Why we make music, The Grammys, and what it tells us about modern music in society. Part III
Modern music in society
Before delving into who could win, should win, will win, and what it all means, it’s imperative to mention two global shifts that are crucial to understanding the music industry, and thus understanding The Grammys. First, the money game has changed. Like The Oscars, The Grammys have increased their number of nominees, now considering eight songs for Record of The Year, up from five just two years ago. Has music quality improved by 60% in recent years? No, it has not, but the need for more sources of traditional revenue have, and an accolade like “Record of The Year Nominee” helps to sell downloads, sell tickets, and build an artist’s name. It seems that these monikers are commercially relevant to sales. As mentioned in Part I of this series, money is a completely valid reason for creating music.
But expansion of the nominees reflects an even more important trend, and that is the need to cater to an ever-fragmented musical demographic. With the decentralization of modern music production, The Grammys can no longer count on only five nominees to capture the interest and imagination of a large enough listening populace to be considered relevant. Twenty years ago most music fans would readily recognize all five songs and artists from a major category like Record of The Year. This is not necessarily true today due to many factors: the disappearance of radio, a rise in automatically created streamed playlists, and an endless list of genres and ability to envelop oneself in them. There needs to be some financial grease to keep the artistic gears from freezing and so the overall focal shift to more nominees, more popular fare, and more streams of revenue should not be surprising-ominous signals notwithstanding.
Another macro trend of note is the relatively short duration of the nominated songs. No one expects “Thick as a Brick,” or any other twenty minute, multi-part marathon to squeak into the discussion, even if the category expands to a full 64-song, single elimination tournament. It’s more than coincidental that half of this year’s songs are less than three minutes long, with only one being over four minutes. A cynic might lament that the hyper-frenetic pace of modern life, combined with ever dwindling attention spans necessitates this compression, but that is only the smaller of the two causes. The real change is less of a change and more of a return to The Normal. In the musical generation before LP albums became a major medium of consumption, 45s and radio delivered singles to the ears of listeners, and with this in mind, the artists composed their offerings accordingly. Short, catchy songs once again dominate the realm of American pop music, and in turn the major categories of The Grammys. The often deleterious effects of this reversion is a topic for another time.
Returning to the award itself, it is helpful to place the eight songs into what I see as three readily apparent groups:
Great songs that are unique and inventive
“Bad Guy,” “Truth Hurts,” “Sunflower”
“Hey, Ma,” “Hard Place,” “Talk”*
Songs that are…songs
“Talk,”* “7 Rings,” “Old Town Road”
*I feel that “Talk” could live between categories 2 and 3, or conversely, at the bottom or top of either of them respectively.
A couple of patterns that I discussed in Part II jump out immediately. The songs in the top tier are the ones that displayed the most artistic impetus when looking at their raison d’être. Novel and at times unusual, the trio of tunes could swap out lyrics or change tone entirely and they would still be great and memorable. This cannot be said for any of the other five candidates. On level 2, the common thread is their emotive nature. Sure, there is a smattering of storytelling and heapings of talent, but these are not, “I’ve never heard a song like that,” songs. The artists wrote these because they felt something-something that they needed to express that can only, or at least best be done through music. At the bottom of the pile, the main reason for creating the records, is in one way or another, about money. They revolve around, a tried and true formula (“Talk”), a bankable pairing (“Old Town Road”), or an existing classic (“7 Rings), all of which are direct routes to the pocketbook. To top it off, the subjects of “Old Town Road,” and especially “7 Rings,” appears to be boasting about possessions and in the latter case, shopping.
Breaking it down in this fashion, it wouldn’t be hard to winnow the eight back down to the traditional, five-candidate field; it’s the top tier plus “Hey, Ma” and “Hard Place.” However, this is where things become interesting. When considering which songs have the best chance to win, I immediately gravitate towards “Bad Guy” and “Truth Hurts.” “Sunflower” is incredibly nifty, but a motion picture song hasn’t won since 1999 and that movie was Titanic, at the time the highest grossing film of all time.
Conventional wisdom would then assume “Sunflower” to be a darkhorse and “Hey, Ma” and “Hard Place” to be moonshots, but here lies the rub. If not “Bad Guy” or “Truth Hurts,” the other two songs that really have a chance to win come from the bottom group-”7 Rings” and “Old Town Road.” Although we’ll never know what would have been, it feels safe to say that had The Grammys played by the old rules and selected only five nominees, the aforementioned records would have bumped Bon Iver and H.E.R. from the finalists…
…at which point it comes down to money and popularity. There is nothing wrong with the winning song being the most profitable, and to be profitable in music means to be popular. Neither should being popular be a disqualifier in and of itself. “Sunflower” can easily be thought of as a modern-day, artistic commission, but the creativity and the heart overshadow its commercial seed, and it would have been a great song without the Spider Man tie-in. It’s popularity is unquestionable. According to Spotify, on their platform alone, the song has been played nearly 1.3 billion times! Mses. Lizzo and Billie don’t seem to lack popular appeal either-witnessed by their performances on Saturday Night Live-and brands like Apple, Tropicana, Absolut, Urban Decay and Calvin Klein have wagered that they’re safe bets to be profitable. It would be unfair to fault The Grammys and its voters for selecting a song that is wildly profitable and popular, even if it means eschewing a better work to keep the industry alive. Complain as much as one will, if the hardware was handed to Ariana and not H.E.R., but if those were the two choices, it’s easy to see the wisdom considering the current state of the industry. What would befuddle me is a choice for “7 Rings” or “Old Town Road” when placed aside three other nominees that all check the necessary boxes of cash and fame.
Ariana Grande likely is, and will be, more lucrative over the course of her career, and “Old Town Road” is easily the most inoffensively popular tune of the year. It would be a terrible, incremental trade-off to forgo the qualities of art, story and emotion manifested in the other three contenders, but maybe The Grammys, and ourselves by proxy, are happy to make this trade. Is this what is most important to us now? The seven spurs of what drives humans to make music may actually be eight. Fame, popularity, notoriety, pride, or a sense of self-worth through universal recognition may be a new catalyst for musical creation in 2020.
In the end, this year’s Record of the Year isn’t about who should win, but about who shouldn’t win. When there are popular and profitable choices that also display other important musical motives, selecting a song that only serves the muses of fame and fortune is sadly telling. It may appear to be “just a silly award,” and in some ways it is, but it is also representative of our music at-large. And our music has always been a strong indicator of who we were, who we are, and what is really important to us going forward.