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Grammys 2013: Gently down the mainstream

Can we just decide whether or not to respect the Grammys? Can we make a collective decision about whether they’re worth anything at all? It wouldn’t be all that hard. We all know that winning a Golden Globe is like winning “most likely to succeed” in your high school yearbook poll but that winning an Oscar is essentially the closest thing you can get to achieving immortality on this earth. There’s a pretty clear consensus on that.

But for some reason, we just can’t pin down the Grammys. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we’re even grateful they exist so they can tell everyone in the world that Adele is the bomb. Most of the time they just piss us off with their bland choices and lack of any deep or significant thinking about or reflection of today’s music. Let’s be honest, to use the word “mainstream” when describing the Grammys is pathetically redundant. Inevitably, every year the Grammys reveal the deep divisions in the music listening public. Because seriously, who are Bon Iver and Esperanza Spalding? Who the fuck are they? Who is Arcade Fire? And The Black Keys? (Answer to the last question: badasses.)

Maybe our real problem with the Grammys is the inconsistency: one year they’re satisfying the masses by praising the simplest formulas and the next year they’re tipping their cap to those fringe artists who apparently have laid claim to “hip,” to “real,” to “good.” In 2009 the album of the year was by Robert Plant and Allison Crouse and then in 2010 it was by Taylor Swift. Just think of the years, generations, and musical tastes that separate these two “country” productions. Or how about when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won in 2004? Remember how that “album” has 30 songs, sold like a million-billion copies, and is still kicking ass 9 years later? Maybe the problem is that we don’t know and have never known what the word “mainstream” means, and can only give it boundaries by pointing out what it is and is not.

We use the Grammys’ “general field” like anxious middle-schoolers desperately trying to figure out what music is. Iin middle school I bought every Guns n’ Roses album ever recorded—true story.) Maybe the Grammys are an extension of an eternal existential crisis between mankind and those strange, appealing, mesmeric sounds we first made in a cave somewhere. Maybe they shouldn’t have changed the dress code.

Then again the answers could be front of me. Show me the light, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

This year it was laid out for us in the candidates for Record of the Year. It was all there is plain English—all the genres, all our different opinions, all the strange/thin/useless distinctions that make up “pop” and “indie” these days. Do I call Frank Ocean or Fun or Gotye mainstream? I really don’t want to. On the other hand it should be easy to call Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift mainstream. But is that fair? What does it achieve? The general field this year proved more than anything that music snobbery is not as easy a sport to play as it used to be. Calling anyone mainstream in the era of instant, virtual dissemination is a desperate attempt at ordering a musical universe quickly losing the manichean distinction between taste and profit. Meanwhile I just want to call The Black Keys and talk to them for 10 minutes if they have some time to spare.

Gotye’s victory with “Somebody That I Used to Know” is perfect. Not because his song is better or he deserves it more, but because it so perfectly describes our imperfect perceptions of the state of music today. Gotye is “indie” in a way that many listeners haven’t encountered. He produces independently and has made only three, quietly released (excluding Making Mirrors) and critically acclaimed albums. He’s so indie that he isn’t indie at all. He’s more of an experimental artist than a professional musician but still made a song so overplayed– that even Psy is jealous.

Gotye’s first album was in 2002, his second in 2006 and his third won Record of the Year. Do we call him a one-hit wonder or an alchemist who perfectly blends what’s popular with what’s progressive and interesting? He symbolizes the imagined hierarchy that has dominated music industry for decades—those conspiracies and plots by big business that help what’s popular make money and what’s alternative stay cool.

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