Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grammys vs. Oscars

Last year at this time an old friend of mine—who is just as passionate about music as I am about movies—asked me what I thought of the Oscars. He said that he was very discouraged by the Grammy Awards. “Lame” I believe is the word he used. The fact is the Grammys don’t really reflect his progressive musical tastes despite the fact that the Grammy’s are supposed to encompass the entire musical landscape.

The Grammys don’t reflect my musical tastes very well either, which in itself could explain why neither of us is as thrilled about them as I am about the Oscars. Admittedly this person is greatly responsible for helping to form my personal musical landscape in high school, but I did always like to meander closer to the mainstream of music than he did. I haven’t watched a Grammys telecast in about ten years. I never watched a Grammycast with the enthusiasm of an Oscarcast, even when music held a higher rung on my obsession ladder than movies. So perhaps the difference between the two is a matter of presentation.

So I sat down to watch the Grammys for the first time in ten years Sunday night. I didn’t finish. I made it about an hour and a half, and I wasn’t very attentive during that time. I was surprised to learn that Herbie Hancock had won Album of the Year for his Joni Mitchell tribute album. Frankly, I didn’t even know the album existed. It made me think of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack album winning back in 2001. It’s always nice when something out of the ordinary wins the big one. Meanwhile Amy Winehouse swept all the other big awards, which I suppose was well-deserved considering the sizable splash she made in the industry last year. Although, I have trouble getting all that excited for her success since I haven’t heard her album, just a few tracks here and there. I liked what I heard but didn’t run out and buy it.

The Oscars on the other hand are a different beast entirely for me. I like to watch from start to finish. I even watch the Red Carpet show, although I usually wish I hadn’t. It isn’t quite as intense as the Super Bowl. I prefer to skip the female oriented advertizing of the Oscars and never understand why they don’t advertise more films throughout the event. I also don’t tend to jump around and yell at the screen as often during the Oscarcast, certainly never as much as I did with this year’s Super Bowl where my Giants snatched the trophy from those “destiny” bound Patriots. Giants win! Giants win! Giants win! Even as an extreme film fanatic I can’t imagine flying the victory ‘V’ in the air when Javier Bardem wins best actor over Casey Affleck and the other nominees. In your face Hal Holbrook!

As an Oscar viewer I also can’t stand to risk interruption from others who don’t really care as much. I prefer to watch the Oscars in the privacy of my own home, rather than at an Oscar party. I attended some Oscar parties in college, and it was really just a social event for everyone else while I was taking the evening quite seriously—hurt when my favorites didn’t win, excited when someone who wasn’t expected to win did. But the Oscars can at least inspire people to schedule a social event around it. I’m sure people within the music industry have Grammy parties, but you don’t hear of it too often outside the industry.

But what do the shows amount to beyond a business opportunity for both industries? It is no mistake that films released in the spring are generally ignored by Oscar nominating committees. “Zodiac” was a critically lauded film that found its way on many critics’ top ten lists, but failed to secure even one Oscar nomination. The DVD was released in the fall and has for the most part played itself out with audiences. So that film’s distribution companies opted to promote other films, like “Michael Clayton” and “There Will Be Blood” for Oscar consideration. Warner Bros. even put “Clayton” back in theaters for a theatrical run last week before its DVD release next week, and Paramount has been slow burning the theatrical release of “There Will Be Blood” over the past month or so to allow the Oscar buzz to usher its audiences in. There has been a steady stream of Oscar nominated films released on DVD over the past couple of weeks, a trend that only grows through next Tuesday’s DVD releases. And that Grammy Nominees album has been shuffling off the shelves at Wal Mart over the past couple of months. I’m sure a Grammy Winners album is on the way.

In the area of mainstream entertainment, everyone knows it is the spectacle that sells. Now, spectacle doesn’t always swallow so easy for people like me and my friend who are looking for something different. There are only so many ways to wow people through spectacle and infinitely more ways through depth and substance. But spectacle is what gets the visceral reaction. There was a time when the Oscars were heading down the road to spectacle hell, with musical numbers involving Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sheena Easton firing laser beams across the stage. Then along came Billy Crytal as the host, lampooning the garishness of the Oscar spectacle with a solo song and dance routine that turned the Oscarcasts around and added thoughtful humor to the proceedings.

The Grammys on the other hand are a little less dependent on a host; in fact it has been years since they have employed an MC. Although it lacks the cohesive guidance of a ceremonial host, this does serve the spirit of the music better in that less time is spent on the presentation of the awards and more time is spent with live performances by the artists. While this is a good trend for the awards to take—it is a music awards show after all—the problem with placing musicians in a concert situation when they only have a limited time to perform one or two songs at the most is that they never really get a chance to develop the spectacle they would in their own concert venues. It was great that the producers moved the Foo Fighters outside to perform, creating a closer to genuine concert experience; but they still only had time to perform their Grammy winning song, not enough time to really get into their live performance groove.

Then there is each show’s necessity to give proper reverence to the past. These moments provide the most spectacle for the Grammys. This year those moments I stuck around to see included a Lifetime Achievement award for The Band, the opening duet between Alicia Keys and old footage of Frank Sinatra, Beyonce teaming up with Tina Turner for some of Turner’s classics, and two visual interpretations of Beatles hits from the movie “Across the Universe” and Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas dance extravaganza “Love”. My favorite of these was the Alicia Keys duet with Sinatra, but that may have more to do with looking at Alicia Keys than anything else. The Band deserved to have a bigger deal made out of their award; and while Tom Hanks is a universally respected star, it would have been appropriate to have Martin Scorsese, director of The Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz” and many wonderful music documentaries, involved in the presentation of their award. As for Beyonce and Turner, well I’m just not sure how much Beyonce’s fans care about Turner. But it would be the Beatles tribute that really turns music lovers off to this sort of thing. Cirque du Soleil certainly has the oddities of The Beatles psychotropic-inspired lyrics down in their appearance, but a show like theirs really takes the focus off the music rather than highlighting those wonderful chords and melodies as it should.

The Oscars make a point to honor their past as well. Most of this is done in the form of film montages, one of my favorite parts of the ceremonies. The great thing about honoring the past with film is that they provide the same images everyone remembers, the same memories for everyone. You don’t have to try to recall how Tina Turner could really dance like a “Private Dancer” before age naturally slowed her down enough for Beyonce’s legs to upstage her. Oscar also gives out the special lifetime awards, which are probably only exciting for extreme film buffs. To most viewers, listening to some old men and women give speeches probably mark the lowlights of the ceremonies. Time to grab some more chips and open another beer. And they really need to rethink having that reunion of past Oscar winners every couple of years. Nothing is more boring to listen to than someone reciting a list of past winners, even when you have the people on that list to gape at and wonder just how Oscar could have condemned them all to the obscurity that followed their careers since their wins.

The greatest disparity between the Oscars and the Grammys is the amount of categories each academy offers their respective fields. The Grammys has 110 different categories to the Oscars’ 24. The Oscars air the awarding of all 24 categories during their telecast. I don’t think the Grammys aired even 20. I’m glad I get to see all the Oscars, but I doubt much of anybody would want to sit through an entire day of Grammy awards, or Oscars for that matter. Well, I would for the Oscars; but I’m a bit sick. The drawback of only televising a fraction of the awards is that most people don’t get to see the awards that interest them the most. The Grammy organizers try to spread around the telecast awards enough to cover the popular genres—one rap award here, a country award there—but most nominees get shafted in the coverage of the Grammys. I doubt this endears the awards to fans.

The frightening thing is that probably neither of the academies gives out a broad enough spectrum of awards to cover the true artistic achievements found within each industry. The film industry is constantly crying out for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to add new categories. The Screen Actors’ Guild decided to add a category for stunt work to their awards this year after campaigning with the Academy for years. And looking through that long list of categories for the Grammys might be overwhelming, but it doesn’t take an industry expert to see some gaps. How about an award for unsigned artists since their popularity and accessibility has skyrocketed in the mp3 age?

The truth is most fans of any kind are genreists, interested in a select type of music or film that appeal to their unique tastes. This is what invalidates both awards shows in most people’s minds. The comedy fan is wondering why Academy voters don’t give Will Ferrell a fair shot. The sci-fi fan might believe that “Transformers” deserves something beyond a technical award. The hip-hop fan wants to see more hip-hop in the show. The spoken word fan is wondering how they can lump the entirety of the book recording market into only five nominees with two of them just happening to be political rivals at the moment.

Of course, the only way to alleviate these problems is to expand the categories. In the case of the Grammys this would further alienate the audience from the categories presented during the telecast. And with even greater expansion necessary to include genres like musicals, comedies, sci-fi and horror, it would send the Oscarcast down the same path as the Grammys. And where would that leave the more obscure Oscar categories which already exist? Surely, short subjects and documentaries would be the first to be omitted from the Oscarcast, which allows these films with little distribution the exposure to actually get seen and purchased by cable companies for wider public broadcast.

Voting—already an issue for the more specialized categories in the Oscars—would become even more complex and controversial with category expansion. I checked out the voting rules for the Grammys, and I couldn’t make sense of them, even for the four major awards—Album, Record, and Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. I can’t imagine the voters have time to figure them out, which would mean many ballots are not properly filled out, therefore not properly tallied.

The Oscars have come under a great deal of fire this year for their eligibility requirements for their Foreign Language Film award, and have been highly scrutinized in the past for documentary nomination procedures. Ironically, their music categories need serious scrutiny as well. Eddie Veder’s and Johnny Greenwood’s scores for the films “Into the Wild” and “There Will Be Blood” respectively were disqualified from the musical score category because they were “too song oriented.” Then why weren’t their songs considered for the Song category? (Actually Veder’s “Guaranteed” was one of nine songs he wrote specifically for the movie that was eligible.) Meanwhile the song “Falling Slowly” from the movie “Once”—admittedly a great achievement in music—was nominated even though it had been released as a recording on an album by writer Glen Hansard’s band The Frames in early 2007 and on his 2006 solo release “The Swell Season”. But the movie was filmed in 2006, so perhaps its inclusion is fair. Whether the song was written specifically for the film or not, the rules are blurry.

So it seems both these award institutions are heavily flawed in their awards process. Even the shows themselves don’t hold up well under scrutiny, so it really comes down to whether you like this type of entertainment or not. Something did go wrong when someone decided to turn the awarding of artistic merit into a form of entertainment, but if it’s your thing—as the Oscars are mine—it can be hard to turn it off. As for the difference between the two ceremonies and why the Oscars seem to have a broader appeal, perhaps my six-year-old can offer some enlightenment. When he saw Beyonce and Tina Turner singing “Proud Mary” together Sunday night, he didn’t notice Beyonce’s legs, or Turner’s relative stiffness. He made no judgment on the song or the performance. He said, “I think they’re pretending to be the slugs [from the movie “Flushed Away”]. The girl slugs, I mean.” Movies win!

Photos courtesy of Grammy.com and Oscar.com.

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