Why we make music, The Grammys, and what it tells us about modern music in society. Part II
With the welcomeness of an inevitable end-of-winter ailment, the 62nd Annual Grammys will
almost certainly take place in just a few days. Cobbling together a mix of
musicians, artists, showmen and sponsorships to bankroll the spectacle, it promises to serve as
a well-intentioned attempt at honoring the best and brightest achievements of the musical year,
even if its main utility is that of a Junior Varsity-esqe warm-up to the crown jewel of
Awards Season, The Oscars.
All cynicism aside, constructing an event like this that satisfies everyone is truly impossible,
and avoiding widespread ridicule and even condemnation nearly impossible. There exist myriad
factions and considerations that all must be addressed in order to keep the ceremony and
accolades musically relevant and financially feasible. Between pure art and pure business
exist a wide range of endeavors, and it is naturally narrower for The Oscars, as putting
together a motion picture almost always requires some level of collaboration or outside
assistance, not to mention a modicum of funding. The spectrum between the extremes is
contracted. On the other hand, a musical work can far more closely approximate the pure artistic
extreme; it can arise from just a woman and her guitar, or a man and his computer. Thus, the
gulf between the poles is expanded, and the job of The Grammys will forever be more difficult,
and their decisions more maligned because of the impossible balance they must strike between
music and commerce.
With that in mind, it is an interesting exercise to examine this years crop of nominees for
Record of The Year, the most accurate bellwether of the state of popular music. Album of The
Year may carry more emotional weight and might very well be the biggest, most coveted and most
important award of the show, but the stripped down simplicity of a song, in its recorded state,
reveals more about modern musical trends.
In Part I of this triad, I laid out what I considered to be the seven driving forces behind
1. Artistic merit
2. Emotional expression
5. To aid a child in sleep/Lullaby
7. Nothing else to do
With the goal of understanding the “reasons why” behind these selections, I have
unscientifically dissected them—in order of their listing on grammy.com.
Hey, Ma - Bon Iver
Storytelling is the first aspect that comes to mind. The copious use of the past tense in the
lyrics is a dead give away. Of course there is a good deal of artistry involved as well, but the
shape and composition of the song doesn’t truly stand out from a handful of other Bon Iver
songs, all of which are also great—but there is nothing groundbreaking here. It’s a great song
and that in and of itself is enough in an artistic sense, but probably not enough to win.
Oddly, of the eight songs here, it is the only one that, with little modification, has lullaby
potential as one of it’s three prime movers.
Bad Guy - Billie Eilish
It’s tough to decide whether artistic merit or danceability is the biggest catalyst behind this
song, but forced to choose, I’d take them in that order. Clearly danceable, the heavy beat and
vocal delivery are simple enough for anyone to keep rhythm, but the verse-breaks and shifts are
something different. An abrupt full-stop between sections, punctuated by an instrumental shift,
not to mention that the reliance on snaps and claps is reminiscent of the angular and unusual
sounds of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes. Some will remember her 2009 Grammy snub in which the
organization opted for a Robert Plant make-up award instead. Money may be in play on “Bad Guy,”
but mostly because a track this catchy and fresh is bound to cash in.
7 Rings - Ariana Grande
Emotional expression, money, or dance, order them how you like, for they are all intertwined. On
first glance it would seem natural to place the almighty dollar on top, as most of the lyrics
detail prolific spending. However, it is reported that 90% of the royalties will go to the
owners of Rodgers & Hammerstein publishing, so money isn’t the only reason for the existence of
this song—otherwise known as “My Favorite Things.” The emotional expression seems to be centered
around how great it is to have things and dance with your friends. It’s a fun song, but what it
portends for music if it were to take home the award is...well...it better not win.
Hard Place - H.E.R.
The title is telling. This is a love story that is full of soul. On top of the emotion and the
storytelling it also has a bit of a groove to it. “Hard Place” was written and recorded from the
heart, but it lives in a similar realm as Bon Iver’s “Hey, Ma,” and this, combined with the fact
that it is the only song of the group that is considerably over three and a half minutes (4:32),
will probably prevent it from winning. That doesn’t mean it can’t be played on repeat until
your friends make you turn it off.
Talk - Khalid
Tangential to “Hard Place,” but with less of the staying power, Kahlid puts plenty of emotion on
display, and cashes in on a hit that is enjoyable, but doesn’t take a lot of risk. Occupying a
genre and formula that is tried and true, it’s hard not to see money being a big factory in the
genesis of this song. To its credit, Khalid is a tremendous singer and it’s likely that the
vocal prowess increases the artistic factor of this song just enough to get it on this list of
Old Town Road - Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus
One of two duets in the group, it shares a lot in common with “7 Rings.” It is the same
mish-mash of emotion, money and dance, but less crass and far more original, not having taken
its cues from “The Sound of Music.” The intro is pretty cool, but mostly it’s an exposition
about having fun and living life. The pair make a great team, but it would be a shame for
this to win—popularity aside.
Truth Hurts - Lizzo
Over a basic but effective piano line, Lizzo’s off-kilter voice and left-field lyrics meld into
one unique sounding pop song that places her personality front and center. The pure oddity of
juxtaposing an almost boring piano cadence against colorful rap-singing is enough of an
artistic statement without adding her sheer joyful emotion in relaying the stream of thought
monologue. Sure, there’s a money factor in play here, but like “Bad Guy,” a tune this catchy and
bouncy is going to be effortlessly financially successful.
Sunflower - Post Malone & Swae Lee
Commissioned by the motion picture “Into The Spiderverse,” it would be dishonest to claim
anything other than money as the main reason behind this song’s existence. To the duo’s credit,
they took the task to heart and composed a quirky, flowery tune, chock full of well-timed
vocalizations over an ambiguous story that leaves listeners wondering who the “sunflower” is.
The duet trades verses seamlessly, not wasting the moment of the quasi-vignette (2:38). The
brevity here is as much a part of the artistic merit as the other aspects of the record and does
well to overshadow the original commercial intent.
This approach may seem a rather oblique method of analyzing songs, The Grammys, and music
at-large, but it shakes out a few ideas and interesting trends...that I will cover in the