Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] Unleashing the fame monster
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Review: Alexander Billet
======== UNLEASHING THE FAME MONSTER =========================================
And the Grammy goes to...the safest possible choice. Alexander Billet
February 4, 2010
/"OH, WHY won't anyone give me an award?"
"You won a Grammy."
"I mean an award that's worth winning."/
--An 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 a special 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 Elton John
joined her onstage 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.
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WOMEN DEFINITELY dominated the nominations on Sunday. On the face of it, this
might seem like 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 six Grammys.
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 itself 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
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 artists 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 U.S. for
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 souped-up version of Fritz Lang's
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.
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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 (which couldn't decide
between punk or Broadway) had me wondering who could really take that cry
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 does this mean
for the music business, and 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, the 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.
/This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts  Web site/.
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