I wasn’t going to write this. After discussing the subject with a couple of colleagues last week I figured, “ah, what’s the point?” Then I saw this video (below) and heard the song. So, at the risk of putting my finger back in the socket, here we go again:
Some of you who are regulars here, or live in Nashville, or have some connection to the music business, will likely recall the controversy that came to a head this time last year over the sudden rise of Linda Chorney — an “indie” singer/songwriter from New Jersey who pretty much came out of nowhere to secure a nomination for a Grammy award in the “Best Americana Album” category.
The controversy arose because a) nobody in “the industry” – especially the “Americana” insiders who regard themselves as the keepers of that particular musical flame – had ever heard of Linda Chorney and b) because she used the Recording Academy’s own “Grammy 365” social network to lobby for and ultimately win her nomination. To her advocates, Ms. Chorney had effectively “worked” the system. To her detractors, she’d “gamed” it.
I was rather surprised and disappointed at the response of the Nashville-based Americana community. I thought Americana should have embraced the nomination, rather than turning a cold shoulder toward it. After all, the genre defines itself as “…contemporary music that honors and/or derives from American roots music, period.” What could be more “roots” than somebody coming literally out of the reeds and convincing a “jury of her peers” that she was worthy of some recognition?
The furor that erupted over her nomination turned into something of an ordeal for Linda Chorney, who nevertheless made the best of her “red carpet” moment the night of the big show in Los Angeles. As she attests in a recent blog post:
The bullying really did hurt. I thought after my long, hard road as a musician, paying my dues, playing clubs for three decades, putting out six albums, and totally believing in myself, had finally paid off! This was the biggest break of my life. And instead, I was accused of cheating, and it was never emphasized in the media that I got there because a lot of people liked the album enough to vote for it. Plain and simple.
Say what you will about the Grammys and their declining relevance: as a lingering vestige of analog/industrial music in the balkanized digital era; or whether the selection process is fair or easily manipulated. Still, one thing cannot be denied: Linda Chorney got a great song out of her experience.
The Grammy Awards telecast that will be aired tonight will no doubt (and once again) be a triumph of spectacle over talent; Somebody will swing from the rafters, or there will be a pounding dance number with a cast of thousands and exploding pyrotechnics — hell, there may even be some memorable moments of music, if somebody like Adele just stands there and sings, or Mumford and Sons tears it up with banjos and acoustic guitars.
But I doubt that anything that happens on tonight’s Grammy show will be as touching – or pertinent – as “When I Sing” – a song I first heard when Linda came through Nashville last summer and performed a short set at a songwriter showcase. I was touched by the song then; now I think she may have translated her Grammy experience into a classic:
Now that you’ve seen the video, a few further observations:
1) The lyrics of the song express an essential sentiment that is too often missing in music in the modern era: that music – and singing in particular – is personal, intimate, and at its best soothes and elevates the soul.
All of the music that will be performed on the Grammys tonight will be included in the telecast primarily for one quality only: its ability to draw the largest possible audience. That is, after all, what the Grammy Awards telecast is really about: ratings.
It will also most notably be about other people singing, which is the great loss induced on our culture with the advent of the analog/industrial era: the pervasive belief that music is the exclusive province only of the most talented, the most worthy and the most deserving – and the rest of us just get to sit and watch and listen.
A song like “When I Sing” reminds us that the organic, transformative, soul-affirming power of music belongs to all of us, not just a chosen few who get to be on the TeeVee.
2) The video itself strikes me as unique in the annals of music video. Where are the prancing “video babes” that typically populate these musical mini-movies? Not here, obviously. Instead, the central on-screen image is that of a mature woman whose appearance bravely portrays the measure of her years.
Even more striking is the vocal that accompanies the visual. The appearance of the woman in the video may have changed with the passage of time, but the voice still sounds like that of a much younger woman, and the lyrics are conveyed with child-like joy. Therein lies another great power of music that is stolen when we let only others do it… the sheer joy of singing in our own voice, and with it, the recall of what it felt like when we first learned to sing…
3) Finally, the part that I wasn’t gonna bother to report: As it will likely surprise no one, there is still something rotten in Grammy-land.
The controversy that started with Linda Chorney continues to dog the Recording Academy today, both publicly and, apparently, behind the scenes.
Publicly, the same thing that happened to Linda Chorney in 2012 has been happening again in 2013, this this time in the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) category, where an otherwise unknown named Al Walser secured a nomination, much to the chagrin and outrage of EDM insiders. As reported in the Huffington Post (and elsewhere):
For the second year in a row, the Grammys are facing criticism for allowing a nominee in a field where some say he lacks credibility. Walser’s inclusion along with better-known artists Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris and Skrillex set off complaints about The Recording Academy’s Grammy365 social media platform that allows members to lobby each other when it comes time to vote.
Critics pointed out the problem when little-known singer-songwriter Linda Chorney scored a nomination in the Americana category last year and took up the cry again this year when Walser’s “I Can’t Live Without You” popped up in the dance category.
“I think the Grammys need to take a hard look at their infrastructure to make sure that something this disgraceful doesn’t happen again,” music producer and DJ Tommie Sunshine said.
Disgraceful? Really? Did somebody actually have the nerve, in this day and age, to say that it is “disgraceful” for a performer to stick his head above the radar, present his work to a body of his peers, and thus secure a nominal measure of recognition for doing so? Disgraceful? Did he really say that?
I guess he did. And like every asshole, Mr. Sunshine is entitled to his opinion. But if there’s any disgrace afoot, it’s in the way the Academy has responded to these controversies, not in the slate of nominees the process has produced.
When Neil Portnow, the president of NARAS was asked last year about the Linda Chorney dust-up, he defended Linda and the Academy’s procedures:
And Neil Portnow, the academy’s president, agrees. He says her story shows there truly is a level playing field for all artists.
“It shows everybody has a shot,” Portnow said. “That really is the truth.”
But now we find out that even as Portnow was defending the submission and selection process for Grammy nominees, forces were operating behind the scenes to assure that nothing like Linda Chorney’s nomination could ever happen again, at least not in the “Roots Music” categories like Americana and Folk.
This year a committee was created to filter the results of the nominating process. A very small, select body of hand-picked industry insiders considered the results of the first round of voting (for the nominees). From the fifteen top vote-getters, the committee decided who the five final nominees would be.
In other words, the way the nominating process works now, “You can vote for whoever you want, but we’ll decide who the winners are.”
If that’s how the Recording Academy wants to run its little charade, that’s their business. But what makes the whole affair truly “disgraceful” is that nobody in authority bothered to tell the rank-and-file that such a change had been implemented. Everybody who voted for a Grammy nominee this year thought they were voting according to the same procedures as last year. Little did they know… nor was anybody going to tell them.
Ah, what’s the point?
As Timothy Sexton pointed out amid the controversy last year, the Grammys have always been behind the curve:
In 1969 the Beatles recorded what went on to become their biggest single ever and a song that spoke to an entire generation with “Hey Jude.” So, naturally, the Grammy voters chose “Little Green Apples” to represent the best of 1969. “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols caused an explosion heard throughout the music industry that is still sending sound waves through the record business today….. Amid all that power from the streets of London, what did the Grammy voters view as the most important song of 1976? “Send in the Clowns” from a Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical.
As Sexton concluded in 2012, “How can you dilute the Grammy awards when they possess not a single shred of credibility?”
The Grammy Awards will be telecast tonight on CBS starting at 8PM Eastern Time and run for more than three hours.
But If you want a truly musical moment with considerably more than “a shred of credibility,” just scroll up and watch Linda Chorney’s “When I Sing” video again.
February 10, 2012