Presenters matter to televised award shows. Their immediate function is to hand out prizes. But they often reflect how an industry uses ceremony to perceive of itself at a particular historical moment, whether they’re a bright young thing, an emblem, a legend in their own time, or willing participants in corporate synergy. Sometimes they let you know who’s going to win, as when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg welcomed Martin Scorsese to Mount Rushmore with a Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Sometimes, they fall on their sword and read bad jokes from a teleprompter to keep things moving. Other times, they kill. And sometimes, they signify the distance between the world and the future.
Like most award shows, the Grammys—which broadcast on Monday for the first time in its nearly 60-year history to accommodate Pacific Standard Time—are not always perceptive about the deeper significance of what awards presenters are assigned to distribute. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; critics’ year-end lists suffer from presentism’s biases too. While the institutions responsible for the show—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and CBS, respectively—may have longevity on its mind in other respects, an award show is ultimately a snapshot of an industry at a particular year, as determined by the compromises made while honoring constituents’ perceptions and advertisers’ immediate commercial directives.
Those two things can still tell us quite a bit of what the Grammys thinks it is in 2016. So it matters that Ariana Grande dorked out before the Weeknd’s live performance of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night,” singing puns as she introduced her duet partner on “Love Me Harder,” 2014’s filthiest house pastiche and a launch pad for the two shy nerds at its center. It matters that LL Cool J and James Corden set up a messy, ill-conceived Lionel Richie tribute in order to plug NCIS: Los Angeles and The Late Late Show while Stephen Colbert threw it to Hamilton on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s way to an EGOT. It matters that Ed Sheeran announced Lady Gaga’s David Bowie retrospective because NARAS rewards the British singer’s inoffensive blue-eyed soul but never nominated anything from the chameleon’s boundary-pushing 70s output, which Gaga and Nile Rodgers heavily showcased in their professional-grade “rock opera” eulogy. It matters that Rock Ambassador Dave Grohl honored Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister by introducing a bloated tribute from the Hollywood Vampires, which made a stronger case against white men grinding rock into obsolescence than both hours of Vinyl’s pilot. They made me long for an encore from the excellent Alabama Shakes, who immediately preceded them with a spacious, electrifying rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which won Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, along with Best Alternative Music Album (Sound and Color wasn’t nominated for Best Rock Album). It matters that Sam Smith handed out Best New Artist, that Meghan Trainor took her win very seriously, and that Courtney Barnett probably ducked out early. It matters that Beyoncé gave Record of the Year to Bruno Mars for “Uptown Funk” after they ran off with Maroon 5’s Coldplay’s Super Bowl half-time show, which broadcast a week and a day before on the same network.
And it certainly matters that three surviving members of 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients’ Earth, Wind & Fire presented Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 instead of to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As Taylor Swift accepted her award, I wondered what Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson—bassist Verdine in the middle, honoring his brother Maurice’s legacy by looking like he jumped off That’s The Way of the World by way of Katt Williams’s mood board in a green velvet tuxedo jacket—made of this moment and their place in history as musicians and black men. As category front-runners, 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly are both ostensibly about how artists are shaped by their current circumstances in relation to the music they listened to growing up. Those circumstances matter, and matter differently if you were born in 1989 as a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in a Pennsylvania borough or in 1987 as a black boy to parents endeavoring to raise their family in Compton.
The market is supposed to be the equalizer. Award shows puncture this myth. As a listener I struggle to give Swift the benefit of the doubt because her feminism often comes with an edge of entitled white girl vengeance that I distrust (yes Kanye West’s trolling on “Famous” is legit gross, but Yeezy is a post unto himself). But I appreciate 1989 as a well-crafted genre study. In particular the dazzling “Out of the Woods,” which opened the broadcast, fuses Swift’s Instagram poetry with Jack Antonoff’s fractured pop production to create the best song T’Pau never recorded. 1989 was favored to win because you don’t move that many units of any album at this moment in recording industry history without netting Album of the Year … unless you’re Beyoncé, I guess (Adele’s 25 will win next year when it’s eligible).1989 is also a testament to the album, and perhaps especially to the album on CD, which many record executives wish we still bought. It’s a streamlined, economical, blockbuster pop statement. Or, said differently, it sounds like an album that would win a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016 and in 1989.
Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes (a length of time a CD can store, giving it the advantage over other formats for a time), To Pimp a Butterfly is a glorious mess. The kind of mess you go through to get to nuance. The kind of mess where intersectionality dwells, overlaps, and spills over. What I find most exhilarating about To Pimp a Butterfly is how Lamar and its impressive team of musicians and producers positioned his flow within black musical history, thus connecting his feelings of double consciousness to the radical streak that energized G-Funk, 70s soul, and avant-garde jazz. Lamar led with eleven nominations, and kicked off the broadcast after Swift’s performance and host LL Cool J’s opening monologue by collecting his award for Best Rap Album, which was presented to him by rapper Ice Cube and his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who recently played his father in a biopic about his former group N.W.A (see—presenters matter). Of the five Grammys he won, this was the only award Lamar collected during the broadcast and thus the only opportunity Lamar had to give a speech on live television.
Lamar was also rewarded for “Alright,” a song that has rightly come to represent the resilient ache of #blacklivesmatter in the ongoing, uphill struggle for racial equality and social justice. Though it lost Song of the Year to Sheeran’s wedding reception jam “Thinking Out Loud,” it won Best Rap Performance. Such an accolade is meaningful for a number of reasons, not least of which because it was the first category NARAS established—in 1989, no less—to recognize significant work in hip-hop vocal performance. However its first recipients, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, staged a boycott because the presentation would not be televised. The award for Best Rap Performance—which was reintroduced in 2012—was not broadcast last night either, and Will Smith is still opting out of industry award shows because of systemic inequality.
Which is why it was exhilarating to see Lamar’s medley in the middle of the ceremony. One thing the Grammys are valued for, especially as networks attempt to use televised award shows as an opportunity to capitalize upon social media and second-screen viewing practices, is live musical performances. Over the years, more categories are getting pushed out of the television broadcast and being distributed in other venues and forums to make room for them. Thus it is incumbent upon artists to turn the stage into a platform, and smart performers think about what they want to use that space to say.
Last year, Beyoncé closed the Grammys with a solemn performance of gospel standard “Take My Hand Oh Precious Lord.” It was written by Reverend Thomas Dorsey, beloved by Martin Luther King Jr., and thus claimed by the Civil Rights Movement. It has also been extensively recorded by various singers. One of them was R&B singer Ledisi for the soundtrack to Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical film about the 1965 Voting Rights campaign that was underrepresented as a nominee for 2015’s Academy Awards. Beyoncé was flanked by a men’s chorus in white suits, barefoot with rolled pant legs meant to evoke slave auctions to make a critique about the devaluation of black people in the United States. My DVR cut off the performance. “Formation” may exist, in part, to correct this. You do not cut off Beyoncé.
As an astute musician who has come into his own as a very fine live TV performer (for me, the turning point was when he turned Imagine Dragons into his backing band during the 2014 ceremony), Lamar probably considered not only the importance of his message, but where it was placed in the broadcast (Grammy producer Ken Erlich spoke with Billboard about the segment prior to the ceremony). Introduced by actor Don Cheadle, whose Miles Davis biopic is scheduled for an April 2016 theatrical release with distribution from Sony Pictures Classics (presenters matter), Lamar chose to turn the Staples Center stage into a cell block, casting himself as a prisoner.
To stunned silence, Lamar wound his cuffed hands around the microphone and launched into “The Blacker the Berry.” He then turned the stage into a bonfire for “Alright” in order to expand the parameters of broadcast television by acknowledging the rich, joyous traditions of African dance, if only briefly. Lamar concluded with a unreleased new song—the closest the Grammys really got to acknowledging how digital distribution has bypassed traditional album releases beyond Drake’s nomination for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—which he performed directly for the camera. The crew captured it with a series of frenetic medium close-up shots before zooming out to reveal Lamar standing in silhouette before a projected image of Africa with “Compton” written across it in Old English font. In that brief moment, to thunderous applause, Lamar showed us the distance between the world the recording industry lives in now and the future we have yet to realize.
Last week, The AV Club’s Todd Van Der Werff put together an amazing historical survey of 70s American sitcoms. I have a basic grasp of the period’s generic innovations thanks to syndication and Nick-at-Nite reruns. Some blanks were filled in when I took a graduate seminar on feminist TV criticism, which itself was a burgeoning field of inquiry during the Me Decade. So I was especially pleased by how Van Der Werff foregrounded The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s cultural influence both by orienting a professional woman as the show’s protagonist as well as the actress’s industrial prowess as a television producer. Also, it’s weird to think of CBS as the hub for televisual artistry. I know Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men dominated ratings during their respective runs. But to my mind, neither of them or any of the network’s recent contributions do anything to elevate the form, though the former shares more with NBC’s beloved Seinfeld than some might perceive.
One of the shows Van Der Werff discussed was WKRP in Cincinnati, one of the many shows MTM Enterprises. Van Der Werff also argues that the show, which focused on the staff and on-air talent at a rock radio station, adopted The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s poignant treatment of a workplace family comprised of dysfunctional people. Van Der Werff proposes that subsequent American sitcoms follow Mary Tyler Moore or Norman Lear’s All in the Family, which dealt with major cultural issues but tended to privilege gags and banter over pathos.
I’ll go with Van Der Werff on this one, though I do wonder where he’d place NewsRadio in this construction. Based on his assertion that like-minded shows Arrested Development and 30 Rock continue All in the Family‘s legacy, I assume that Paul Simm’s workplace comedy about WNYX’s eccentric staff took its lead from Lear.
Yet I associate WKRP and NewsRadio in my mind. Some of this stems from an ongoing interest I have in representations of people who work in the medium that began shortly after I saw Pump Up the Volume and eventually manifested into programming my own weekly radio program in college. But it has more to do with superficial matters like workplace setting and the period of time in which I watched both shows.
I occasionally followed NewsRadio on NBC during its initial run starting in the mid-90s. But I really latched onto the series in syndication, which started at the end of the decade. Though I loved the ensemble, I also saw more than a little of myself in driven, charmingly square news reporter Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney).
It was around this time that WKRP started airing on Nick-at-Nite. I was an infrequent viewer because cable wasn’t always available, but I’d tune in when I could and was absorbed into the station’s world, even if the music featured in the original run was replaced with soundalikes.
I’m especially curious to revisit WKRP‘s reporter Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers). Loni Anderson’s role as bombshell receptionist Jennifer Marlowe gets much attention, but I’m curious see Quarters in action. Come to think of it, given Marlowe’s obscured professional efficiency, we might draw analogies between Quarters and Marlowe and Mad Men‘s Joan Harris Holloway and Peggy Olson. Nonetheless, I’m interested in rediscovering how these women viewed working in the media industry and how their contributions were evaluated.
So, I finally saw last week’s episode of Gossip Girl. For my money, there is nothing surprising about Sonic Youth performing “Starpower” and bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon marrying Rufus Humphrey and Lily van der Woodsen-Bass-etc. The reason, as I will outline chronologically below, is that flirtations with mainstream popular culture is completely in keeping with their career. This cameo isn’t an isolated incident. If anything this network-savvy band pioneered how indie does synergy.
March 1, 1988: Ciccone Youth, a side project formed in 1986 between the band and Minutemen bassist/co-founder Mike Watt releases The Whitey Album. In this configuration, they took part of their name from Madonna’s surname. They also covered some of her songs, including “Into the Groovey” and “Burnin’ Up.” For good measure, they also covered Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Were they taking the piss or celebrating 80s blockbuster pop? Maybe both? You decide.
June 26, 1990: Goo is released on DGC, marking their major label debut.
In 1991, the Goo video album is released, a clip accompanying each song on the album. Among them are “Mildred Pierce” which features Sofia Coppola dressed as Joan Crawford, who starred in the 1945 film noir of same name, “Disappearer,” which was directed by Todd Haynes, and a few clips directed by Tamra Davis, including “Dirty Boots” and “Kool Thing,” which also featured Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
September 17, 1991: Kim Gordon co-produces Pretty on the Inside, Hole’s debut album, released on Caroline, a subsidiary of Virgin.
July 21, 1992: Dirty is released. Two noteworthy music videos come along with it. Actor Jason Lee, then unknown, is featured as a tragic skateboarder in “100%. The clip was co-directed by Davis and Spike Jonze, who just made some movie about kids and monsters based on a children’s book. Chloë Sevigny, once a Sassy intern, stars in “Sugar Kane,” which also showcases Marc Jacobs’ Perry Ellis grunge collection.
August 9, 1993: “Cannonball” is released as the lead single to The Breeders way-ruling Last Splash. Kim Gordon co-directs the music video with Jonze.
September 14, 1993: Judgment Night is released, along with a successful soundtrack from Epic that pairs alternative/metal acts with rap groups. Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill collaborate on “I Love You Mary Jane.”
1994: Kim Gordon creates X-Girl with Daisy von Furth, a sister clothing line to Beastie Boys Mike D’s X-Large collection. I see DJ Tanner wear an X-Girl blue jumper on Full House and want one.
August 25, 1994: Sonic Youth contributes “Genetic” to the My So-Called Life soundtrack. Released on Atlantic, the compilation features other Juliana Hatfield, Afghan Whigs, Daniel Johnston, and (of course) Buffalo Tom, who every fan remembers played a show on Pike Street.
September 13, 1994: If I Were A Carpenter, a Carpenters tribute album, is released on A&M. An alternafest, acts like American Music Club, Shonen Knife, Babes and Toyland, and Matthew Sweet share time with SY, who cover “Superstar.” In late 2007, the song would make an appearance in the movie Juno.
October 27, 1995: CBS airs “The State’s 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special,” marking the MTV sketch comedy troupe’s network television debut. Sonic Youth is the musical guest. Few people watch (I am one of them), and CBS decides to pull the plug.
May 19, 1996: Fox airs “Homerpalooza,” The Simpsons‘ penultimate episode of its seventh season. In it, Homer goes on tour with Hullabalooza (re: Lollapalooza), taking canons to the gut to the bemusement of thousands of jaded slackers. Several acts made guests appearances, including Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton, and Sonic Youth. The band also provides an “alternative” version to Danny Elfman’s iconic theme song, perhaps getting closer in tone to what creator Matt Groening had originally envisioned when suggesting that avant-jazz composer John Zorn write the show’s theme song. The song is later featured on Rhino’s Go Simpsonic With The Simpsons: Original Music From The Television Series compilation.
June 5, 1996: James Mangold’s debut feature, Heavy, is released in the states. Moore composes the score.
June 1998: I watch the “Kool Thing” video at a Gadzooks in the Mall of America during a trip to Young Life camp in Minnesota.
July 13, 2001: Larry Clark’s Bully is released in theaters. Moore composes the score.
July 25, 2005: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, the director’s take on Kurt Cobain’s final days, is released in the states. Gordon appears as a record executive based on Danny Goldberg trying to turn the main character’s life around. Moore also served as a music consultant.
May 2006: Former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold joins the band. This has nothing to do with matters of synergy or cross-promotion; I just happen to think he’s kinda cute. He was also featured in a comic strip, but the name escapes me. His catchphrase is something to the effect of “I’m Mark, the bassist from Pavement” but I’m butchering it. My friend Susan told me about it, so maybe she’ll share in the comments section.
June 15, 2007: Pitchfork reports that SY will be contributing a new track to an SY retrospective distributed by Starbucks.
November 21, 2007: Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There is released. Gordon’s makes a cameo as folkie Carla Hendricks, who is based on Judy Collins. The casting furthers my suspicion that SY friend Todd Haynes must have been influenced by the band’s fandom of The Carpenters and preoccupation with Karen Carpenter’s tragic struggle with anorexia. They cover “Superstar.” He makes a biopic about Carpenter called Superstar. Coincidence?
September 8, 2008: Choosing not to renew their contract with Geffen, SY sign with indie stalwart Matador.
November 3, 2008: Moore and former Be Your Own Pet frontwoman Jemina Pearl cover The Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” specifically for “There Might Be Blood,” a season two episode of Gossip Girl.
February 16, 2009: Gordon debuts a clothing collection called Mirror/Dash for Urban Outfitters.
Is this bad? Hmm, maybe. I suppose it depends on your outlook. I’d say it’s no worse than The Flaming Lips performing on Beverly Hills, 90210 (although, maybe for it to be equal, Wayne Coyne would have to play a short-order cook at the Peach Pit). Beyond paying the bills and circulating their brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fair amount of post-modern, art-school, post-Warholian why-the-hell-not? factoring into all of Sonic Youth’s above-ground forays. Or maybe they (gasp!) like many of these texts and ventures.
Perhaps the band knows that dabbling with the mainstream is tricky business. Maybe this explains why Moore (and, to a lesser extent Gordon and guitarist Lee Ranaldo, though not media-shy drummer Steve Shelley) cultivated an authoritative presence in recent music documentaries like Punk: Attitude, Kill Yr Idols, and I Need That Record! It may also have fueled a need for an outlet through which to channel more experimental projects, resulting in the band releasing more challenging work through the Sonic Youth Recordings collection, along with Shelley’s Smells Like label and Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. In addition, Ranaldo has done a considerable amount of writing, creates installation projects with his wife Leah Singer, has an extensive solo career, and has performed improvisatory film scores as a member of Text of Light.
And, you know. The band is still really good. Even as folks mine their discography or weave them into above-ground mainstream corporate media culture enterprising, they’re still challenging themselves and making great music. Earlier this year, the band released The Eternal, their 16th album. Peaking at #18 on the Billboard charts, it also boasts a consistently great set of songs and a painting by late guitarist John Fahey for its cover. This blurring of art and commerce, for good or for bad, is in keeping with the band and their contributions to music culture.
Well, yesterday was a special day for many people. And by many people, I mean me. Because yesterday was the day that it was announced that The State is FINALLY coming out on DVD. If any of you watched the beloved mid-90s MTV sketch comedy show or anything the troupe have done since then (Viva Variety!, Stella, Reno 911!, Wainy Days, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter, The Ten, Role Models, etc.), you know that this is a big fucking deal. Getting this collection together has taken about a decade to complete, but now you commodity fetishists don’t have to foam over fuzzy YouTube clips or iTune files or handle your worn copy of the Skits and Stickers tape. You can cradle, lick, and antiseptic your own DVD collection, effective July 14th (and, if you really love me, you’ll remember that I turn 26 less than two weeks after its release).
It can’t be overstated how excited I am that this is hitting the market. I caught The State at my friend Kyle’s house when we were in the 7th grade and it blew my mind. So funny and weird and not funny and cool. That these people got together while students at NYU was enough motivation for me to leave my little rural southeast Texas suburb after high school. And that I may have been the only person in my hometown to watch their disastrous CBS Halloween special (with musical guest Sonic Youth, circa Washing Machine) was all I needed to know just how limiting my hometown really was. Plus, there was always the prospect of having Michael Ian Black for a boyfriend.
But the person who really rattled me good was Kerri Kenney (now Kenney-Silver), the lone female in the group. She was so hilarious, versatile, without vanity, and completely sexy, but in a very awkward, off-center, elastic-face, Amazon-woman kind of way (if you recall, Jenny McCarthy was MTV’s go-to hottie in the mid-90s which, you know, I have no beef with her but her look is not at all relatable to me). You may know her know as Trudy Weigel on Reno 911! or as Dame Delilah but twelve-year-old me may very well have gotten all snide and third wave self-reflexive and critical because of her presence and involvement on the show.
And, of course, it can’t be overlooked that Kerri was the bassist and lead singer of Cake Like, an all-female, post-riot grrrl rock band she formed at NYU with Nina Hellman and Jodi Seifert. Their songs were really dark and creepy, usually focusing on adolescent female sexuality, parental relationships, and girl germs and shot through with coiled verses and corrosive choruses (remember the Pixies and how they influenced everybody in the 90s with quietLOUDquiet song structures?).
Anyway, Kenney-Silver is rad, and I’m glad that the early comedic work she and her dudes did is finally getting the preservation and attention it deserves.