Putting the Popular Back In Pop

Putting the Popular Back In Pop

Is pop music finally catching up with reality? It’s a loaded question. Especially when talking about the Grammys, an award show crafted by an industry for an industry. To take the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences at its word, music exists neither as expression nor labor, but as some mystical entity bestowed upon us by the exceptionally beautiful and gifted. In the end, the Grammys are intended as little more than a self-congratulatory cover for the very real exploitation that takes place when the cameras aren’t rolling.

This year’s show however, displayed some very real cracks in the facade. True, we were still subjected to the insufferable softcore pop of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. The sanctimonious ramblings of NARAS President Neil Portnow as he declared his commitment to artists’ free speech (unless you’re Eminem or Cee Lo Green) were equally unavoidable.

And yet, it was also hard to watch the televised ceremony this year without thinking something has changed. Indeed, much to the industry’s chagrin, it has. Already suffering album sales have been further weakened by the Great Recession, meaning folks are rethinking their relationship with music--in particular the way they procure and consume it. That same global slump has also, in the past twelve months, produced uprisings across the planet, many of which--especially in Egypt and the UK--have already been reflected back musically.

Some of the performances made this new reality absolutely impossible to ignore. Nobody could watch the set by Best Rock Album winners Muse--projections of crumbling banks, defiant protesters taking on cops--without conjuring up images of last year’s student rebellion in their native Britain.

Something similar could be said, albeit in a very different way, for Lady Gaga. As always, there are endless jabs taken at her outlandish aesthetics. But her whole performance--the egg womb, the spikes on her face and shoulders, her proclamation that she was “Born This Way”--was rather profound coming from a woman who has vocally stumped for both LGBT and immigrant liberation. Not only did Gaga win the statue for Best Pop Vocal Album, but the previous weekend saw “Born This Way” become the fastest-selling single in the history of iTunes! It’s a shift further proven by the return of a mature, equal-minded Eminem to success, who seems to have lost none of his skills on the mic.

Not that the proceedings were all caught in the here-and-now. NARAS kicked off the night with a tribute to Aretha Franklin, but the spirit of the Queen of Soul’s legacy was probably best felt when Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars and B.o.B took the stage. Here were three young artists of color refusing to be hemmed in by the limits of their “genre” while still showing some love for what’s come before. Ms. Monae in particular completely defies categorization. Soul? R&B? Pop? Afro-punk? Who knows? It’s an ethos so rarely seen in the post ‘60s mainstream, let alone at the Grammys.

Then there was the apparent return of folk-rock to the scene. The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons are both groups that have kicked around the indie world before more recently stumbling into success. Their own particular brand of rootsiness has more or less flown under the radar since Wilco blew up. For these groups to perform “Maggie’s Farm” with Bob Dylan himself at this point in time almost gave the song a different meaning--even if Dylan’s voice has started to sound like a gravel driveway.

The biggest coup of the night, though, came at the end when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs took Album of the Year. Even Arcade Fire themselves didn’t see that coming, but when it did, it signified in some ways the final arrival of indie music. According to singer Win Butler, the album "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs--it's a letter from the suburbs." The honesty of that letter, however, leaves one with a feeling that its subject matter--once the pride and joy of the American Dream--is now little more but an empty shell. All the more impressive that it earned the most coveted award of the night.

Of course, the marked shift these different moments represented made the remaining contradictions that much more glaring. Allowing a raving sexist pig like John Mayer to perform Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” as a tribute to the country legend seemed to only accomplish the opposite.

Even more of a dismay was the lionizing of a band with the name Lady Antebellum. The country came closest to a cleanup on Grammy night, taking home three awards for their song “Need You Now.” While allowing that the song itself is a truly rare accomplishment (a stripped-down country tune that doesn’t cash in on love-song cliche) it can’t be said enough how racially insensitive the name is. Says one contributor at the Racialicious website:

“[T]he band chafes me. It’s not the music. It’s the name. Lady Antebellum seems to me an example of the way we still, nearly 150 years after the Civil War, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, and in a supposedly post-racial country led by a biracial president, glorify a culture that was based on the violent oppression of people of color.”

It’s hardly a non-issue. Googling “lady antebellum racist” will immediately pull up a virulent defense of the name on the neo-Nazi Stormfront website. That alone is enough reason to challenge it.

And as always, there is the unavoidable funk of marginalization wafted from this year’s Grammys. Sade, the Black Keys, Stanley Clarke; all artists who won awards this year for some solid work, but weren’t deemed worthy of being televised. The worst omission of the night came during the “In Memoriam” sequence. We truly lost some greats this past year: Solomon Burke, Lena Horne, Bobby Charles. So where was Ari Up, singer of the Slits and trailblazer for women in the UK punk scene? Where was jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, whose Freedom Now Suite with then-husband Max Roach was one of the first albums to put the Civil Rights movement into sound. Apparently, NARAS thinks these were minimal contributions.

All of which is to say that there are a lot of fights left to be had both in and out of the music world. Obviously, none of these positive examples come close to watching an internationally televised, multi-platinum artist performing under a banner of revolution. That’s not where it’s at yet. NARAS isn’t going to let that happen without a lot of kicking and screaming.

But that’s the point: this year’s Grammys showed that NARAS does feel pressure, that they can be forced. Putting the music that matters to us onstage means understanding that the quality and urgency of our music is the result of good old people-power. If we can start to embrace that, then maybe we can say we finally put the popular back in pop.

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago.  He runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.