Music industry blogger Bob Lefsetz begins his Grammys breakdown with a reminder to ‘those expressing displeasure with the Grammy telecast, that we know longer live in a monoculture”. Lefsetz astutely observes that the Grammys are a holdover from this period in which the networks ruled the televisual realm and the major labels controlled the popular music industry. For Lefsetz, the ‘monoculture’ ushered in by the music television era has been swept away by the emergence of the Internet and the fragmentation of the music and television marketplaces. Lefsetz poses the key question concerning the Grammys – does anyone really care anymore? – but he does not deign to provide a meaningful answer. I want to address this question by looking at what it means to ‘care’ and the relationship between this investment and a given pop event’s social utility.
On that note, I think that the Grammys are just as useful as ever, even if they may be less ‘meaningful’ in economic terms (the music industry’s preferred currency). Forbes.com states that ratings shot up by 35% for last night’s telecast, which followed an 11% ratings increase the year before. The numbers were particularly strong in the desired 18-to-49 age category. Clearly, people are once again watching the telecast, even if one cannot be certain that most viewers ‘care’ about the popular artists and their music in the same way that they did in days gone by.
As a means of probing this development, I want to hypothesize that the same technological innovations that have brought about the end of this putative monoculture have also enabled people to discuss events such as this – often in an ironic, cynical, or actively disinterested way – in the virtual realm. I believe that this has, in turn, helped to bolster interest in programming of this nature. It may not be a coincidence that Grammy ratings began to rise in 2007, once Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook and Twitter achieved mass popularity. Users can now consume the program as a sort of collective spectacle; they need to no meaningful investment in the material on display to involve themselves in the commentary fray. At the same time, the disparate observations that amass in newstreams and twitter feeds reconfigure the old rock/pop dichotomy; the major-label music industry is constructed as a monolith whose output registers as superficial mass culture in opposition to the great beyond of worthy and eclectic alternatives. Thus, the people may not ‘care’ about the Grammys in the same way (or the same numbers) as in the era when Michael Jackson first thrilled us, but they still use their virtual profiles to discuss the program’s tribute to him, Taylor Swift’s lamentable performance, and the relentlessly mediocre intergenerational duets that dotted the line-up. While there is nothing new in these performances of disinterest – music fans have been defining themselves in terms of what they don’t like since the dawn of the industry – I think the effect of this new iteration on mass spectacles such as the Grammys is a notable occurrence.
A prominent Canadian music critic put it best last night when he posted on Facebook that he “…would have started watching the Grammys years ago if the live-blog/Twitter peanut-gallery combo had existed. Fun way to spend a Sunday night, makes me feel like a music fan even. Lil Wayne 4Evah.” Of course, the critic in question is undoubtedly an avid music fan, but he means that this combination of broadcast and interactive media has given him a new sense of collective fandom pertaining to so-called pop music. Like so many others, he may not ‘care’ about many of the artists involved in last night’s blow-out, but he recognizes that the event now has a significant amount of use value as source for real-time cultural debate that fosters bonds with others. Where he might not be one to attend a dedicated Grammy party, he is content to enjoy the discussion on Facebook as he casts the odd eyeball at the telecast.
One might posit that, for many viewers, the Grammys now serve primarily as an overblown spectacle that helps one to identify with music through one’s displeasure (or guilty pleasure) at the sight of pop’s biggest stars doing their thing in a gussied-up hockey arena. One can catch the performance highlights (or lowlights) the next day on Youtube, or read news stories about the victors, but the capacity to have an experience of collective debate, acclamation, and disapprobation in real time lends the Grammys a new utility as a music television (and television music) event. This might not be of too much help to the struggling major labels, but it does underscore the fact that industrialized popular music fans continue to need their stars and spectacles, if only to provide fodder for collective rituals of celebration and denigration in the virtual realm.