Maroon 5 and Other Injustices

One final note about last night’s Grammy Awards, in which Ray Charles posthumously won the evening’s two most coveted awards. I realize I shouldn’t take too much stock in award shows; art is, after all, a subjective medium, and just because a group of voters gives something its stamp of approval should never diminsh (or, indeed, enhance) what I consider to be great art. Yet that said, I feel as though last night’s Grammys offer a particularly egregious instance of award show idiocy run amok. I’m not talking about the award for Album of the Year–although I’ll have something to say about that in a minute. What I’m talking about is the Best New Artist award, inexplicably given this year to Maroon 5

It says here (and by “here” I mean the official Grammy website) that the Best New Artist award is given to an artist “who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist.” Maroon 5 did that, I guess, with Songs About Jane, an album whose inescapable lead single “This Love” is the kind of song for which AM radio and suicide help lines were invented. Their music is bland and uninspiring pap–in other words, the exact kind of music the Grammy Awards love to honour. Maroon 5 beat out four other nominees–one of which was Kanye West, whose album College Dropout was a musical phenomenon, held down the top spot in an endless number of year-end polls and should have been a shoe-in for, if not Album of the Year, then certainly for Best New Artist. The album is a masterpiece: bold, daring, inventive, memorable and ground-breaking, College Dropout is the sort of exciting music you would hope the Grammys would honour. Instead, they chose Maroon 5–a band I’d be willing to wager disappears sometime between now and 2006.

Of course, this category is legendary for having overlooked some of music’s most important artists. In 1992, for instance, Arrested Development won the Best New Artist award. I have no other idea who the other nominees were; I do know, however, that the preceeding year saw major label debuts from Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the Who, Led Zeppelin–none of them won it. But Milli Vanilli has…so go figure.

As for Album of the Year…well, I should admit that I haven’t heard so much as a song from the Ray Charles album–and for that reason am probably incapable of ranting about why it shouldn’t have won. But hear me out for a second. The top Grammy should, in my mind, be awarded to an album that defined the year in music; given that criteria, there is no way Ray Charles should have won, no matter how good his album is or how much he contributed to music during his admittedly legendary career. The past year in music was defined by two albums, College Dropout and Green Day’s masterful American Idiot, either of which would have been far worthier recipients of the Album of the Year award. Again, I haven’t heard the Ray Charles album…and who knows: maybe if I did, I would think that justice was served. What I do know, however, is that Charles had nothing to do with the musical zeitgeist of 2004–it was West, Green Day and, to a lesser extent, U2 that to me were the artists who defined the year that was. Ray Charles did not, and for that reason he shouldn’t have won Album of the Year. Not in my opinion, anyway.

Which leads to an interesting subquestion: is it valid to give an award on the basis of an artist’s entire body of work? Ray Charles’ Grammy was clearly given as a tribute to the man’s career…and I think that’s problematic. Bri, bless her heart, tried drawing a comparison between Charles winning Album of the Year and the third instalment of Lord of the Rings sweeping last year’s Oscars, and while I see where she’s coming from I also disagree. If that were the case, then Warren Zevon’s excellent final album The Wind should have won Album of the Year as well. Both were written by artists with an impressive body of work, both were written by men with terminal cancer, both featured a dazzling array of guest artists–the similarities are eerie. And the Zevon album is good…and received a grand total of one Grammy, for Best Duet (“Disorder in the House”, which featured Mssr. Springsteen on guitar and backup vocals). If Bri’s argument were valid–and I’m sure a lot of people would agree with her on this one–then Zevon’s album should have been given the exact same consideration as Charles’. The fact that it wasn’t proves something; what that something is I don’t pretend to know.

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll listen to Ray Charles’ album with an open mind and get back to you. Until that time, I’m going to listen to College Dropout, sing along to “Jesus of Suburbia” and wonder how an awards show as backwards as the Grammys has taken this hold on me.

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