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?
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.
“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.
“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.
“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
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.
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.
The duo Twenty One Pilots’s dreary hit single “Stressed Out” is up for record of the year on Sunday night.
Nominated for song of the year, “Love Yourself ” by Justin Bieber asks a little too much of its listeners.