The Great 2011 Grammy Postmortem: Even If Arcade Fire Made It, “We” Probably Didn’t (Right?)


Radiohead may have already surpassed last night’s Grammys as the au currant news of an indie-rock world that is all of a sudden drowning in good tidings, but–despite already having written an epic liveblog and a near-instantaneous 46-word think piece–we’re not quite ready to let last night’s bizarre spectacle go. Because, you know, ARCADE FIRE. Also, other things (like, say, Gang Starr’s Guru, inexplicably omitted from last night’s “In Memoriam” montage in favor of a bunch of entertainment lawyers). And so, below, Zach Baron and Rob Harvilla go one more round on the whole What It All Means, or Should We Even Be Asking That Question? question.

Zach: With an eye toward that famous and apt aphorism “Those who forget the think pieces of the past are doomed to repeat them,” I thought I’d start us off this morning–and what a glorious morning it is, for all the Lady Antebellum fans among us–with a little bit of punditry some clown attempted in the waning months of last year, when the 2010 Grammy nominations were first announced. Ahem:

Much will be made today of the fact that Arcade Fire garnered an Album of the Year nomination, alongside Eminem, Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum, and Lady Gaga. Be careful about this. Leaving aside the fact that Arcade Fire are definitely going to lose, let’s acknowledge once more that there is effectively no big difference between what Arcade Fire are doing, as far as stadium-level bombast, midlife-crisis-level ennui, and ambition go, and what U2 or Springsteen were doing in the three decades prior to now. (“Maybe it’s time to combine the Best Rock Album and Best Alternative Music Album,” Vulture wrote today. We totally agree.) We grew up as an audience, and now alt-rock is just rock, period. Arcade Fire would probably actually have a shot at winning this award if they’d sold even half of what Eminem, Lady Antebellum, and Lady Gaga did, but they didn’t, so better luck next time.

That clown was me, of course–look how definitively, how decisively dismissive I was of Arcade Fire’s chances of actually winning. And yet, they won. What was the Grammy committee thinking, Rob Harvilla? Or more to the point, does it even matter? We were all ready to heap scorn upon this ceremony–nay, we did, for three long hours–until our guys won. All of a sudden it’s a celebration.

Rob: The committee was thinking, first of all, that for lack of a better term, an upset Arcade Fire win would be “bloggable.” The Grammys have a long, illustrious history of abrupt, insane, CW-upending upsets, though usually they veer the other way: old over new. Herbie Hancock over Amy Winehouse! Steely Dan over Eminem! And absolutely my new favorite: Esperanza Spalding over Justin Bieber! (No offense to Esperanza, and she’s only older relatively, but still.) God, that was delightful, just a gargantuan middle finger to the universe, to the coronation narrative the show itself set up: jokes about him all night, that profoundly uncomfortable “remember when I met you in a parking lot?” spoken-word interlude with Usher (“It’s your time”), etc. etc. Dude had a 3D movie about himself in theaters that very weekend and they wouldn’t give it to him! You have to admire that, their refusal to do the obvious, their occasional disinclination to reflexively lavish praise on the few stars actually keeping the music industry afloat. (Though they still do that sometimes.) So consider AF’s win first in that spirit, that at some point they looked at each other and said, “What’s the craziest shit we could pull right now?”

Though honoring The Suburbs is not that crazy! If we’re assuming the Grammys are still (somewhat) sales-obsessed, that you have to make at least a dent in the marketplace to be considered, find me the rock-oriented Billboard #1 that should’ve won instead. Avenged Sevenfold? Disturbed? You’ve been saying it for what feels like years now: alt-rock is just rock, indie is mainstream. And just in time: Look at the Best Rock Album nominations. Look at them. That is horrifying. Turning to AF is the only recourse, the only way to avoid highlighting Green Day/Foo Fighters/Red Hot Chili Peppers on an infinite loop. This wasn’t a reach for Grammys.

Though of course The Suburbs didn’t win Best Rock Album, but fucking Album of the Year. I vacillate on What That Means. On the one hand it’s just the Grammys — like you say, a spectacle we’d all spent the prior 3 1/2 hours ceaselessly mocking. The we did it/indie is dead think-piece deluge to come is nobody’s idea of a good time. But on the other hand, Merge Records put out the Grammy album of the year. A friend last night insisted this was our generation’s big moment, Nirvana over Michael Jackson. How much does it mean? Do you feel victorious this morning, Zach? Would you feel more victorious if you even liked Arcade Fire in the first place?

Zach: I would be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by that first performance–not because I love dudes riding BMX bikes (with helmets on! safety first!) or being brought to the point of nausea by a barrage of strobe lights (is this really the best signifier that we are watching a ROCK BAND that the Grammys could come up with?), but because the ’90s alterna-kid in me applauded at the band picking one of their most punk rock songs, “Month of May,” for that moment, rather than choosing one of any number of turgid ballads they could’ve pulled out for the occasion. That I do in fact think of Arcade Fire as turgid balladeers in general and the not-so-novel natural heirs to the overblown, U2-type stadium rockers of yore did indeed blunt my enthusiasm. But you’ve got to give it to them–it was adversarial from start to finish, from the whole “We’re gonna play another song because we like music” jab to Win Butler looking even more like indie-Hitler than he usually does.

But I do not feel victorious, no. I am increasingly certain that we should not mistake the absolute and total collapse of the music industry for a positive national affirmation of indie rock. And the show’s predicable missteps–from the horrific omission of Guru from the “In Memoriam” montage (Trish Keenan and about a billion others, too) to the Bieber snub (which may be funny, but less so when he’s destined to have the last laugh) to the sloppy embrace of Lady Antebellum (take it away, Rob Tannenbaum!)–are, as always, the real message here: when they put record labels in the grave next to the steel mills, they ought to insert a monitor looping Grammy President Neil Portnow’s spoken-word don’t-steal-our-music coffeehouse-jazz breakdown into the tombstone.

And, as you say, I’m pretty sure indie-rock is basically a meaningless category at this point–something I wrote for the third or fourth time back when Arcade Fire had the #1 record in the country, and we did this whole WE MADE IT dance the first time around. Given the Grammys’ ongoing discomfort with rap and the more nude reaches of pop music, this isn’t really a bet on the Pavement-birthed world of ’90s alt-rock at all; it’s just one more rock and roll Hail Mary in a year in which neither Coldplay nor Radiohead could manage to put out an album. Certainly AF’s Billboard #1 was a more meaningful milestone, though I like everyone else am happy to see motherfucking Merge Records nab a Grammy.

And now Radiohead has already stolen the conversation back. What do you see as the lasting repercussions of this ceremony, if any? Dare we discuss the arguably racially uncomfortable vibe that at points–Lady Antebellum paying tribute to Teddy Pendergrass! The two African-American singers going last in the opening diva-off! The Guru snub!–seemed to pervade the ceremony? Or is that just a Twitter joke made real by force of repetition? And, speaking of Twitter, do you care to articulate the nascent joke/critique you made with your earlier post, “We Did It: A 46-Word Think Piece On Arcade Fire’s Shocking Grammy Victory”? It’s a meta question, but I honestly couldn’t tell if all the music critics in my feed really wanted to write think pieces on demand about this “unlikely” turn of events, or whether they were satirizing that desire in real time. For that matter, I’m not sure which one we’re doing, either.

Rob: We definitely have a love-hate relationship with the Grammys, and vice versa — the Internet doesn’t take them seriously at all until suddenly everyone starts taking them Very Seriously, when Arcade Fire get a nod, or Guru doesn’t. We pretend not to care, but we do, we do. The Grammys are deeply lame, profoundly bizarre, and often laughably out of touch, but they still matter. They still tap into a universe too many rock critics know next to nothing about: music-lovers who aren’t rock critics, i.e. 99.5 percent of the world. And last night a band that was only a glint in Pitchfork’s eye seven years ago played two songs (can you imagine how awful that strobe-light thing must’ve been in person? Diddy probably hates them now) at the show’s climax, like 15 minutes apart, and picked up the Album of the Year statue in between. The genuine, non-ironic smile on Win Butler’s face at the end of the night is hard for me to shake. We are all to some degree playing it cool this morning, casting it off as irony, building our “Who Is Arcade Fire?” Tumblrs to mock the sizable chunk of the population that remains totally bewildered by this. But I think that Twitter torrent of OH SHITs from our ordinarily cynical brethren was genuine, yes. The WE MADE IT stuff is trickier, satirizing the Slate piece everyone assumes will arise out of this in advance, but that’s at least partly defensive sarcasm. Let’s neither overplay nor underplay this. Barbra Streisand presented a Grammy to Arcade Fire last night. Allow yourself to acknowledge that that’s pretty incredible.

I agree with you (and everyone else) that this is the mainstream music industry sinking rather than the underground rising — the Decemberists are still your 2011 one-week sales leaders, after all, and maybe we’ll be wringing our hands about them a year from now. But the real WE MADE IT metric is very, very simple: The Suburbs sales bump next week. If it hits #1 or anywhere close, you have the crossover we’re all now pretending is a big joke. But if nothing happens, then it’s just a joke, a dog whistle that only “we” could hear, that the rest of the country ignored. There are advantages to both, advantages, advantages.

Re: the show itself, I’ll say this: I prefer the Grammys out-of-touchness, their jarring clashes between pandering to old people and pandering to teenagers (was that 20-minute Aretha nod at the onset specifically designed to drive away anyone under 25?), their profound racial discomfort (Guru’s snub is disappointing but not very shocking, the Lady Antebellum/Teddy Pendergrass thing is more of both), their awards-granting schizophrenia, to the MTV Music Awards’ empty nihilism and thirst for “controversy.” I feel ridiculous watching the Grammys, but I don’t feel disgusting, and I savor that difference. I enjoyed the hell out of the show itself, all three and a half hours, the good-good and bad-good stuff alike (Mick Jagger the former, Katy Perry the latter), and though the real-time Twitter backlash is a crucial part of that experience for me, I’m on board with it, I’m a fan, I will be back, and so will you, because now you think Anything Can Happen. I’m giddy this morning less because I’m flattered they’re finally acknowledging the indie-centric universe I mostly live in, and more because I’m profoundly amused at how awkward they look doing it, and how awkward we look acknowledging that they did it.

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