs are catchy and resonate with today's audiences.

    So the argument becomes the following: should the Grammys reward the most talented artists (in their opinion) or the ones that the general public feel are the most talented? It is, of course, the "Grammy Awards", but nevertheless this issue is one to consider.

    I suppose Justin Bieber, Eminem and Lady Gaga will have to settle for the Teen Choice Awards if they want the public at large to determine who is most deserving for awards.

  3. On a side note, "The Suburbs" is by far one of my favorite albums and I am extremely happy that the Arcade Fire won. Did they deserve to win over Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katie Perry, etc? In my humble opinion, yes, but for the vast majority, no.