Photo Credit: CBS.com
Have you ever heard the song “McFlurry” by the Sleaford Mods? Banging track. The outro consists of vocalist Jason Williamson mockingly chanting “I’ve got a Brit Award, I’ve got a Brit Award // No Surrender, No Surrender // Animal, five-day bender,” imitating the attitudes of overblown rock stars celebrating dubious awards in a played out fashion. Man’s got a point.
Let’s examine the Grammys briefly, arguably the biggest music award show on earth. The Grammys (Grammy being short for gramophone) began in 1959 and were founded as a way for musicians to honor each other formally and publicly for special achievements within their respective categories. But, very quickly, cracks appeared. In 1967 a group called The New Vaudeville Band beat The Beatles, for example. The complaints about the Grammys’ voting system, which is more or less the system used for most awards, generally break down thusly: Who is nominated and who votes?
Those who are nominated are the most obvious gripe, but also the most telling. Many, but by no means all, music awards use sales as the prime indicator of “value.” This sounds like sound enough logic until we take a look at some of the questionable songs that sold units historically. For example, “Eye Of The Tiger” by Journey, you know, that Rocky song? That jam went platinum. 4 times. This brings us to the next issue with this mess.
Who votes? This issue is slightly more complicated as it varies widely by each award system but it goes to the heart of why these events tend to be both shiny and meaningless. The Grammys have a sitting board that both nominate and award, whereas in other awards there is a more direct voting system. The problem here is one of taste. Whether it is a member of a voting board or a member of the general public, there is still no guarantee that said voter is in touch with the various and complicated currents that make popular music interesting. What may be popular may not stand the test of time. Looking at you, Rocky song. And what evades mass public interest at first may have a profound impact later, as was the case with punk rock informing what we would later call grunge.
The weakness in these systems has caused some memorable controversies. Jethro Tull got the album of the year in ‘88 over Metallica when Tull had been irrelevant since 1975. Herbie Hancock got the album of the year over BOTH Amy Whinehouse and Kanye West in 2008. There is also the fact that since the Grammys became a thing, only 11 black artists have won album of the year. However, that may be less a “weakness in the system” and more “racism.”
We don’t crank up the gramophone anymore to access our favorite tunes, though I’m pretty sure some hipster somewhere has an RCA victrola they lovingly polish. We stream from dozens of providers, and we download from thousands of websites. We buy records and CDs directly from the band themselves in the comfort of our own homes. Some of us even still listen to the radio. Music has become pervasive in our lives in a way our grandparents could not have possibly imagined. We can be immersed in it like a warm bath from waking to sleep. Even in the bath. The boundaries between the creator of the music and the audience are extremely blurred now and getting more obscure by the day. Nevertheless, the importance and the pivotal role that music plays in world culture remains constant and well defined. The future is here, finally, and we no longer need a shiny and expensive event to tell us what is good. That said, if you own a Brit Award, good job.