Earlier this evening British folk-act Mumford & Sons’ blockbuster album Babel won the top prize at the 55th Grammy Awards—Album of the Year. Although the achievement came as a surprise to the band, it didn’t feel that way to those who pay close attention to the awards: As Forbes‘ Zack O’Malley Greenburg wrote earlier this week that Las Vegas oddsmakers had it as the likely winner. The group’s middle-of-the-road spin on folk is pleasing enough to garner enough mass appeal and critical accolades without inciting a lot of ire, which not only made Babel a success but also made Mumford & Sons the safest choice for Album of the Year. Grammy voters have always appeared conservative and out-of-synch with the vanguard of music and Mumford & Sons’ big win underscored those claims and validated my decision to not watch the award ceremony.
The Grammy Awards always appeared to be the black sheep of the big annual entertainment industry awards: Somehow the idea of a consensus pick for, say, the year’s best film or sitcom seems more rational than cherry-picking certain musicians based on “achievements in the industry.” In an age when anyone can record an album, upload it to the Internet, and find a mass audience outside what’s traditionally considered “the industry,” the notion that a single award can represent something resembling the “best” of such a wide and increasingly immeasurable pool of candidates is quite baffling. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t comment on the depressing outlook of the music industry, which is part of why the pop and circumstance of the Grammys feels out-of-touch.
Then again the Grammys have a history of going against the grain of popular consensus long before technology helped erode almost every sense of singular popularity in pop music. Earlier this evening a friend reminded me that Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down beat out Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer for the “Album of the Year” in 1985: History has since looked kindly upon Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A., while most folks would probably scramble for their smart-phones searching for some kernel of information about Can’t Slow Down. (Gawker has a pretty great list of other Grammy goofs.) Time certainly helps reveal odd choices, but it also shows that when it comes to popular music the idea of consensus might be easier to figure out decades after the fact then it is in the present. When it comes to finding some shared perspective on which musicians qualify as “the best” the easiest method is to consult the canon of popular music for those bands that have become historically important.
The key term there is “become,” as the history of modern pop music changes in a way that the general public’s opinion of certain musicians and albums have changed over time: Certain bands may have been unknown during their careers only to become “legends” decades after breaking up. The biggest barometer for cultural capital when discussing pop music history is “influence,” a word trumped out to assess the value of an album and band—it doesn’t matter if a record, say, won a Grammy then, it matters how people react to it now. There’s a famous saying about proto-punk pioneers the Velvet Underground that succinctly summarizes the way we mythologize modern music: “The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Yet those groups that are critical favorites don’t fill up the entire canon, nor do they always appeal to popularity. As Grantland’s Steven Hyden has underscored with his recent series on successful mainstream rock and roll groups, “The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll,” extremely popular bands have also had an extraordinarily strong influence on pop music, even if they aren’t always heralded by critics. The first group Hyden profiled in the series, Led Zeppelin, was initially trashed by critics and elitist rock fans, though it’s fair to say that the band has since ascended to the top of the canon. Zeppelin was (and still is) popular and can easily be regarded as a historically important group—and yet the band never won a Grammy before drummer John Bonham died. That’s odd considering Zeppelin was a monolithic chart-topper in its time, and even odder in retrospect.
It’s often quite hard to pin down a distinct mass opinion about a new album or a new artist, never mind having to come up with some sort of consensus to award a select few. The concept of pinpointing the definitive “bests” feels like an impossible task: As much as the people behind the Grammys may feel like they’ve made the correct decisions when it comes to awarding the year’s best musicians, songs, and albums, the results usually feel wrong. Tolong Share ya ^^