How horrible were the Oscars this year? Whether it be the corn-ball jokes of Billy Crystal, the non-stop feedback emanating from the microphone throughout every speech, or the shoddy production value within the montages – it all added up to what resembled a poorly managed dress rehearsal. And what was the point of all the interview clips with actors and actresses telling us why they like movies? With a show that went 40-minutes over time, these seemed unnecessary and a bit demeaning (do we really need to be told why we like movies?).
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With the Academy Awards tonight, I thought I’d post my all-time favorite Oscar moment. No, it’s not when Roberto Benigni acted like a raving lunatic, nor was Bjork and her swan dress. For me, a moment that I will always remember is when Elliot Smith graced the stage and performed his Oscar nominated song “Miss Misery” from the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack. He would go on to lose to Celine Dion for the schmaltzy “My Heart Will Go On”.
On that night back in 1997, I first discovered Elliot Smith. For a small town Iowa boy, an artist like Elliot was a complete unknown. But that night, watching him up on the stage, voice warbling, guitar squeaky, vulnerable and exposed, I fell in love with Elliot and his music. Elliot’s music led me in a new direction, not only in my musical taste but in life, and his songs would be the soundtrack to my confusing college years. Fortunately I got to see Elliot perform in Austin just months before his eventual suicide.
It’s crazy to think that one Oscar performance could shape my life so much. Who knows, maybe a performance tonight by Gwenyth Paltrow, Randy Newman, or Dido will have the same impact on some teenager lost out in the midwestern cultural vacuum, but I doubt it.
As Christina Aguilera stood at mid-field last weekend preparing for her Super Bowl flub of the national anthem, the announcer echoed in the background “Grammy award winning artist Christina Aguilera!” I giggled to myself finding this supposed “honor” to be a joke. The Grammys are about as respectable as Brett Favre’s dick pics. But this did make me wonder if the Grammys have always been so misguided. With another year of lackluster Super Bowl commercials, I soon after found myself researching the award’s history in the Album of the Year category (the only category that really matters), and what I found is that the Grammys were NEVER good. There is a pattern of ineptitude that reaches back all the way to the Grammy’s beginnings.
In the 1960s Frank Sinatra won album of the year three times, Barbara Streisand won in 1964 with the cleverly titled “Barbara Streisand Record”, and Bob Newhart won in 1961 (yes, a comedy album won album of the year). I have no problem with old blue eyes, but think of all the classic albums of the 60s not represented here. No “Pet Sounds”; no “Are You Experienced?”; no “Highway 61 Revisited”. Dylan wouldn’t win the award until 1998 – inexcusable. The Beatles were possibly the only deserving winner of the 60s with “Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1969, but even our cherished Beatles struggled to gain love from the Grammys with this being the only album of the year award they ever won.
This out-of-touch voting continued through the 70s with the awards beginning to insult the art form that is the album by awarding a live album (“The Concert for Bangla Desh”) and a soundtrack (“Saturday Night Fever”). I’m sorry, but neither of these should even be considered albums of the year. I’m sure the Bangla Desh deal was a good cause, and yes, “Saturday Night Fever” had some toe-tappers for the times, but album of the year? How much thought goes into basically making a disco mix-tape? Stevie Wonder won the award three times in the decade, which is all fine and dandy, but you won’t find any Neil Young (he’s never won any AOTY Grammys for his solo work), no David Bowie (ditto), no Black Sabbath (do I even need to say it?), and no Velvet Underground (…you guessed it).
(Also no Springsteen, Zep, Floyd, Stones, Kinks, Who, Mitchell, etc, etc, etc…)
In the 80s, they got their heads on straight for a couple of years, giving the award to John Lennon in ‘82 for “Double Fantasy”, to Michael Jackson in ’84 for “Thriller”, and in ’87 when they gave it to Paul Simon for “Graceland”. But these classics are over-shadowed by probably the worst decade of Grammy winning mishaps that included George Michael, Toto, Lionel Richie, and Christopher Cross (although Mr. Cross did have stiff competition in 1981 with Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra – Grammy zombies!).
In the 90s they figured things out, right? Wrong. This was the decade of awarding “Unplugged” albums, two of them in fact (and no, it wasn’t Nirvana or Alice in Chains). How can the album of the year be a recording of old dudes (Tony Bennett and Eric Clapton) performing their greatest hits acoustically?! You will not find one “grunge” album in the award’s history during the 90s, which makes sense, right? Who needs Nirvana when you’ve got “The Bodyguard” soundtrack? Plus, weren’t the 90s truly defined by Natalie Cole, Bonnie Rait, and Celine Dion?
The 90s also brought in another horrible pattern: the guest appearance album. In the past 20 years, artists like Quincy Jones, Santana, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock have each won for “albums” comprised from buffet-style track lists, a series of songs featuring a wide array of guest singers. Once again, I’m not saying these albums are necessarily horrible, and I understand this is a starting line-up for the rock-and-roll hall-of-fame (another confused music entity), but do they really fit the definition of what makes a great album? Does the voting committee even know what a good album is?
I’ll say it again: they are out-of-touch. And last year showed the award reach an all-time low with a ballot that consisted of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift (where’s Barbara Streisand when you need her?). Swift won the award because, really, what’s more thought-provoking than an album based on the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl. This year is not much better with Lady Gaga making a second appearance alongside Katie Perry, Lady Antebellum, and Eminem.
But there is one beacon of hope on this year’s ballot: Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs”. Some may disagree with me that it’s the best album of 2010, but I doubt anyone in their right mind would argue that it’s not the best in this line-up of hacks. Many writers believe Eminem will win which is hard to imagine considering “Recovery” isn’t even the best rap album of the year (Kanye West, The Roots, Big Boi). But then again, it wouldn’t be surprising if he won based off the voters past penchant for awarding artists who are over ten years past their prime.
You may ask why I even care. The Grammys have always be pointless; why would I even want Arcade Fire to win? Part of me doesn’t (it’s become almost an insult; a scarlet letter). Then again, the thought of an album off of Merge Records getting a Grammy? That would represent something big, an indie label winning the top award, a sign to the major labels that there end is near. Artists no longer need radio or MTV to succeed; thanks to YouTube, iTunes, Pandora, internet radio, and a plethora of other technological advances, people finally have the ability to decide what’s good on their own.
But I’m not filled with pure hate here for the Grammys. In fact, I’d like to see the Grammys become respected like the Academy Awards. When the Oscar’s list of the best films comes out, many rush out to see all the films before the awards. Can you imagine the same happening in response to the Grammys? The Academy Awards ability to build this excitement for their nominees is due to the fact that they don’t nominate films based on popularity; they nominate them simply on content. What a concept.