Thursday, January 30, 2020

Award Shows: The Art of Being a Celebrity

Once again I had the annual opportunity to NOT WATCH the Grammy Awards last weekend. And, I didn't watch them. On Monday, however, I read the whole list of winners and nominees with much interest.

I am not a snob. Really, I'm not!😉

You all know I love music. And every year, the Grammys draw attention (with their nominations as well as their winners) to some really outstanding works of recorded music. Indeed, the Grammy Awards recognize the whole concept of "recordings" as artifacts in themselves — "works of art" that can be appreciated in various distinctive ways, and that need the expert attention of many people in order to be made well.

A "record" is about singers, songwriters, musicians, music, recording technicians (who are themselves contributing artists), and the collaboration, dedication, and patience required for "sculpting" a first-class audio recorded performance. These people deserve to be recognized and honored. I salute them, and thank them.

The Grammys are a chance for recordings (primarily but not exclusively musical recordings) to get recognition from a substantial "guild" of people with experience in many aspects of the craft as it is practiced and distributed among what is the most high-profile and (theoretically) the most prestigious music public in the world.

This is the value of the Grammy Awards. Most of the awards that interest me were given out in the afternoon, in front of smaller crowds at the Staples Center, before the prime-time network television broadcast of the "awards show." Some of the winners were not even present because they were off somewhere else making music, or engaging in other human endeavors. No one was bothered by their absence. No gossip was generated. They eventually acknowledged the honor (in part) by means of a genuinely grateful tweet or Instagram post when they received the news.

This is not surprising. Artists are focused on their craft.

Generally, excellent musicians are also pretty cool people. They want to make music and share it with others. Recognition has value for them because it means the music is reaching more people. Some enjoy "standing out" in performance, while others prefer to collaborate in an ensemble, a session, or a band. What they love, more than anything else about the "business," is making music.

The "Awards Show" on TV doesn't really focus on any of this. Nor does the hype leading up to it.

Rather, the show is a spectacle for the place where music and musical talent intersect with another ruthlessly competitive form of "performance art" — the art of "making" one's entire external life into a persona that can capture and sustain the fascination of masses of people. This is the "art" of being a celebrity.

Ah, the celebrity! What is this strange love-hate, attraction-repulsion, adulation-scapegoating "energy" that connects an individual to a crowd, or even a movement of people? Why do some people crave it and cultivate it? Why are so many of us drawn into its weird pseudo-intimacy? I can't do the philosophy here.

"Fame" is a complex phenomenon with so many levels (especially with the possibilities of today's interactive media). There are some people who seem almost to have a natural aptitude for it, a charisma, a "star" quality, ultimately maybe even a vocation to it. For artists and musicians, there are some levels of fame that are bearable, even fruitful — I'm going to present some examples from Sunday's Grammy winners if I ever manage to get to the end of this article.😉

But the artistic celebrity is particularly fragile, I think, perhaps because they are always conscious — in some way — of the labor of making or sustaining the artifact of their self-image.

I see celebrities and their often unbearable pain. It can be "intriguing" to observe and analyze pop stardom, though it's hard not to veer toward a kind of morbid curiosity or cynicism. I try to give them a different kind of attention. Today they are more "open" about their struggles and problems, but even here there is an ambivalence — a mixture of sincere personal frankness and more work to make an image of one's self as an "open person" (here too, last Sunday offered a poignant example at one point, which I will also get to eventually). How much is the artist really being vulnerable and how much are they just hiding in the shadows of the most recent image they have made? That's probably a question we can't ever really answer. But it frightens me to think that the arduous work of creating a sculpture out of one's own life can become the building of one's own tomb.

I really want to empathize with and love the celebrity as a person, insofar as there is some realistic possibility of doing that. This means praying for them, certainly. It also means appreciating their music, the genuine expression contained within it, and the often-frustrated possibilities of their talents, as well as respecting the mystery of their suffering. That's all I can really do, because I don't know any big celebrities personally.

The annual Grammy Awards Prime-time T.V. Extravaganzas (and other awards shows like them) are too much weighed down by everything that is not helpful here: they are gatherings of celebrities covered over with strange display, vulgar bling, posturing, melodrama (not everyone, of course, but this is what clamors for attention, and increasingly generates controversy). The music that is performed shows gigantic effort but too often with "strained" results. One wonders what might be possible with less self-consciousness.

So I don't watch. It's more than I can take in one sitting. Maybe, I'm too sensitive. Or maybe I don't want to deal with the garish, excessive, laborious and desperately hypersexed performances that inevitably happen at some point[s] during the evening. I know, in any case, that if there is a genuinely remarkable artistic moment, I'll see it eventually.

Occasionally there are moments powerful enough that they impress everyone. Then of course it's all over the Internet the next morning. The human heart can still be reached. And that is what happened, I think, on Sunday night, in a way that was stunning and surprising to a cynic like me. I don't mind being surprised. Thank God for surprises!

But I'll have to treat these particulars in a continuation of this article (because it's too long for one post). In the next post, there will be some good news from the 62nd Grammy Awards.

I'm sure I'll finish this before next Sunday. That's when I plan to NOT WATCH the Super Bowl... unless someone is having a party and there's beer and snacks...😉