Tony Norman: Grammys carry a tradition of cluelessness

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My only concession to modernity while watching the 2014 Grammy Awards was a willingness to live tweet whenever the spirit moved me.

Motivated more by snark than a genuine interest in who won what, I watched the show with a gimlet eye reserved for a pitchman whose corporate headquarters turns out to be a safety deposit box in Florida.

I know I'm not the target demographic for the producers of the Grammy Awards telecast. The stuff I listen to tends to be idiosyncratic, unhip by commercial music standards and destined for permanent obscurity, if sales are any indication.

With the exception of Lorde's "Pure Heroine" and Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories," I don't own any of the records that won big Sunday night. I did own the new Kendrick Lamar CD for a minute, but one of my sons absconded with it after I confessed that I had a hard time hearing the rapper's much-hyped verbal genius under its many layers of casual vulgarity.

Still, I was surprised by the extent of my unfamiliarity with music's biggest names, given that I used to be a pop music critic. When the nominees for some of the biggest awards of the night were announced, I recognized most of the names, but would've come up blank if asked to identify the music that generated their acclaim.

I don't consider such cluelessness a virtue. In my case, it is primarily the result of having abandoned radio as a source for information about new music. My sons listen to an even narrower bandwidth of music than I do, so they're not able to turn me on to much stuff I find really interesting.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of knowledgeable independent record store clerks in Pittsburgh. There are also excellent music magazines such as Uncut and online sources Metacritic, Pitchfork and NPR.org's "First Listen" that introduced me to much of the music I loved last year.

Prior to Sunday night, I may not have ever heard of Sara Bareilles or Kacey Musgraves, who beat perennial Grammy favorite Taylor Swift for the Best Country album, but that doesn't make me a Philistine. I'm listening to a lot of great stuff that simply hasn't cracked the charts or been deemed worthy of a Grammy nod.

I think we can all agree that the Grammys have never been a strict meritocracy anyway, or else we never would have witnessed such absurd upsets as Jethro Tull beating Metallica, AC/DC, Iggy Pop and Jane's Addiction in the Hard Rock/Heavy Metal category in 1989.

A lot of us are old enough to remember a notorious Grammy telecast in 1980 when Christopher Cross, a soft rock troubadour in the tradition of Bread, beat Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, the Pretenders and Bette Midler in various categories. It was such a ridiculous rout that the losing artists openly joked about it. The notion of the Grammys being "fixed" didn't sound so far-fetched after that.

I'm not suggesting that anything of the sort happened at the Grammys this year. A lot of folks more familiar with the artists than I am, however, are insisting that the multiple Grammys in the rap category by new artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are closer to Christopher Cross-level voting malpractice than anything anyone has recently seen.

Of course, it was Milli Vanilli, the non-singing duo from Germany, that managed to call the whole Grammy balloting process into question by winning the Best New Artist Grammy in 1990.

Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were two pretty boy models from Munich who couldn't even speak English when they were plucked from obscurity by Milli Vanilli's "creator" to provide the public face of the band. The actual singers weren't considered photogenic enough. Somewhere along the line, Rob and Fab convinced themselves and the Grammy voters that they had recorded the vocals for the international hit album "Girl You Know It's True" when all they participated in was the cover shoot.

I thought about Rob and Fab while watching Pink perform a high-wire act Sunday night at the Grammys that would've made an Olympic gymnast jealous. While performing her aerial moves, Pink didn't miss a note. Because we know she sang on the record and that it was her vocals we were hearing, we didn't mind the pantomiming despite the premium we put on live performances at the Grammys.

Still, it is a little chilling to realize that had Rob and Fab come along today, not being able to sing would mean nothing, thanks to auto-tuning. They probably would've fit right into today's music scene and "legitimately" won their Best New Artist Grammy without a hint of embarrassment. Imagine that.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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