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The Politics of Music Awards

There are hardly any award shows that are free of frenetic lobbying and horse-trading

Published: Apr 22, 2014 06:26:36 AM IST
Updated: Apr 21, 2014 03:41:01 PM IST
The Politics of Music Awards
A Still of Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

Come awards season and everyone wants to wield a tiny monument of achievement from atop a perch, offering platitudes of gratitude to God, country and high-placed corporate executives. The recently-concluded 86th Academy Awards was, as usual, the largest viewed gathering of them all. Held in Los Angeles and hosted by the darling of a million TRPs Ellen DeGeneres, the Oscars—as they are known, for the large, shiny trophy wouldn’t be allowed on board a passenger jet liner lest it be used to threaten the commander with cerebral damage—played its role well. It was a heady mix of conventional and controversial, keeping the gawking masses in comfortable ennui, astutely employing the familiarity of format and appearance, while gently fanning the embers of competition and contention.

Convention and predictability were rife in the Best Song nominations: A couple of animated movies—one of them inevitably a Disney flick (Frozen, Despicable Me 2); a smart, offbeat film by a onetime music video auteur (Spike Jonze’s Her) and a heartrending biopic of a recently perished icon of anti-oppression and nonviolence (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). The Disney pic won with ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen. Where’s the controversy, you ask? It’s coming.

The Best Original Score noms included The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena and Saving Mr Banks. No mention in either music category of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ fabulously simple tale of a struggling folk singer, Inside Llewyn Davis, featuring a stellar performance by lead actor Oscar Isaac as actor, singer and guitar player. The film was largely ignored by the Academy, despite a killer soundtrack from a team that never fails to deliver the most interesting music a movie could contain. Per convention, the winning horse took home the bulk of the loot: Gravity justly won over every movie lover with its incredible technical vision, but its mostly silent soundtrack hardly warranted an accolade of such magnitude.

But then, awards are politics. There is hardly an awards show that is free of frenetic lobbying and horse-trading. Backroom machinations by studios and production houses are legend when it comes to wooing and cajoling voting members to their favour.
 
So it is with the Grammy Awards, whose credibility has long been in question. Cartels comprising the biggest record labels have been known to share the spoils since the very beginning. The point that most people miss is that the shows are less about selecting and commending the best available than they are about television ratings. Sadly—or not—the Grammy’s ratings have been steadily plummeting. No wonder it was all humdrum predictability at the 56th Grammy Awards, held in January: Daft Punk, Lorde, Bruno Mars, Imagine Dragons, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Dave Grohl and friends—surely they could have gone beyond the usual crowd-pleasers and “stalwarts”. Growing up, I loved Led Zeppelin, but honouring them for a belated live concert of aged hits? The audience ain’t dumb.

The Politics of Music Awards
Adil & Vasundhara put up a stellar show at the Jack Daniel’s Rock Awards, the oldest independent music awards in India

In India, the scale may be smaller, but the desire to be lauded is not. Bullying, grovelling and scrambling for a glimmering prize is rife. The need for recognition by peers, the press and the public is high on the minds and agendas of entertainers across the country. The MTV Video Music Awards last year brought out the “big guns” of Bollywood and Hindi/Punjabi pop. AR Rahman, Yo Yo Honey Singh and other sparkling-trousered luminaries graced the stage with blazing—not to mention, blatant—lipsynching performances. Not a single performer played live. But then the awards were for videos—lipsynched performances of themselves.

As fierce as the competition amongst artistes is, the rivalry between the award shows, each one trying to establish itself as the real one, is intense too. But claim as they might to be all-encompassing, it’s really all about Bollywood. The expansively named Global Indian Music Awards was equally fixated on our homegrown tinsel town. The bulk of the laurels was proffered to playback singers, music directors and background scores. The evening’s entertainment was peppered by lavish displays of actors gyrating to filmi songs. The other categories were a smattering of genres—ghazal, classical, rock, pop, etc. As with virtually every other award show in the country, it was an evening of choreographed hip thrusts and fakery—lipsynch was the way yet again. Ironic, when people are being celebrated for their skill and artistry.

The only prevailing option to Bollywood obsession is the Jack Daniel’s Rock Awards, the longest-running independent music awards in India. The ragtag gathering of non-filmi, non-traditional rock, pop and electronic musicians brought oxygen to the air. The music was fresh, the performances were all live, originality and individuality rang loud and true, and the pretension was low. The parallel universe of the indie music scene in India is at the threshold of a slow burning inferno. The mainstream music industry would do well to learn from its little half-brother. When Adil & Vasundhara, Tough on Tobacco, Coshish and other nominees hit the stage, each one burning down the house with a stellar performance, it didn’t matter who took home a trophy—everyone in the room was a winner for the sheer creative virtuosity.

We live in a world of probably the greatest ferment and output the human race has ever seen. The anarchic upturning of the music industry by rampant downloads and flagrant file sharing has created an environment of genre fearlessness. Musicians across the globe are blending, mashing, merging and melding sounds, styles, textures and techniques with revolutionary irreverence. Affordable home studios and high-speed internet connections have resulted in streams, rivulets and raging torrents of talent feeding the vast ocean of creation. That big industry, in cahoots with mass media, will always try to corral it down to a few is inevitable; their commerce depends on control. But the levee is breaking and the slow flood is bringing truth. 


(The author is the lead singer of Indus Creed)

(This story appears in the March-April 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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