What Does It Mean To Care About The Grammys?

February 1, 2010
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Sir Elton John performed with Lady Gaga at the 52nd Grammy Awards last night.

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.


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6 Responses to “ What Does It Mean To Care About The Grammys? ”

  1. Annie Petersen on February 1, 2010 at 9:14 PM

    Excellent post. I would say, however, that CBS made the virtual realm quite difficult, as it delayed the broadcast in order to have it fill primetime in each time zone. Twitter thus turned into a rolling reaction wave, with similar comments (and trending topics) reemerging every hour. I felt like I was living in fastforward and rewind, already cognizant of what was going to happen and, as I live in the PST, not interested in repeating the same observations someone had already posted (probably with more wit) from the East Coast.

    Now, contrast this with the Golden Globes, which air live. Granted, it’s weird to start watching an awards show at 5 pm. But my attraction to liveblogging/live-Tweeting it was far stronger.

    Finally, I’d add that Lady GaGa, somewhat like Britney or Madonna before her, has established a tradition (and expectation) of tremendous spectacle. If she’s performing, you know it’s going to be crazy — and *that* is why viewers tune in. Not to actually see her (not) win an award.

    • Christopher Cwynar on February 2, 2010 at 2:36 PM

      Thanks for the comments. Annie, I appreciate your qualification. The timezone situation is something that I did not account for in the original post. I do wonder, however, whether the rolling telecast might not have encouraged this social media sort of activity in some ways. I could envision a situation in which potential viewers would log into their FB and Twitter accounts might see these reports coming across the wire and be tempted to flip on the show and jump into the fray. It seems to me that the lack of detail available in tweets and Facebook posts might have the effect of stirring up interest, whereas more detailed reports might serve as spoilers for those yet to see the program. Again, this is just a thought; I didn’t experience the program this way and so I defer to your experience on that point.

  2. Megan Biddinger on February 1, 2010 at 11:40 PM

    Great post and response. Annie, I noticed that same frustration with the rolling telecast in my own facebook newsfeed and wondered what was going on with the decision to air it that way. To deny the experience of viewing (and commenting) all at once strikes me as not only irritating as a potential viewer, but counter to the way that the Grammys were marketed this year. The “We’re All Fans” campaign was definitely a break from earlier, more straightforward promotional models. Moreover, it seemed designed to capture an audience interested in responding to popular music as part of consuming it, which is (part of) what I think you’re getting at here, Christopher.

    This promo spot, for example, mixes fan videos and covers of Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” with the original track . In this brief ad, the audio of the covers initially gives way to Lady Gaga’s voice and the video windows are layered on top of each other until they form a vaguely Chuck Close-esque portrait of GaGa. Ultimately, though, the videos re-emerge and her chorus is subsumed by the combined voices of the fans. This ending seems to invoke the idea that artists are nothing without their fans, but also pushes it (at least a little bit) farther than the usual acceptance speech pap, suggesting a stronger, more complicated tie between contemporary pop musicians and their audiences.

    While the ad could perhaps be set aside as mere lip service to the significance of fan activity, or trafficking in the appeal of “viral” videos or, as Annie suggested, the particular draw of Lady GaGa, the official website for this year’s telecast, wereallfans.com was designed to showcase not only nominees’ music and fan videos, but also tweets in which they were tagged throughout the telecast. As far as I can tell, only congratulatory and/or positive tweets (I’ll confess to being caught in something of a Kings of Leon loop at the moment) got published. This editing suggests that the producers of the Grammys aren’t necessarily looking to reach out to those mostly interested in snarky commentary and are operating with a pretty narrow definition of “fans”. Still, there is a clear attempt to acknowledge and build on audience responses being expressed via sites like Twitter.

    Maybe the Grammys and the recording industry are on to something in terms of engaging with a new way of caring about popular music. Then again, perhaps the awkward execution of the “We’re All Fans” is campaign is, like those intergenerational duets, just a sign that the industry is still holding to closely to the past to really embrace the present or future.

    • Christopher Cwynar on February 2, 2010 at 2:47 PM

      Thanks for drawing attention to this fan-based promotional campaign. I had not been aware of these spots and the manner in which incorporate social media-based practices of fandom into the larger Grammy concept. The Gaga spot, in particular, seems to suggest that we are not only now all fans, but that we can all be Gaga – or, at least, contribute directly to construction of the Gaga text – performing her music and style and then sharing those performances in the virtual realm. While I agree with you that this may not be the most sophisticated campaign, it seems to be surprisingly adroit considering the ineptitude with which the major label recording industry has typically approached these technologies and the practices associated with them. I like the way that your post also restores a bit of focus on those earnest fans who remain invested in the Grammys and the stars the event showcases. It may be that the abundance of snark and hip (and not altogether genuine) disinterest in my own Facebook newstream prompted me to push my initial analysis too far in that direction. It is always worth remembering that there are great quantities of sincere and committed pop fans out there who are seldom accounted for in critical or scholarly discussions of popular music. This remains the case the even in an era that so many would define in terms of taste fragmentation and technological liberation from the commodity popular music form.

  3. Josh Shepperd on February 2, 2010 at 12:14 AM

    This is also represents an effective complication of Katz’s postulation of the ‘media event’. Whereas pre-convergence an ‘event’ is characterized as a remote, live, ‘monopolistic’, interruptive sequence, Chris’ example of the Grammys shows how layered (I hesitate to call every single time someone blogs ‘participatory’) the act of mediated attunement has become. There may be an additional dimension to think about as well, already alluded to in the post. If an encounter with a convergent media event has become a deferentially distributive process in cognition, does ‘ironic’ debate during viewing emerge as a means to signify replacement of what Katz calls the ‘ceremonial relevance’ previously central to an event? In other words, once propriety has been removed from the intended immersive activity, meaning becomes multivariate, and the obvious artifice of a show like the Grammy Awards becomes subject to interpretation instead of immersion.

    • Christopher Cwynar on February 2, 2010 at 11:12 PM

      I really like this comment, Josh. You took an idea that I had been circling and gave it form with your reference to the ‘media event’ concept and the potential for new practices of meaning making presented by social media. It strikes me that awards shows like the Grammys now have many different uses for their many different audiences. While I would contend that there has always been something of an interpretation/immersion split in terms of the way that different viewers consume the program, these practices have now become more immediately and tangibly collective than ever before. The imagined fan community and post-broadcast critical community have been replaced by armies of real-time tweeters. At the same time, many of these commentators are arguably less involved than they were in previous eras. In the social media universe, anyone can easily pick up a clip and drop a quick comment as they’re passing through. As a result, we have a lot of talk now, but it is difficult to ascertain just where all of the discussants stand on the investment scale, whether they’re commenting earnestly or ironically. Then, of course, there is also the large, silent group that is content to consume the broadcast in the traditional way; these pop fans and casual onlookers need to be accounted for, even if they remain but a ghostly presence in the equation.