Bon Iver, The Grammys, Art, Music, The Universe and Everything

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A friend of mine called me last Sunday evening while I was hosting my radio program Audiosyncrasies to inform me that Bon Iver had won two Grammy awards.  

Their (or Justin Vernon's, to be precise) self-titled release was on my "best of" list for 2011 and that album was one of the few that I actually cared about.

I usually pay about as much attention to the Grammys as I do, say, Jersey Shore, but with the nominations of real musicians like Bon Iver and Wilco in the "important" categories, I thought I'd check them out.

Bon Iver deservedly won the Alternative Music Award. Despite the outrage from Nicki Minaj's fan base, he also took home the statue for Best New Artist as well. I thought it was interesting that he won that particular award when it was his debut release a few years back that created the big splash. I guess the nominating committee didn't get the memo that year. I remember when Shelby Lynne won the Best New Artist award with the release of her fifth album I Am Shelby Lynne. Wilco (who didn't bother showing up) lost to the Foo Fighters in the Best Rock Album category.

While I was doing my show and back-announcing the names of the artists, I realized that most of the music I program, play, perform and listen to on and off the air would and could never be nominated for a Grammy.  

Last year there were 109 categories. This year there were 78. As Ohio University and most of the rest of the progressive world talk about cultural diversity and inclusion, the Grammys dropped Native American, Hawiian, Zydeco and Cajun and Polka from the proceedings, while merging the traditional and contemporary labels, thus eliminating five awards in the R&B, Blues, Gospel, Folk and World categories.  

Most of these genres are now lumped into something called Regional Roots. This year, Hawaiian slack key guitarist Geroge Kahumoku Jr. competed against polka great Jimmy Strurr and zydeco stars C.J. Chenier and Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys. The New Orleans brass band, Rebirth Brass Band, won. To me, that makes about as much sense as Metallica duking it out with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It was weird enough that Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse were nominated in the same category as The Black Keys for best duo performance, but Eddie Vedder's Ukulele Songs was nominated for best Folk Album.

In the 78 awards remaining, most are for mainstream pop, rock, hip hop, country and dance. Nine of the 13 Classical categories remain. There is still an award for Best Album notes, Best Boxed Set or Special Edition Release and Best Packaging but none for Latin Jazz and one–count it, one–category for the whole rest of the world, Best World Music Album (the great Malian Touareg band, Tinariwen, won it this year.) Neil Portnow, the president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, stated at the the time of restructuring that the Grammys would now be "a balanced and viable award."

A protest was staged outside the Staples Arena before the award ceremony, supported by Herbie Hancock, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Ruben Blades, Bobby Sanabria, Paul Simon, John Carter Cash, Alison Krauss and Esperanza Spalding. Over 23,000 signatures were submitted on the petition demanding the reversal of NARAS's Decision. Jesse Jackson stated that the eliminated categories "constitute the very heart of the music that nourishes and inspires minority communities." You can check out a petition at http://act.presente.org/sign/grammys.

Watching video clips of Nicki Minaj's levitation and Katie Perry's vampy alien act (didn't David Bowie do the same routine 40 years ago?), I realized just how out of touch and far away I am from the distant planet of the mainstream American pop music industry.

The Grammys have always been criticized for being somewhat lame and rewarding commerce over art and culture, but this year's controversy added fuel to the fire. If you think Top 40 pop radio sucks, how awful can the award show be that bestows accolades upon the perpetrators who occupy this wasteland?

Also, it seems that the producers of the telecast, hoping for some sort of credibility, want to be everything to everybody, trotting out pop music's flavor of the month next to dinosaurs like the Beach Boys. I wonder how that worked out.

I thought the published tweets during program were revealing, especially "WTF Who is Paul McCartney? IDGAF." I don't expect the kids to know musicians like Bonnie Raitt (whose tribute to Etta James with Alicia Keys was a high point) or Tony Bennett, but Paul McCartney? I guess he's no Justin Bieber.

Oh well, I've heard it said that 90 percent of everything is garbage, especially in the world of popular entertainment. I'd say 90 percent of the remaining 10 percent is seriously suspect as well. I suppose I should be somewhat relieved that the most commercially successful release of 2011, Adele's 21, was also a musical success as well, and was recognized by sweeping six of the major awards. How did that happen?

So back to Bon Iver. Justin looked incredibly out of place in his brown suit and blue shirt while addressing a room filled with the rich and glamorous. His acceptance speech was a little awkward but humble and honest: "It's really hard to accept this award…there is a lot of talent that isn't here tonight," he said. "It's also hard to accept because when I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I'm a little uncomfortable up here. With that discomfort, I do have a sense of gratitude. I want to say thank you to all the nominees and all the non-nominees that have never been here and never will be here."  

Mark Hellenberg is the music director for WOUB Public Media. He has hosted WOUB's Audiosyncrasies for 28 years and hosts the program Crossing Boundaries weeknights from 7-10 p.m. He has performed on over two dozen recordings, including Eric Kunzel and Cincinnati Pops Orchestra's Celtic Spectacular (the producer won a Grammy!), has been a member of the Athens-based roots-rock band The Wingnuts for 25 years and his band Ratchet Mountain Rock Farmers won first place in the Traditional Band category at last year's Appalachian String Band Festival. He has performed on NPR's Mountain Stage and All Things Considered, and most recently can be heard on the soundtrack of Ken Burns' Prohibition.