So Beautiful? So What: Why The Grammys Shoved Paul Simon Aside And Embraced Skrillex


A good while back, I was envisioning a Grammy-night dogfight between what, at that point, were my two favorite albums of 2011: Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What. (Both ended up on my Pazz & Jop ballot.)I mentioned this to Maura and she said, “No. Adele.” Up went my vision in smoke. Still, I figured the Englishwoman would at least be looking back in passing at the Egg Lady and Mr. Grammy together. Of course they’d both be nominated, I figured. Gaga is Gaga, and Simon’s album wasn’t simply his strongest work since Graceland—after many, many plays (none for work, incidentally—I didn’t write about it), I think So Beautiful might be his best album, period.

Obviously, my predictions didn’t mean anything. Gaga has nothing to worry about, but not only wasn’t Simon nominated for Album of the Year, he wasn’t nominated for anything at all. This for a guy who managed a 2001 Album nod for the outright dud You’re the One—never mind that he’s one of only three people to win three times for AOTY: in 1971 for Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, in 1976 for Still Crazy After All These Years, and in 1987 for Graceland. Simon may stew over “coming in second” to Bob Dylan all these years, but this year was his chance to at least try to pull ahead of fellow three-Album winners Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder (whom Simon thanked in 1976 for not “mak[ing] an album this year”) in the Grammy sweeps.

There are a number of potential reasons for this. The obvious one is that, hey, maybe the voters didn’t like his album very much. This seems extremely unlikely, and not just because it was my own No. 1—or that it finished a strong 14th in Pazz & Jop. So Beautiful is a classically styled album (ten songs, including a short acoustic guitar instrumental) that dwells humorously and with real depth of feeling on aging, looking back, summing up—themes not only of Simon’s earlier Grammy-nodded work but of such AOTY winners as Sinatra’s September of My Years, John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. (I was tempted to include Natalie Cole, but only for laughs.)

Then again, that might be the issue. The Grammys have had a youth problem since their inception—at first on purpose, since the awards were founded by anti-rock bizzers (led by Sinatra) who wanted to honor “real” music. Once it became obvious that rock and roll was (a) not going away and (b) turning most of that “real” music into pulp, sales-wise, the awards swerved toward rock’s most parent-friendly iterations. Paul Simon was a top beneficiary of this shift.

But Grammys are Grammys, and if anything the awards had swung, hard, towards old-for-old’s sake by the time the 2000s came around. Counting T-Bone Burnett as the auteur behind the O Brother soundtrack (AOTY in 2002), between 2000 and 2009, the Album winners’ average age at the time of their victory was 46.7; take away Norah Jones (23 in 2003), OutKast (Andre 3000 and Big Boi were both 28 in 2004), and the Dixie Chicks (average age: 35 in 2007), and the number rises to 54.2. (And the Norah Jones who swept in ’03 counts as a fake old person anyway.) Pop music is youth-driven; these choices were not, as they say, good for ratings.

The last couple of Grammy years have been the resounding opposite. Taylor Swift, AOTY for 2010, was 20 when she won; last year the award went to Arcade Fire, all in their late 20s and early 30s. Adele is probably going to win this year for an album titled 21, after her age when writing it. And the year’s most shocking nomination—as opposed to lack of nomination, which Simon has sewed up—belongs to 24-year-old Skrillex, who makes dubstep. I’ll go ahead and guess that I’d get even more laughs out of a typical Grammy board member’s attempts to explain dubstep than I do the average I’ve-heard-two-comps rock critic’s.

The message is clear: Grammy luuuuhs the kiiiids. But there may be another factor at work here: Simon himself. Last year, when the Grammys announced that they’d be concatenating the awards, leaving 31 categories behind, Simon, among others, was livid, and he wrote a protest letter to Grammy president and CEO Neil Portnow, stating, “I believe the Grammys have done a disservice to many talented musicians by combining previously distinct and separate types of music into a catch-all of blurry larger categories. They deserve the separate Grammy acknowledgements that they’ve been afforded until this change eliminated them.”

No word as to whether Simon will be part of Sunday’s protest outside the ceremony from artists in fallen categories. But join them he might, because the Rock Solo Vocal Performance award—such a stronghold of old white men that it could have been nicknamed the Golden Parachute—is gone now, too, concentrated into Best Rock Performance. The longest-running act there is Radiohead, who issued their first album 19 years ago. Time marches on—Paul Simon made an album about that. And the Grammys are out to prove it.