Why we make music, The Grammys, and what it tells us about modern music in society. Part II

The Grammys

With the welcomeness of an inevitable end-of-winter ailment, the 62nd Annual Grammys will almost certainly take place in just a few days. Cobbling together a mix of musicians, artists, showmen and sponsorships to bankroll the spectacle, it promises to serve as a well-intentioned attempt at honoring the best and brightest achievements of the musical year, even if its main utility is that of a Junior Varsity-esqe warm-up to the crown jewel of Awards Season, The Oscars.

All cynicism aside, constructing an event like this that satisfies everyone is truly impossible, and avoiding widespread ridicule and even condemnation nearly impossible. There exist myriad factions and considerations that all must be addressed in order to keep the ceremony and accolades musically relevant and financially feasible. Between pure art and pure business exist a wide range of endeavors, and it is naturally narrower for The Oscars, as putting together a motion picture almost always requires some level of collaboration or outside assistance, not to mention a modicum of funding. The spectrum between the extremes is contracted. On the other hand, a musical work can far more closely approximate the pure artistic extreme; it can arise from just a woman and her guitar, or a man and his computer. Thus, the gulf between the poles is expanded, and the job of The Grammys will forever be more difficult, and their decisions more maligned because of the impossible balance they must strike between music and commerce.

With that in mind, it is an interesting exercise to examine this years crop of nominees for Record of The Year, the most accurate bellwether of the state of popular music. Album of The Year may carry more emotional weight and might very well be the biggest, most coveted and most important award of the show, but the stripped down simplicity of a song, in its recorded state, reveals more about modern musical trends.

In Part I of this triad, I laid out what I considered to be the seven driving forces behind music creation:

1. Artistic merit
2. Emotional expression
3. Dance
4. Remembrance/Storytelling
5. To aid a child in sleep/Lullaby
6. Money
7. Nothing else to do

With the goal of understanding the “reasons why” behind these selections, I have unscientifically dissected them-in order of their listing on grammy.com.

Hey, Ma — Bon Iver
Storytelling is the first aspect that comes to mind. The copious use of the past tense in the lyrics is a dead give away. Of course there is a good deal of artistry involved as well, but the shape and composition of the song doesn’t truly stand out from a handful of other Bon Iver songs, all of which are also great-but there is nothing groundbreaking here. It’s a great song and that in and of itself is enough in an artistic sense, but probably not enough to win. Oddly, of the eight songs here, it is the only one that, with little modification, has lullaby potential as one of it’s three prime movers.

Bad Guy — Billie Eilish
It’s tough to decide whether artistic merit or danceability is the biggest catalyst behind this song, but forced to choose, I’d take them in that order. Clearly danceable, the heavy beat and vocal delivery are simple enough for anyone to keep rhythm, but the verse-breaks and shifts are something different. An abrupt full-stop between sections, punctuated by an instrumental shift, not to mention that the reliance on snaps and claps is reminiscent of the angular and unusual sounds of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes. Some will remember her 2009 Grammy snub in which the organization opted for a Robert Plant make-up award instead. Money may be in play on “Bad Guy,” but mostly because a track this catchy and fresh is bound to cash in.

7 Rings — Ariana Grande
Emotional expression, money, or dance, order them how you like, for they are all intertwined. On first glance it would seem natural to place the almighty dollar on top, as most of the lyrics detail prolific spending. However, it is reported that 90% of the royalties will go to the owners of Rodgers & Hammerstein publishing, so money isn’t the only reason for the existence of this song-otherwise known as “My Favorite Things.” The emotional expression seems to be centered around how great it is to have things and dance with your friends. It’s a fun song, but what it portends for music if it were to take home the award is…well…it better not win.

Hard Place — H.E.R.
The title is telling. This is a love story that is full of soul. On top of the emotion and the storytelling it also has a bit of a groove to it. “Hard Place” was written and recorded from the heart, but it lives in a similar realm as Bon Iver’s “Hey, Ma,” and this, combined with the fact that it is the only song of the group that is considerably over three and a half minutes (4:32), will probably prevent it from winning. That doesn’t mean it can’t be played on repeat until your friends make you turn it off.

Talk — Khalid
Tangential to “Hard Place,” but with less of the staying power, Kahlid puts plenty of emotion on display, and cashes in on a hit that is enjoyable, but doesn’t take a lot of risk. Occupying a genre and formula that is tried and true, it’s hard not to see money being a big factory in the genesis of this song. To its credit, Khalid is a tremendous singer and it’s likely that the vocal prowess increases the artistic factor of this song just enough to get it on this list of nominees.

Old Town Road — Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus
One of two duets in the group, it shares a lot in common with “7 Rings.” It is the same mish-mash of emotion, money and dance, but less crass and far more original, not having taken its cues from “The Sound of Music.” The intro is pretty cool, but mostly it’s an exposition about having fun and living life. The pair make a great team, but it would be a shame for this to win-popularity aside.

Truth Hurts — Lizzo
Over a basic but effective piano line, Lizzo’s off-kilter voice and left-field lyrics meld into one unique sounding pop song that places her personality front and center. The pure oddity of juxtaposing an almost boring piano cadence against colorful rap-singing is enough of an artistic statement without adding her sheer joyful emotion in relaying the stream of thought monologue. Sure, there’s a money factor in play here, but like “Bad Guy,” a tune this catchy and bouncy is going to be effortlessly financially successful.

Sunflower — Post Malone & Swae Lee
Commissioned by the motion picture “Into The Spiderverse,” it would be dishonest to claim anything other than money as the main reason behind this song’s existence. To the duo’s credit, they took the task to heart and composed a quirky, flowery tune, chock full of well-timed vocalizations over an ambiguous story that leaves listeners wondering who the “sunflower” is. The duet trades verses seamlessly, not wasting the moment of the quasi-vignette (2:38). The brevity here is as much a part of the artistic merit as the other aspects of the record and does well to overshadow the original commercial intent.

This approach may seem a rather oblique method of analyzing songs, The Grammys, and music at-large, but it shakes out a few ideas and interesting trends…that I will cover in the final piece, Part III.

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