The award show identity crisis

pretty, shiny thingsWhat if you held a party, but had no idea what for?

This past week, Canada’s recording industry announced the nominees for the 2008 Juno Awards. Tonight, the Recording Industry Association of America hosts the Grammy Awards. Both will produce gala award shows with national television broadcasts. Both will give out lots of shiny trophies to all sorts of musical artists.

And both suffer from a severe case of identity crisis.

You see, there are three major ways that you can hand out awards for artistic creations. The first is where you judge purely by sales, the approach taken by the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards. The second is to democratize the process and let the public vote, like the People’s Choice or Teens/Kids Choice Awards. The advantage of these two methods is that decisions are clear, crisp and numerical.

The third method is more troublesome: to hand out awards based on “artistic merit.”

No matter what the category – TV, music, movies – I prefer this last approach, in spite of its problems. Art that sells well is already rewarded with, you know, sales. Rewarding popular art for its popularity ends up an industry circle jerk, which is all well-and-good; it’s just something I have no interest in. And clearly, I’m not the only one – across the board, these merit-based award shows have far more credibility than their sales- or voting-based counterparts.

(In other words, there’s a reason that I’m not writing an essay on the eve of the American Music Awards.)

So where’s the problem? Because even though they’re voting on “artistic merit,” the voting panels for these awards are the industry, and tend to lean conservative. Take the Grammy Awards as an example. Their track record is woefully disappointing in noticing emerging trends in popular music. They reward establishment “names” long after their artistic relevance while denying awards to artists in their prime. They ignore emerging genres like rap and alternative for far too long. And when they go “off the beaten path,” it’s for something that is conservatively different.

Case in point: this year’s edition my favourite category, Album of the Year. You have two relevant contenders – Kanye West and Amy Winehouse – alongside three questionable choices. The Foo Fighters get this year’s “Red Hot Chili Peppers” legacy award (okay, you’ve got a decade or two under your belt, let’s give you a nomination), while Vince Gill and Herbie Hancock get the “conservatively different” nominations. Are they good records? Quite possibly. But are they relevant records? I have my doubts.

But who decides relevancy? Isn’t that just leading us back towards sales as a measurement?

Perhaps that’s why the Juno Awards are committed to a system that rewards sales and artistic merit; too bad that it tends to please no one. In a few key categories – including Album of the Year – the nominees are decided entirely by sales, after which voters choose based on artistic merit.

It’s a formula that’s been called into question in recent years, and with good reason. Two years ago, Canadian Idol-fuelled records by Kalan Porter and Rex Goudie earned nominations for Album of the Year, albums that are barely remembered now (let alone a decade from now). My favourite incident, though, was a few years ago when Sam Roberts’ solid We Were Born in a Flame won Album of the Year. The problem? It wasn’t even supposed to be nominated. A calculation error led to his record being nominated instead of the latest Nickelback album; though Chad and the boys were added as a sixth nominee, they still lost to Roberts.

How messed up is that?

This year, thankfully, Steve Jobs has given Ms. Leslie Feist enough of a boost that The Reminder was able to end up among the top five selling albums of the year in Canada, and she’ll likely win as a welcome change among the elite in the category, (Avril, Buble, and two Celine records). But the Juno Awards have set up a system where some of the most relevant and exciting music in the country – bands like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene – will never be nominated.

My take is that these awards shows need to decide whether they want to be an industry show or a genuine reflection of artistic merit and relevancy. If they want to be the former, well, so be it. If they want to be the latter, they need to find a way to produce results that actually live up to the criteria. That’s not easy, for sure, but why have the Oscars and the Emmys been able to (for the most part) reward relevant, exciting art? What’s the problem with music that it seems unable to find a balance?

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2 responses to “The award show identity crisis

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt celebrates Feist’s mistaken victory at the Juno Awards « McNutt Against the Music·

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