The most common question on so many minds -- about two acts, in particular -- last night and today seems to be: Who the @#$%! is that?
Sunday night's Grammy Awards, never a bastion of youth and fresh thinking, contained some real wrenches -- surprise awards to genuinely creative talents that are not, by any means, household names.
This may not be a watershed moment, no Tahrir Square-worthy revolution in the establishment thinking of the Recording Academy -- to wit, Paul McCartney's Grammy for "Helter Skelter," for Pete's sake -- but this particular commercial democracy produced some head-scratching results that made for one of the most interesting Grammy ceremonies in a long, long time.
The aftermath of Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding ...
The question "Who is Arcade Fire?" (or, in a few cases, "Who are the Suburbs?") became its own meme last night on Twitter. Cultural arbiters Dog the Bounty Hunter and Rosie O'Donnell chimed in to ask the question, angry and alarmed. (Read some hilarious post-Grammys Facebook posts and tweets gathered on this Tumblr blog.) In one beautiful moment, every boomer in America realized they were finally out of touch -- and panicked.
The confusion began with the tearing of the envelope. Barbra Streisand personified a deer in the headlights as she lingered on a syllable -- "The Ssssssss-uburbs!" -- hesitant to commit to the album of the year winner on the card in her hand. The band members themselves, shown in the wings fresh from their pounding performance, immediately began belly-laughing. (The band quickly tweeted its own reaction: "OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD.") They placed their trophies on their amps and gleefully played another song, "Ready to Start," whose first line is, "Businessmen they drink my blood." In the press room backstage, Arcade Fire singer Win Butler said, "This is just from outer space."
Actual answer: Arcade Fire is a sprawling, many-membered indie-rock band based in Montreal. They've been critics' darlings for a few years, on the strength of beautiful, complex records featuring passionate singing and broad instrumentation. They've performed twice on "Saturday Night Live." Their albums have consistently placed in annual best-of charts (including mine). They've been nominated for alternative album three times at the Grammys and never won it.
Why did they win?: The only answer has to be a split vote, and that membership in the Recording Academy in 2011 is finally skewing toward a post-boomer age group -- one that is busy today answering these questions. Eminem's "Recovery" was 2010's best-seller, but it's still just edgy enough to scare older Grammy voters, who no doubt propelled Lady Antebellum's crossover wins in other top categories. Younger voters certainly couldn't bring themselves to vote for Katy Perry and may have rightly thought Lady Gaga's cheap theatrics unworthy of the top prize. That left a why-not vote for Arcade Fire. Woo-hoo!
What it means: Probably not much. The Grammy sales bump evaporated around Y2K. Independent labels actually have won the album of the year Grammy three years in a row now -- Taylor Swift's "Fearless" was on Big Machine, and Robert Plant & Alison Kraus' "Raising Sand" was on Rounder -- but Arcade Fire had to win the award before the masses looked into their existence. That in itself might lead to people making discoveries in indie music, so here's to that.
Hell hath no fury like a Justin Bieber fan scorned. Shortly after jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding was named best new artist at Sunday's Grammys, Bieber's young fans reacted to his loss by vandalizing Spalding's page on Wikipedia. Her victory had been noted by the site's updaters, but after that someone added: "JUSTIN BIEBER DESERVED IT GO DIE IN A HOLE. WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?" Later, this included, "Even though no one has ever heard of her! Yay!" Elsewhere on the page, Spalding's middle name was changed to "Justin" and "Quesadilla." At one point, the page concluded: "BIBER [sic] 4 LYFE!"
The Beeb himself was far more gracious, telling MTV News after the ceremony: "I'm not going to lie -- I was disappointed. But, you know, I'm gonna come back [next year] and we'll take a few home."
Actual answer: Well, she's hardly new, for starters. Her first album came out in 2006; 2010's "Chamber Music Society" is her third. But then, Grammy's definition of new means "new to you." The category awards "a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist." A native of Portland, Ore., Spalding was a prodigy on the double bass from age 15 on, graduating college at 19 and immediately becoming an instructor at the esteemed Berklee music school. She mixes up many genres and styles in her music and singing, and she has fabulous hair.
What it means: Zilch. Many winners in this category are never heard from again, and this does not herald a golden age of popular jazz bass.