December 11, 2018, 3:20

Lorde Help Us, Here Come the “Woke” Grammys |

Lorde Help Us, Here Come the “Woke” Grammys |

The Grammy Awards return on Sunday night. And though it feels wrong to
side-eye the Recording Academy for finally engaging with the Zeitgeist
in a vaguely appropriate and judicious way, this year’s ceremony—the
organization’s sixtieth—feels like a semi-panicked concession to the
politics of the day. I suppose we’ll take it. Last year, Kanye West, Drake, and Justin Bieber all sat the show out; their shrugs reverberated. The R. & B. singer Frank Ocean declined to submit his album “Blonde” for consideration, and then
offered a brutal assessment to the Times:
“That institution certainly has nostalgic importance,” he said. “It just
doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where
I come from, and hold down what I hold down.”

Suddenly, the Grammys were tottering on the precipice of irrelevance:
one could practically smell the anxiety sweat seeping through the
freshly pressed tuxedo jackets. This year’s nominations reflect an
attempt to more accurately represent and exalt the cultural landscape—to
hold down at least some of what Ocean holds down—although voters continue to weigh commercial success at least as much (if not more than) creative merit or artistic risk-taking. (It also favors legacy: in 2011, the Montreal-based indie-rock
band Arcade Fire won Album of the Year in an unlikely upset, and it’s
been nominated again this year, in the Best Alternative-Music Album
category, for “Everything Now,” a jumbled, strangely static record
that’s largely considered the band’s weakest. It’ll probably win.)

Why don’t the Grammys take more chances? Awards shows are notorious for
being self-congratulatory—a tumultuous industry lavishly celebrating its
own survival, or high-fiving over how much money it made. If you make the mistake
of watching the Grammys in a cynical or exhausted mood, the program
becomes an absurd parade: already colossally successful people handing each other trophies that merely reiterate success that
was likely bought and paid for in advance, anyway. It’s also hard not to
read meta-narratives into the display: to sniff out precisely what the
Grammys think “woke” means, and how its executors are performing
enlightenment. The nominees for Album of the Year, the evening’s most
prestigious prize, include three rap records: “Awaken, My Love!,” by Childish Gambino; “4:44,” by Jay-Z, and “DAMN.,” by Kendrick Lamar. (Two
of the year’s most interesting pop releases, Lorde’s “Melodrama” and Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic,” are also nominated.) Lamar should—and, I
think, will—win, although, if Lorde takes it, viewers might be reminded
of Adele’s win over Beyoncé, last year, in which an instantly likable
record by a white performer overshadowed a complicated and angry record
by a black performer.

Two of the year’s most interesting singles by female artists were
relegated to lesser categories. The pop star Kesha released the best song of her
career—“Praying” wishes divine mercy for someone who hurt and betrayed
her, and seems plainly directed at her alleged abuser, the producer Dr.
Luke—but it was passed over for Song of the Year (it was nominated for
Best Pop Solo Performance). Likewise, the rapper Cardi B, whose “Bodak Yellow” was the first single by a solo female rapper to top Billboard’s Hot 100 since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” in 1998, was excluded from both the Song of the Year and Best New Artist
categories (the track was nominated for Best Rap Song and Best Rap

I’ll be rooting for some favorites: the War on Drugs’s “A Deeper Understanding,” which was nominated for Best Rock Album; the R. & B. singer SZA, who’s
up for five awards, including Best New Artist and Best R. & B. song; and
the National’s “Sleep Well Beast,” a deserving contender for Best Alternative-Music Album. I suppose I will also be rooting, in a nerdy and diffuse way, for the continuation of less glamorous institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, which supports
artists making idiosyncratic and often wildly unprofitable work. Then the Grammys can be fully enjoyed for the glittering, campy, and insular spectacle
they are.


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