A Gram­mys PITY PARTY

Ku­dos to the Record­ing Academy for hon­or­ing youth­ful voices, but why do so many songs drip with white-boy melan­choly and ego?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY CHRIS RICHARDS

Be­fore we com­mence shout­ing at the clouds on Sun­day night, here’s a quick re­fresher on how the Grammy Awards work, or don’t: The Record­ing Academy in­vites its over­whelmed mu­sic biz elec­torate to cast votes for ex­cel­lence in as many as 19 of 80-odd cat­e­gories, and once the bal­lots are counted, they stage a ratings-hun­gry awards tele­cast dur­ing which young nom­i­nees are re­quired to duet with more rec­og­niz­able veter­ans, forg­ing a su­per­fi­cial trans-gen­er­a­tional con­ti­nu­ity that hon­ors the past on a night os­ten­si­bly de­signed to cel­e­brate the present. The cloud grows darker and more bloated each year, but the lin­ing stays sil­very. The deeper the Gram­mys sink into mean­ing­less­ness, the more mean­ing­ful our shouts be­come.

In re­cent years, the most nour­ish­ing Grammy-sea­son de­bates have cen­tered around how the Record­ing Academy dis­perses pres­tige be­tween races and across gen­er­a­tions. Last Fe­bru­ary, Grammy vot­ers chose Tay­lor Swift’s “1989” as its al­bum of the year over Ken­drick La­mar’s “To Pimp a But­ter­fly,” and on Sun­day, they’ll be making a sim­i­lar choice — be­tween sooth­ing, white ra­dio-pop and imag­i­na­tive, black ag­it­prop — when Adele’s “25” com­petes with Bey­oncé’s “Le­mon­ade” for the evening’s

most cov­eted prize.

While Bey­oncé and Adele are dis­tinct artists, it’s worth not­ing that they — along with the other three nom­i­nated for al­bum of the year, Justin Bieber, Drake and coun­try out­sider Sturgill Simp­son — are pre-mid­dle-aged. This is some­thing. Roughly a decade ago, the Gram­mys had de­vel­oped an affin­ity for retroac­tively dec­o­rat­ing artists well past their cre­ative primes. Her­bie Han­cock won al­bum of the year in 2008. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss took it in 2009. Great mu­si­cians, no doubt, but their great­est al­bums had been recorded many years ear­lier.

This year’s Gram­mys slate, how­ever, shows some vi­tal signs in skew­ing young. In the four main genre-blind cat­e­gories, ev­ery artist nom­i­nated is un­der the age of 40. If it isn’t ageist to as­sert that most pop stars make their bold­est marks be­fore midlife, this shift counts as progress in Gram­my­land.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feel­ing that this year’s vot­ers are lis­ten­ing to young mu­sic through old ears. That’s be­cause four songs nom­i­nated for the night’s big­gest tro­phies — Lukas Gra­ham’s “7 Years,” Mike Pos­ner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” Twenty One Pi­lots’ “Stressed Out,” and Justin Bieber’s “Love Your­self” — each seem to rein- force some of the most te­dious stereo­types about mil­len­ni­als. These songs feel self-ab­sorbed, su­per­fi­cial, en­ti­tled, whiny. Do older lis­ten­ers hear that as au

then­tic­ity? Let us dis­cuss them now and never again.

Lukas Gra­ham

“7 Years.” Lukas Forch­ham­mer is the front­man of this al­most-epony­mous Dan­ish pop group, whose “7 Years” is up for record and song of the year. It’s an over­sung com­ing-of-age story in which Forch­ham­mer runs hot-and-cold on his own dreams. “Some­thing about that glory only seemed to bore me,” he de­clares one mo­ment, then “I don’t be­lieve in fail­ure” the next. If the man’s am­bi­tion is confused, his singing is not. Nearly ev­ery syl­la­ble feels showy, pun­gent with ur­gency and over­con­fi­dence. Forch­ham­mer re­cently told the New York Times that he’s “sick and tired of fast food and pop­corn” sat­u­rat­ing the ra­dio, but shrewdly didn’t say any­thing about ham or cheese.

Mike Pos­ner

“I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” Nom­i­nated for song of the year, this guy-with-gui­tar bal­lad opens with some charm­ing self-dep­re­ca­tion, (“I took a pill in Ibiza to show Avicii” — the su­per­star DJ — “I was cool”), but when the cho­rus at­tempts to el­e­vate Pos­ner to anti-hero sta­tus, (“You don’t wanna be high like me, never re­ally know­ing why like me”), the pathos feels un­earned. Funny how the ex­ces­sive self­pity washes away on Seeb’s dance remix of the song, which gen­er­ated more com­pas­sion — and more air­play — for Pos­ner than the orig­i­nal un­plugged ren­di­tion. Why that less-melo­dra­matic, vastly su­pe­rior ver­sion isn’t up for this prize is one of many mys­ter­ies at this year’s Grammy Awards.

Twenty One Pi­lots

“Stressed Out.” “Out of stu­dent loans and tree house homes we all would take the lat­ter,” puns singer Tyler Joseph half­way through Twenty One Pi­lots’ break­out sin­gle. It’s a line so bad, it should stress us all out. Ev­ery­thing about this rock-rapreg­gae hy­brid sounds as if it was writ­ten by an al­go­rithm, es­pe­cially the lyrics, which pine for a full re­treat to child­hood. That fan­tasy ob­vi­ously isn’t a ten­able so­lu­tion to the ag­o­nies of mod­ern adult­hood, but this dreary lit­tle hit-slog — nom­i­nated for record of the year on Sun­day — fails to even make it feel like an ap­peal­ing one.

Justin Bieber

“Love Your­self.” Okay, let’s give credit where credit is due. There’s a poi­son dart in this tune, and it goes like this: “My mama don’t like you, and she likes ev­ery­one.” Yowee. Has a pop star ever weaponized their own mother as ruth­lessly as Bieber does in this re­frain? Nom­i­nated for song of the year, “Love Your­self ” is em­blem­atic of Bieber’s un­canny knack for get­ting it right and wrong in the same stroke. It’s an ex­pertly sung kiss-off where Bieber claims to have been ini­tially blind to his girl’s wrong­do­ings be­cause, “I’ve been so caught up in my job.” It’s a song that asks us to cheer for a venge­ful, self­ab­sorbed ca­reerist. It asks too much.

In­di­vid­u­ally, these songs are lit­tle more than pesky melodic ir­ri­tants, but to­gether, they seem to be bur­nish­ing a new aes­thetic of mil­len­nial white-boy melan­choly — a sound that has clearly res­onated with the mem­ber­ship of the Record­ing Academy.

Or maybe it’s just that these songs speak di­rectly to an elec­torate of thwarted mu­si­cians. Each of these tracks has at least one line about the heroic strug­gle of song­writ­ing it­self. Lukas Gra­ham: “I started writ­ing songs, I started writ­ing sto­ries.” Pos­ner: “I’m just a singer who al­ready blew his shot.” Twenty One Pi­lots: “I wish I had a bet­ter voice and sang some bet­ter words.” Bieber: “I didn’t wanna write a song, ’cause I didn’t want any­one think­ing I still care.”

Ei­ther way, all these young dudes still have things to learn about how their songs are sung. Self-pity won’t float a bal­lad if the vo­cal­ist doesn’t sound gen­uinely wounded. Self-ab­sorp­tion is more mag­netic when it’s scan­dal­iz­ing (see: Kanye West) than when it’s aus­tere.

And if whin­ing about these whin­ers makes you feel as if you’ve sud­denly been pos­sessed by the rov­ing spirit of Andy Rooney, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that there are still armies of young mae­stros forg­ing am­bi­tious, self-aware mu­sic out of hope, fury, free­dom and de­sire. Some are com­pet­ing for best new artist on Sun­day night (Chance the Rap­per, Maren Mor­ris), some will com­pete for lesser prizes, (Lil Yachty, Gal­lant), some were un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously snubbed (YG, Alessia Cara, Young Thug), and one wisely de­cided to boy­cott the Gram­mys out­right (Frank Ocean).

On Mon­day morn­ing, the win­ners won’t nec­es­sar­ily be the ones hold­ing the tro­phies.

CLOCK­WISE FROM BOT­TOM: JUSTIN BIEBER; LUKAS FORCH­HAM­MER OF LUKAS GRA­HAM; TYLER JOSEPH AND JOSH DUN OF TWENTY ONE PI­LOTS; AND MIKE POS­NER/ ILLUSTRATION BY KELSEY DAKE FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ZACH ALLIA

Mike Pos­ner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” nom­i­nated for song of the year, starts out charm­ing enough but then drowns in ex­ces­sive self-pity.

DANNY CLINCH

Nearly ev­ery syl­la­ble of “7 Years,” a nom­i­nee for both record and song of the year by Dan­ish pop quar­tet Lukas Gra­ham, feels showy, pun­gent with ur­gency and over­con­fi­dence.

JABARI JACOBS

The duo Twenty One Pi­lots’s dreary hit sin­gle “Stressed Out” is up for record of the year on Sun­day night.

POOL PHOTO BY LIONEL CIRONNEAU/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nom­i­nated for song of the year, “Love Your­self ” by Justin Bieber asks a lit­tle too much of its lis­ten­ers.

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