February 6, 2023 Musicology No Comments

Should it have? Probably not. But neither should any of the nominated songs. It’s no great disaster. The music industry is, in the view of some at least, and there’s perhaps something to be said, as there often is, for a teaspoon of conservatism that’s at work here. Without it, Chat GPT could be the ghostwriter of a Song Of The Year before my kid goes to college. I am not kidding. I am not wrong.

The dumbest reactions on Twitter went something like, “Who the hell is Bonnie Raitt?” (Robert Glasper received similar.) The less viscerally frustrated went reasonably to the mechanics of things and talked about splitting the vote. That’s valid, the math factors in. And the system does have predictable biases; the block of older people among the Academy voters is going to vote as older people. Younger voters will gradually overtake and eventually replace them. But by then they’ll be older themselves. These are asides.

The real reason is probably this: Very generally, as long as music people are the voters they can be expected to defend a tradition of composition, for a while longer at least, as the accomplishment preferably of a singer-songwriter, and sometimes a partnership ideally where one is principally the lyricist and the other puts the lyrics to music. They are going to defend against the acceleration toward music as a commodity and performers as products; both of which have proven to be rational business plans, but for musicians — yes, particularly older ones — they’re bitter pills best swallowed as far into the future as possible.

There are some bad reasons that might have played into this as well. The organism that we call the Grammy’s is sentimental and gives lifetime achievement awards surreptitiously through this sort of unexpected result. At some point, Steven Spielberg will perhaps get another Best Picture Oscar and it will be for a mediocre movie but also surreptitiously for E.T. and Poltergeist. That will be wrong too, but time will tell if we look back on it fondly. Also, Raitt is an icon who can play plenty of guitar and has a huge legacy of great songs. One of which is an enduring treasure. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the best songs of all time.

And she can sing. This too needs to be defended. AutoTune will eventually damn a decade of otherwise decent music to complete obscurity when we wake from our mass hallucination and realize how silly it looks on us, right up there with cosmetic surgery.

Madonna by the way can champion outrage all she wants. It has its place. But music awards aren’t going to be about outrage any time soon. There are rewards for being controversial, but they just don’t get engraved and put on the mantel. Literal trophies possess a sacred quality. History will, I’d imagine, reward the Grammy’s for however long it can continue to champion people who can play an instrument and sing. It will go away. Writing songs by committee according to formulas mapped to predictable or disuptively innovative revenue streams that bring joy to millions is virtuous. And there are the MTV Music Awards for that.

The Grammys are less of a popularity contest. We’d be just as outraged if it were more of one. Harry Styles won Album Of The Year for Harry’s House, but As It Was, the single that might have taken SOTY, is one of the least worthy songs on the album. Then what would the award stand for? It would stand for the formula. Song Of The Year is a composition award. It’s noble that this award is not trying to free itself from tradition.

The great Bonnie Raitt wrote and performed “Just Like That,” by herself. It’s good. It didn’t beat a “Leave The Door Open” caliber song. It beat a field of mediocrities. This is not a Jethro Tull type head-scratcher. This is fine.

Written by Brian McBrearty