Grammy Lessons in Institutional Mediocrity

Last night I set a terrible example by helping my daughter with her homework while watching the Grammys. Multitasking on important stuff = bad, I know this. The homework in question revolved around “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H. Auden. It’s a deeply satirical poem, and definitely not the best way to get a teenager interested in poetry. However, on Grammy night, this one hit me straight in the gut. It hit her directly in the nerve that triggers eye rolling, but I saved (most of) my thoughts for here.

As a slight parody of the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” Auden sets about eulogizing a recently deceased man from the viewpoints of various organizations. From their perspective, average is excellent. At the end it asks, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

And then, close to that moment, Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” won Album of the Year.

To be clear, I like Bruno Mars. I think he’s an incredibly talented writer and musician, and his persistence is admirable. He even gave a great speech, name dropping the well-deserved inspirations of this album (I never thought new jack swing would be back in my life). But for all of the album’s chart topping hits, there is literally nothing new here.

Does he Keith Sweat and BBD with the best of them? Sure, but how is this different from Michael Buble’s crooning? Again, it may be fun – but there’s literally nothing new here. Now I don’t begrudge Buble or Bruno’s existence at all, but something seems wrong when we label derivative works as “best new” anything. Good? Fine. Best NEW? No way.

So then why DID it win? Because like the institutions in Auden’s poem, you don’t give awards to the dangerous rebels who just might burn your system down. Instead, you praise the fortifying mediocrity that insures the institution’s long-term survival. Average is excellent in a six sigma world. “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be / One against whom there was no official complaint, / And all the reports on his conduct agree / That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.”

So yeah, if you didn’t already figure it out, I think Kendrick was robbed – but I’m not surprised. The Grammys are another reminder that we frequently design our institutions to tell emperors their new clothes look beautiful. If you, like the child in the tale, can see that he’s got nothing on – or like in Auden’s poem, you can see the absurdity of labeling average as excellent – then it’s your obligation to care about what matters. Passion drives progress. They may still not be able to get the award “right,” but the platform for Kendrick’s opening performance, Janelle Monae’s “times up” speech, and Kesha’s backup choir made the show worthwhile. There are seeds in the cracks of this foundation, and I’ll take solace in that.