Last week’s Grammys apparently touched a cultural nerve with more than just The Bieber Reich and Rosie O’Donnell, spurring former Nas manager (and Puff Daddy punching bag) turned marketing exec Steve Stoute to put his indignation into words in the form of a full-page letter in the New York Times. According to Stoute, the awards ceremony has “clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture” by so consistently passing over artists like Eminem (whom Stoute calls “the Bob Dylan of our time”) and Kanye West in favor of recognizing more staid, safe choices such as Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock. “While there is no doubt in my mind of the artistic talents of Steely Dan or Herbie Hancock,” Stoute argues, “we must acknowledge the massive cultural impact of Eminem and Kanye West and how their music is shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation.”
In that sense, Stoute was most taken aback by the snubbing of Justin Bieber for Best New Artist, considering Bieber’s existence as an omnipresent multimedia lifeforce that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us “defines what it means to be a modern artist.” And while some may be tempted to argue that Arcade Fire’s win for album of the year was certainly not the predictable or safe choice in that category, Stoute more or less sidesteps that issue, instead using their win to launch into another of his peeves about the Grammys by pointing out that the timing of the band's dual performances on the show seemed to indicate that the Grammys already knew who was going to win—and yet they had the nerve to get Bieber and Eminem on stage anyway.
“Does the Grammys intentionally use artists for their celebrity, popularity and cultural appeal when they already know the winners and then program a show against this expectation?” Stoute asks. Um, probably? That sounds like something an awards show would do to solicit viewer interest in what is otherwise a very dull industry event. One could also argue that the showcasing those performances arguably does just as much if not more than the actual handing out of awards to capture the current musical zeitgeist—and, in some cases, it even serves to introduce people to new artists. But Stoute believes that it unfairly means artists like Eminem and Bieber—who are touted as front-runners in the Grammys marketing campaign—are thus subject to the Grammys’ “series of hypocrisies and contradictions,” and will inevitably wind up realizing that they’ve been “used” to boost the show’s ratings. They then will have only the record sales, interminable press build-up, vehement fan support, and the lifelong sting of having “Grammy nominee” attached to their name to comfort them.
Anyway, Stoute seems to have had it up to here with merely accepting these well-established facts that the Grammys are in no way an accurate bellwether of cultural tastes. So he’s resolved to actually do something about it, issuing the call to all artists to “stop accepting the invitation to be the upset of the year,” and “demand that they change this system and truly reflect and truly acknowledge your art.” Or you guys could just accept the fact that the Grammys have always been kind of insular and dumb and still go get your gift baskets. Either way. Here’s Stoute’s full letter:
An Open Letter to Neil Portnow, NARAS and the Grammy Awards
In this Sunday's New York Times, I have purchased a full-page ad as an open letter to Neil Portnow, NARAS and the Grammy Awards. Here's why.
Over the course of my 20-year history as an executive in the music business and as the owner of a firm that specializes in in-culture advertising, I have come to the conclusion that the Grammy Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture. My being a music fan has left me with an even greater and deeper sense of dismay — so much so that I feel compelled to write this letter. Where I think that the Grammys fail stems from two key sources: (1) over-zealousness to produce a popular show that is at odds with its own system of voting and (2) fundamental disrespect of cultural shifts as being viable and artistic.
As an institution that celebrates artistic works of musicians, singers, songwriters, producers and technical specialists, we have come to expect that the Grammys upholds all of the values that reflect the very best in music that is born from our culture. Unfortunately, the awards show has become a series of hypocrisies and contradictions, leaving me to question why any contemporary popular artist would even participate. How is it possible that in 2001 The Marshall Mathers LP — an album by Eminem that ushered in the Bob Dylan of our time — was beaten out by Steely Dan (no disrespect) for Album Of The Year? While we cannot solely utilize album sales as the barometer, this was certainly not the case. Not only is Eminem the best-selling artist of the last decade, but The Marshall Mathers LP was a critical and commercial success that sold over 10 million albums in the United States (19 million worldwide), while Steely Dan sold less than 10% of that amount and came and went as quietly as a church mouse. Or consider even that in 2008 at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, after going into the night as the most-nominated artist, Kanye West's Graduation was beaten out for Album Of The Year by Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters. (This was the first time in 43 years that a jazz album won this category.) While there is no doubt in my mind of the artistic talents of Steely Dan or Herbie Hancock, we must acknowledge the massive cultural impact of Eminem and Kanye West and how their music is shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation. It is this same cultural impact that acknowledged the commercial and critical success of Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1984.
Just so that I'm not showing partiality to hip-hop artists (although it would be an entirely different letter as to how hip-hop music has been totally diminished as an art form by this organization), how is it that Justin Bieber, an artist that defines what it means to be a modern artist, did not win Best New Artist? Again, his cultural impact and success are even more quantifiable if you factor in his YouTube and Vevo viewership — the fact that he was a talent born entirely of the digital age whose story was crafted in the most humble method of being "discovered" purely for his singing ability (and it should be noted that Justin Bieber plays piano and guitar, as evidenced on his early viral videos).
So while these very artists that the public acknowledges as being worthy of their money and fandom are snubbed year after year at the Grammys, the awards show has absolutely no qualms in inviting these same artists to perform. At first I thought that you were not paying attention to the fact that the mental complexion of the world is becoming tanned, that multiculturalism and poly-ethnicity are driving new meaning as to what is culturally relevant. Interesting that the Grammys understands cultural relevance when it comes to using Eminem's, Kanye West's or Justin Bieber's name in the billing to ensure viewership and to deliver the all-too-important ratings for its advertisers.
What truly inspired the writing of this letter was that this most recent show fed my suspicions. As the show was coming to a close and just prior to presenting the award for Album Of The Year, the band Arcade Fire performed "Month of May" — only to… surprise… win the category and, in a moment of sheer coincidence, happened to be prepared to perform "Ready to Start."
Does the Grammys intentionally use artists for their celebrity, popularity and cultural appeal when they already know the winners and then program a show against this expectation? Meanwhile the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hides behind the "peer" voting system to escape culpability for not even rethinking its approach.
And I imagine that next year there will be another televised super-close-up of an astonished front-runner as they come to the realization before a national audience… that he or she was used.
You are being called to task at this very moment, NARAS.
And to all of the artists that attend the Grammys: Stop accepting the invitation to be the upset of the year and demand that this body upholds its mission for advocacy and support of artistry as culture evolves.
Demand that they change this system and truly reflect and truly acknowledge your art.