Editor’s Digest: Are the Grammys doing it wrong?

An album cover from "Best Rock Performance" Grammy winner Imagine Dragons

Why is pop music still stuck on the same old song?”: After the Grammys, music critics debated the artistic heft and merit of the winners in each category. But they might as well have argued Burger King vs. McDonald’s, as all of the debate focused on the song, one narrow, largely unimaginative form of music among dozens of possibilities for contemporary music. (Russell Smith, The Globe and Mail, January 29, 2014.)

Smith’s argument falls into that old critic’s canard of “if only you people shared my tastes, you’d make better judgments about music.” His article capably lays out his criticisms of the “pop song” and its limitations: a singer verbalizing a present emotional state, 4-4 time signature, the simplistic verse-refrain-verse structure (sometimes with a bridge), hip-hop differences that only provide variations on this format. He correctly points out the many forms of music other than the song that pop musicians could choose and that the Grammys could recognize (again, presumably if they used Smith’s standards of judgment). As a quick counterexample, did he forget Mike Oldfield’s instrumental album Tubular Bells, which won a Grammy in 1975?

Oldfield’s work aside, I agree 100 percent with Smith’s criticisms about pop music, both as a critique of the genre and an evaluation of the musically simple contenders that the Grammy Award evaluates and rewards. But imagine Smith’s criticisms leveled at the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Why doesn’t the Nobel committee look at nonfiction, or journalism, or scientific writing? Surely there are many more varied and interesting forms of writing other than mere literature.”

But that argument shows the conflation of writing with literature. The Grammy Awards for songs, like the Nobel Prize for Literature, limit the scope of what they evaluate to a very specific genre, of music and writing respectively.

Oldfield’s counterexample underscores this point. His Tubular Bells received an award in a different category (Best Instrumental Composition), albeit one not as celebrated as the “Song of the Year” award presented to artists such as Lorde, Beyoncé, and Adele, but awarded by the Grammy committee nonetheless. Smith wants the Grammys to fete different forms of music as much as they cherish and reward the song. But that would require a well-established, admittedly well-entrenched organization to change their standards, presumably to the ones held by Smith and those that think as he does.