Grammys and Grammy Watching

450px-GrammySo, the Grammys are coming up soon and they promise to offer the typical menu of pageantry, performers, promotion and implicit prior authorization of music purchases. (Like that? Cynicism and alliteration at once?)

I mentioned not liking awards shows earlier this week, but I didn’t really state my objections rather clearly. For sake of clarity, then, here are my issues (and, yes, my brother, I am saying ‘issues’ the way our father would).

  1. The Grammys are about making money: The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (which gives out the award) was created by Recording executives. The process of nomination and the doling out of awards is really just one orgy of promotion for the recordings peddled by the sponsoring companies.
  2. The awards in every category are really about selling the most or being the best-known: It is obvious that to win an award, people need to know about you, but it isn’t true that just because something is well-known it is necessarily good or that it is better than something that isn’t as well-known. Further, just because a larger number of people buy something doesn’t mean that it is aesthetically superior. If anything, ‘products’ in wide circulation are often rather non-descript and mediocre.
  3. Awards shows are solipsistic and self-congratulatory parties thrown by rich people for other rich people. I think that says enough.
  4. The Grammys are historically bad at gauging important contributions to music: Pearl Jam won a grammy in 1996 for “Hard Rock Performance”, four years after Jeremy. Grammy voters are older and part of the record industry or institutionalized enough that they are universally conservative. Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991; Nirvana) is often cited as one of the most important albums of the 1990s. The year it was eligible for a Grammy The album of the year was Unforgettable …With Love (Natalie Cole). The Alternative album of the year was Out of Time (R.E.M). The next year? Album of the Year was Eric Clapton’s Unplugged. Alternative Album? Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. (Nine Inch Nails and Red Hot Chili Peppers got some love in the Rock Category but SIR MIX -A-LOT won the best Rap Solo Performance Grammy!).

The Academy authorized THIS? Perhaps I should rethink my criticisms….

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New Album Review: Heritage Blues Orchestra

A few weeks ago I was driving (probably a little too quickly) to pick up pizzas for my son’s birthday party, I was lucky enough to have the radio on for the local jazz station’s weekly blues evening. The DJ was revisiting some of the releases from the past calendar year focusing especially on possible award winners in the upcoming and endless award cycle. When he introduced an album up for the Grammy for Best Blues Album and the Blues Music Awards for Best Blues Album and Best Traditional Blues Album I might have yawned (awards shows don’t always impress me). But from the first note to the last (I was late returning with pizza because I listened to five full tracks) this was the best thing I had heard on the radio in years.

The band? A group of talented and seasoned musicians who form the Heritage Blues Orchestra. The album? Their debut And Still I Rise.

Maybe the best album you'll hear all year

Maybe the best album you’ll hear all year

I don’t often like to get nationalistic or jingoistic, but we, as Americans, should take pride in our musical art forms, though not without first admitting that they were made possible by a particularly vile bit of history. The cultural blending from forced migration (i.e., slavery) and economically or politically motivated immigration created a violent and vibrant mixing pot (more a boiling and roiling stew than a true blend) that gave birth to the most influential musical forms of the last century: jazz, blues, rock, R&B, country, folk and hip-Hop all come from the admixture of our national heritages.

Of these genres, blues is probably the least well-represented in mainstream culture even though it may be the oldest, most pure and the granddaddy of them all. Blues musicians of the greatest talent labor in relative obscurity because the genre doesn’t have the catchy colloquialism of its rock, pop and hip-hop descendants or the Caucasian-approved art-house elevation of jazz. The repetitive and seemingly ‘un-original’ nature of its composition, moreover, makes blues seem less exciting to modern audiences

Unless, of course, you spend some time watching blues musicians and realize how talented they are (or learn to play a little yourself). When I was learning to play the guitar, my teacher—who could play an impressive range of genres with equal talent—spent time teaching me the basic picking patterns of piedmont and delta blues both as a way to give depth to my musical knowledge and to strengthen my hands for folk and classical pursuits. While I never became the guitarist he hoped (it was the nineties, power chords were all I needed!), I have never forgotten the feel for it or the basic twelve-bar blues.

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Songs of (My!) Year

So, we’re just about at the point where this blog has existed for a year. While there is something essentially arbitrary about this 365 day boundary—I mean, it isn’t like we really govern our years by the seasons any more…or something like that—but any boundary is at some point artificial (with the exception of death, I guess; there really isn’t denying that one).

There is definitely something to be said, however, for pausing a moment and reconsidering the way one has spent his or her time. As I have mentioned before, the younger Seneca, better known now for his tragedies and letters than his philosophical treatises, once remarked in De Brevitate Vitae that, contrary to popular opinion, life isn’t too short, most people just waste the time they have on this earth as to make it seem that way.

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Radio (on the TV!)

So, this recent holiday season found the southern franchise of the Family J stranded in our adopted state by work obligations and the horrors of traveling with small children. We made the yearly migration to our ancestral homeland in the north during Thanksgiving week and it nearly killed us.

So, this time we hunkered down, refused to buy plane tickets, and holed up in our sunny city watching Christmas unfold with an almost emotionless detachment. Well, that’s an exaggeration. We missed our families and the idea of snow. But we did not miss the insanity of airports, the steroidal consumerism of the modern holiday, and the 24/7 repetition of Christmas classics.

Since both the wife and I work, our children spend a good deal of every day at their daycare (although, don’t call it that, it is ‘school’!). So, when they are home for a long time without their usual routine, they get a little crazy. We went on walks; we went on needless foraging expeditions; and we listened to a lot of music.

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