Fame Monster Unleashed

Fame Monster Unleashed

"'Oh, why won't anyone give me an award?' 'You won a Grammy.' 'I mean an award that's worth winning.'" -Exchange between Homer and Lisa Simpson

This past Sunday, Lady Gaga's outrageously over-the-top opening number loudly declared "here comes the fame monster." It's an apt description of this year's Grammy Awards. Unfortunately it was also the highlight of the show.

The Grammys have never really been good at acknowledging the happenings in the world at large, but this year the disparity was especially stark. Granted, not every talented artist in the world needs to be waxing about rising unemployment and the planet's growing underclass. With these phenomena undeniably here though, the smug self-admiration of the music business seemed to be an especial slap in the face.

The content of Gaga's performance might explain why the producers wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Gaga has built her young career on parodying celebrity culture, and her neo-surrealist medley juxtaposed her bizarre dress with her dust-and-grime covered backup dancers--workers of the "fame factory." After the first few bars of "Poker Face," I was thinking that Bertolt Brecht himself couldn't have done it better.

It wasn't long until it gave way to a typical Grammy number when she was joined onstage by Elton John for a rather lackluster duet. It was a portentous indicator. Despite being nominated in five categories and easily being the most original artist to puncture the pop mainstream in quite some time, Gaga would end the night snubbed.

Females definitely dominated the nominations on Sunday. On the face this might seem to be progress, but on a deeper level it revealed how, with a few exceptions, women still hold a second-tier position in music. When Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" won for best female R&B vocal, three men climbed the stage to accept the award--the men who wrote the song. In other words, a song written by men about how all women really want is to get married was being given an award in the 21st century. Beyonce would take home a record Grammys that night. 

In general, the statuettes were doled out to the safest possible nominees. Beyonce gained a handful, as did the Black Eyed Peas. Next to artists with far more creative daring--Gaga, Adele, Kid Cudi--these winners seemed to be treading paths that were blazed long ago. 

This was especially apparent in the best new artist category. One would think that this would be the Grammys' best opportunity to prove themselves aware of music's ever-shifting future. Out of five nominees, three were indie rock groups that have risen in the past two years: Silversun Pickups, MGMT and the Ting Tings. Whatever one could say about these groups' relative merits and shortcomings, it might have seemed that the music industry was finally taking indie seriously as a subculture. And yet, the statuette went to the Zac Brown Band, a country group whose only real innovation has been to reveal that Kid Rock's lifestyle still has a following.

To be fair, there were nominees and winners who are more willing to test the creative boundaries: India.Arie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, Bilal and Imogen Heap. None of these artist were nominated in televised categories, though, and this in and of itself speaks volumes.

This sleight of hand is what the Grammys are best at--taking the hierarchy of the music industry and making it seem horizontal. Haiti was, of course, a recurring theme throughout the night. Wyclef Jean maintained his self-appointed role as face of the Haitian people by thanking the United States for its involvement in the earthquake-shaken country.

His mirror image was acted out by Neil Portnow, head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, when he took the stage to self-congratulate NARAS for their support of music programs in schools. He didn't mention his close relationship with education czar Arne Duncan, who is giving the green light for charter schools in every major American city. Likewise, he opportunistically spoke against peer-to-peer file sharing, claiming the tired mantle of "protecting artists' livelihoods." No call for artists to be treated with respect by their labels, no demand for CDs or downloads to be affordable in the face of plunging living standards. Just the agenda of the music industry wrapped in populist clothing.

According to Portnow, we're all greeting the next decade under the same umbrella. This might account for the oddly futuristic feel to many of the night's performances. Beyonce and the Black Eyed Peas took the stage with costumes and set-pieces that looked like a suped-up version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Will.I.Am even ended his group's set with "welcome to the future." Hardly a thrilling prospect when more and more experts are predicting an upcoming "lost decade" for young workers.

Other performances were more ambivalent. Green Day's "21 Guns" was performed with the full cast of their recent stage musical version of American Idiot. Though their latest 21st Century Breakdown has been acclaimed as a rallying cry for young people, the feel of the performance had me wondering who could really take that cry seriously.

Even the tribute to Michael Jackson was tragically uninspired. Making anything related to M.J. unexciting is no mean task, but it also seemed to reflect the music industry's ongoing crisis. Many writers have speculated that there will never be another "King of Pop," another artist whose scope and influence reach such heights. If this is true, then what creek will the biz find themselves floating down without a paddle? And what does this mean for music in general?

The answer to this question might lie in the few moments when the spectacle dropped on Grammy night. When Eminem, Lil Wayne and Drake performed "Drop the World" and "Forever" toward the end of the ceremony, hip-hop's dominance couldn't be denied. Here were three performers--one back on top after years in the spotlight, one recent phenom and one who has created waves without even releasing an album (!)--who didn't need a flashy stage show. With little else but a modest light show and backup band, these three emcees owned the crowd. 

Songs and performances like these embodied the one thing that was otherwise missing from the Grammys: conflict. This side of a massive upsurge from the bottom-up, that's the kind of thing that a self-congratulatory award show can't possibly aspire to, and the years-long dip in ratings only highlights how many folks are aching for something more. By the time Taylor Swift won album of the year, there were probably a lot of people hoping for Kanye to rush the stage.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn.com.  His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, Z Magazine, New Politics, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.

Contact him, or subscribe to his mailing list at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.