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February 16, 2012  | by: Christopher Burns

Nicki Minaj in Costume for the Grammy's

The Grammy season is sure to send thousands of teenagers towards dreams of pop music grandeur. Golden awards, large stage shows and ridiculous costumes are indicative of the message sent out by CBS and their major media partners: If you’re not raking in two million album sales or more, you are virtually irrelevant.

The televised winners and nominees of the Grammy’s often feature world class marketing campaigns, extensive radio play and the finest auto-tuning money can buy, save for Adele of course. This year’s winners included Chris Brown, a product of the same company as Britney Spears and Justin Beiber, and Taylor Swift, two artists known for big numbers, but not necessarily any revolutionary talent.

Every year, the awards series picks one group as the best “Alternative” group of the year. Generally, they pick a borderline famous group known for being different. This Grammy usually rewards a group which has achieved both mainstream and underground success. This, since 1991, has been the Grammy’s television show’s attempt to stay relevant to viewers outside Top 40 listenership.

Though this award is televised, the awards for other alternative styles like Best Blues, Best Folk or Best Reggae, are not. This leads one to a question about the music industry in the United States: Does the general public enjoy the narrow concept of “popular music” only because it is blasted at them on the radio, or because they truly connect to the music?

As John Cusack once mused, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listen to pop music?”

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver

Justin Vernon, lead singer of the Grammy-winning group Bon Iver, expressed a backhanded statement of this theme while receiving his award for Best New Artist. Vernon’s band’s second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver certainly deserved the award, but CBS would have certainly preferred to scrap the award to give another award to J. Cole or Nicki Minaj.

Walking on stage dressed much less vividly than his red carpet loving compatriots, his speech included: “It’s really hard to accept this award. There’s so much talent here on this stage, and there’s so much talent that’s not here tonight… who will never be here.”

With this statement, Vernon spoke for an entire establishment of independent musicians who will remain ignored until they prove themselves not musically viable or revolutionary, but financially profitable. Major awards shows are no longer interested in honoring advancement of the art form. Instead they happily flood radio and the internet with awards for (often but not always) substandard acts that are easily marketable to a very wide population.

The Beatles

That being said, this is no new phenomenon. There has always been a dichotomy of angst between those who consider themselves “Indie” and those who subscribe to the music publicized as “Top 40.” Justin Vernon simply exposed the argument of the former to those interested in the “hit” style music. The 1960s had The BeatlesThe Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin popular at one time playing completely different styles. Even the 80s had Poison and Sonic Youth. For every musical movement, there is another (un)equal and opposing force trying to draw attention away from the bands making hit records who are sometimes advancing the musical genome (The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, The Police), and other times, are causing a sad digression in the direction of American music.

In an era where performers certainly clear their Grammy’s speeches with managers, publishers and publicists, it is refreshing to hear an artist get on stage and speak from the heart. Regardless of your thoughts on his music or the music of the other performers, one must give Justin Vernon credit for the honesty he showed to an audience which is used to being misled by the very award show said to hold critical expertise over the viewer, in the name of a larger profit.

The secret, however, is much larger than the words of one progressive folk-musician. The secret isn’t to discredit an artist because of his inclusion in Primetime award shoes, nor is it to write off anyone who doesn’t get national credit. Do everything in your power to explore music for yourself and love the music that makes you happy, whether it’s sold 35 million copys or 350.

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