As Sunday’s Grammys proved again, the Recording Academy isn’t the most forward-looking institution. While it wrings its hands about piracy, even as the music industry crumbles all around it, the Academy lavishes honors on the retro pairing of metal dinosaur Robert Plant and bluegrass craftswoman Alison Krauss — just as in recent years, it’s chosen Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, Steely Dan, the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Santana, Tony Bennett, and Natalie Cole (her Unforgettable duet with her late father took Album of the Year in 1992, when Nirvana’s earthshaking Nevermind wasn’t even nominated). I don’t mean to slight Plant and Krauss’ Raising Sand, an album I really enjoyed, but the Grammys have a long history of not recognizing the most innovative new music until the train has long since left the station. For anyone who was paying attention, last year’s most notable efforts in new music were Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III and Radiohead’s In Rainbows; at least both got nominated for Album of the Year.
It would be easy to conflate the Grammys’ aesthetically conservative taste with politically conservative taste, had not the fish in a barrel over at Big Hollywood reminded us a couple of times last week how absurd that path is. First, there was the post “Republican is the New Punk,” which tries to claim everyone from Johnny Cash to Johnny Rotten for the right, and which is historically wrong in about 563 different ways. Then there was the fine eulogy for Cramps frontman Lux Interior, a guy few conservatives had anything nice to say about when he was alive. In the comments for that item was the suggestion that punk is conservative because it was the back-to-basics reaction to the excesses of pretentious hippie art-rock (which, of course, came to call itself “progressive rock”). Here, the Big Hollywood folks are confusing aural conservatism (little “c”) with ideological Conservatism (big “C”). Of course, prog owed much of its artsiness to old-world modes of classical music, while punk’s shock came in part from its building on the experiments in noise and feedback launched by the Velvet Underground. Which genre, then, was really more innovative? About two minutes of listening to one of the Clash’s reggae-based numbers should be enough to disabuse any thinking, listening person of the notion that punk was conservative or reactionary in either its sonic palette or its politics. Still, the notion persists that there must be some correlation between forward-looking music and forward-looking ideals. If anything, the BH response to punk, like the Grammys’ response to today’s innovative music, shows that that correlation doesn’t exist.