07 March 2011

This newfangled music: Are the Grammys better at being hip than the Oscars?

Now, if you know me, then you already know this. If you don't, let me lay out a few things on the table: I'm not much of a hip music lover who is down with all the latest trends on the underground or the mainstream music scene. I'm more a movie guy, or even a TV guy, than a music guy. I don't own an iPod or an MP3 player of any sort. I don't even have a portable CD or tape player. All my music listening is done right here on my laptop, or in my car, or on whatever radio station happens to be playing at work. What few CDs I own are primarily greatest hits compilations from classic rock legends from the '60s, '70s, and (to some extent) the '80s... and the Smashing Pumpkins (they didn't really fit into those other headings, but I love 'em). Oh, and Muse. My most elaborate collections come from the oeuvres of the Beatles and Rush, and I own a couple CDs here and there from Barenaked Ladies. All of which is to say: I'm vaguely aware that more contemporary artists/musicians/pre-programmed Auto-tuned pop robots like Ke$ha, Willow Smith, Justin Bieber, John Mayer, Drake, and the Black Eyed Peas; however, most of the time, I'll have a hell of a time pointing out whether a song is the product of one of these or differentiate between them.

Every once in a while, however, I'll try to at least make an effort to understand what most people my age listen to, at which point I will head down to my local music store (nothing too niche; generally HMV) and procure some of this newfangled music. I went on a bit of a spree to that end of late, purchasing Brothers from the Black Keys, The Suburbs from Arcade Fire, and Fantasies from Metric -- mainly on the strength of one overplayed single on the radio that did a particularly good job of not making my ears bleed or making me launch for the "seek" button. All of which is to say, I do like some music out there right now.

The Black Keys album has a groovy, hard beat to it that's infectious even if some of the songs pick up more steam than others. ("Tighten Up" was an apt choice for a single, but I rather enjoy "Everlasting Light" and "Howlin' for You.") In addition, for those who like to judge books (and CDs) by their covers, the Brothers cover is one of the best covers I've come across for its witty bluntness.

Go ahead. Try and not chuckle.

Metric is just as toe-tappingly good, if not more so. I freaking loved "Stadium Love" so much that after buying Fantasies primarily because of it, I discovered it also contained songs that had flittered onto the radio previously that I had actually quite enjoyed, and now enjoy even more in their proper context. The lead singer's voice is downright lovely; try and not be a little captivated by it. And the songs maintain a boppy, pulse-pounding rhythm while amazingly not sacrificing the wit of the lyrics, which remain thoughtful and playful in equal measure. Apparently, their previous work was even better, as some have suggested Metric have sold out with Fantasies. If this is the case, I'd be OK with some more artists selling out, since it actually gets me to pay attention to them and discover what others have already known.

Best of all was The Suburbs from Arcade Fire, which I bought after overhearing how it (rather surprisingly) won Album of the Year at the Grammys and having previously enjoyed the odd song from the Montreal-based group. The Suburbs is a real album, in the sense it once meant (or maybe I'm just projecting my idea of what it should be): a group of songs linked tightly together thematically and sonically but that are all strong enough to stand on their own. The album starts off with an exhilarating bang and never really lets up, although it does shift sound styles from more snappily acoustic to the soaringly orchestral to the percolatingly (is that a word? it should be) wondrous electronic. It is a bona fide masterpiece, fresh and eclectic and serious and fun. I'm not overly familiar with who else was nominated at the Grammys and their particular strengths and weaknesses, but this seems like a dynamite choice to win the biggest music award of the year.

Which brings me to the other point of this post: the relative merits of awards ceremonies to accurately express and capture the atmosphere of their respective media (music or films) that particular year. People say negative things both about the Grammys (the biggest and flashiest of the music awards) and the Oscars (the biggest and flashiest of the movie awards). The Grammys have far too many categories to the point where some of the awards are basically useless; I'm reminded of the Simpsons episode wherein Elton John meets Homer Simpson and generously gives him one of his Grammys, which Homer considers a backhanded compliment and promptly throws it in the trash. The Oscars are by now considered stuffy and out of touch with the youth and the cinematic trends of today; for Pete's sake, it took them until 2001 to have a category for animated films?! And they're egregiously overstuffed, with the worst-offending ceremonies taking almost four-and-a-half hours to fully unspool.

I didn't watch the Grammys this year, nor any year to my recollection. But the awarding of The Suburbs of the biggest award seems like a far wiser and simpler way of connecting with the current musical atmosphere while simultaneously valuing real quality than the similar attempts of the Oscars this year to appear fresh and in touch to movie lovers. As much as I liked The King's Speech, which took home the biggest Oscars of the night, it hardly wowed me in doing its particular thing to the extent that The Suburbs did. It was well put-together in most measurable aspects, particularly in the fields of acting and general art direction and technical competence. But while it can be admired and even stir some emotions, it never surprises or thrills. The Suburbs really does. The Social Network, the main competition to The King's Speech, really did, and had it won, we might not even be making this comparison right now. And while this last Oscar ceremony was shorter than some of the recent behemoths, its hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, sometimes looked good but never really connected with the audience. In addition, only a few of the acceptance speeches really went anywhere interesting, and some of them went interesting places that left a nasty aftertaste in the mouth (see Melissa Leo).

This has been a lot of completely tangential, apples-to-oranges comparison. I really don't know whether the Grammys as a whole can be considered fresher than the Oscars, but both awards ceremonies certainly seem to be trying in that direction, to varying degrees of success, and with the once-mocked Grammys coming out, for now, on top -- according to my narrow view. While there is great music out there right now (as I have lately discovered), as well as great movies, awards shows only rarely tend to accurately honour them, being designed, by necessity, by committee. I guess we'll just have to wait and see whether my completely slipshod theory holds true in the coming years. For now: good work, Grammys.

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