The Grammy Sized Elephant in the Room
It’s no secret that record labels are suffering financially these days, big and small alike. Digital piracy costs the industry billions of dollars in lost revenue each year, making it tough to recoup the money invested in new artists. It’s not uncommon for a major label to spend over $1 million breaking a new act in the U.S., and the cost of putting out an album for a superstar like Beyonce or Lady Gaga can be astronomical. Getting that money back is tough when fewer people pay for music, and while independent labels are significantly impacted by piracy, I don’t think that’s what’s killing the majors.
What’s killing them is shit music.
I watched the live broadcast of this year’s Grammy Nomination concert on TV and… ok, that’s not entirely true. I watched as much as I could bear. Which meant I was flipping the channel often, and using the mute button more than the Nielsen Ratings people would approve of. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy much of the Top-40 drivel being peddled, but I was absolutely flabbergasted by the level of ineptitude deemed worthy of appearing at this concert.
Kicking things off was Katy Perry and her insipid training-bra-maxi-pad-hairspray jingle, “California Girls.” Note to the Grammys: Artists that can’t sing without a recording engineer Auto Tuning them do not make for a good first impression. I would have preferred it if she’d lip-synched the song; at least that way she could focus on dance moves and I could have enjoyed some primetime titty shaking. Later on, after her flat and uninspired performance, Perry was interviewed and, honest to God, she wears so much makeup that you’d need a putty knife to scrape it off. I mean, she doesn’t even look human. It’s one thing to manufacture pop music, but to actually have Madame Tussaud’s wax dummies on stage shows how desperate things have become. Capitol Records: this artist is a cornerstone of your label and she blows. This is why you are losing money.
Unfortunately, Perry’s catchy tune was a highlight of the concert, which, it soon became obvious, was more enjoyable for its rubbernecking train wreck appeal than for any musical highlights. Speaking of which, what a great segue into the horror that was Train’s performance of “Hey, Soul Sister,” courtesy of Sony Music.
There’s a chapter in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude where one of the Aurelianos (or one of the Jose’s, who can keep them straight?) is loaded onto a train with thousands of corpses and left for dead. The sole survivor of this horrible journey, nobody in the village believes his tale, and he dies alone and without vindication. I would choose to ride that train a million times rather than watch “Hey, Soul Sister” again — even with the sound off. The decrepit middle-aged singer is the kind of guy I can imagine my mom having a crush on, and once again the concert was fronted by a singer who cannot sing. I do give him credit for one thing though. He gave his dance moves a real college try, despite having zero mobility in his waist. Maybe his caregiver forgot to rub Ben-Gay on his back before the show.
When the Best New Artist nominees were announced, I was disappointed, but not surprised to hear Drake’s name. I hate to do this because I’m Canadian, I live in Toronto and I like to support local acts, but… fuck Drake. His album sucks. I cannot believe the hype it’s getting. I know there must be something about it since everybody is freakin’ for him, but in my opinion, Thank Me Later was one of the biggest disappointments of the year. The album is devoted to this self-serving wanker whining about how famous he is. Congratulations Universal! You struck a winner with the Diet Coke of hip-hop. Zero calories, zero flavor.
I thought that nothing could sink the show further, and I was right. If Drake is Diet Coke, B.o.B.’s “Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuhthin’ on you babe,” is Diet Sprite: No calories, no taste, and no color. This performance was so PG-13 I felt like a pervert just for watching it. I haven’t heard an emcee with less flow since Lep In The Hood. Chalk up another one for Atlantic.
In my opinion there were exactly one-and-a-half highlights. The sole redeeming part of the show was Bruno Mars’ acoustic version of “Just the Way You Are,” a welcome departure from the overproduced album version of the song. Mars has talent as a songwriter and is gifted with a beautiful voice. Stripping away the pop aesthetic and letting his talent shine was a rare moment of truth and honesty that was otherwise lacking.
The half-highlight? God help me, it was Justin Bieber. I can’t believe I am publicly admitting this, but his acoustic version of “Favorite Girl,” was at least proof of some kind of musicianship. The kid can sing; maybe one day he’ll lend his voice to some decent songs, instead of the waiting room fodder Usher has him pumping out now.
I’m not surprised that the Grammys will remain largely irrelevant this year. Apart from a few nods to some decent acts (Arcade Fire, Florence + the Machine) everything was pretty much as expected. What does surprise me is that record labels are still able to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into pop acts that often have the shelf life of Camembert. How many Katy Perry’s can the public swallow at once? How diluted can hip-hop get before it’s unrecognizable? And is there an end in sight?
I think there is. Along with digital music and digital piracy comes the spread of digital information in ways that major labels seem unprepared for. While other businesses, organizations and media outlets recognized this fact long ago and have adapted, the major labels go about business as usual. They manufacture the musical equivalent of pimento loaf and tell us that it’s prime rib. The public is too perceptive, armed with too much information, and too cynical for this to work much longer.
My hope is that this recession will pummel the last nail into the major labels’ coffins and we’ll see smaller labels with integrity thrive. I hope we see the return of thoughtful music to the mainstream in the near future. There’s plenty of good music out there, and plenty of struggling artists waiting to be discovered. The Grammys may never honor them, but at this point, who cares?