Bruno Mars Swept the 2018 Grammys Because They Love Smooth Music
'24K Magic''s many wins are just part of a tradition of the Recording Academy awarding well-crafted but safe pop.
Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Aside from the violent imagery of Kendrick Lamar's opening medley, Kesha's catharsis, and Camila Cabello's heartfelt support of DACA, (the several cracks at Trump throughout the night weren't noteworthy, and the less said about U2's well-meaning but ham-fisted symbolism, the better) the 60th Grammy Awards were business as usual for the Recording Academy. That included giving the night's major awards of Album of the Year, Recording of the Year, and Song of the Year to Bruno Mars' 24K Magic. The move is irksome to "woke," tuned-in critics: Lorde's Melodrama or Kendrick's DAMN. were far more deserving wins on paper for Best Album, and "Despacito" dominated the year. All three are also more politically relevant than Bruno's good-times pop-funk, so the choice to award 24K Magic seems like cowardice at best and malevolence at worst to these viewers. In reality, it's neither. The Grammys merely have a tradition of not just awarding blockbuster pop but really dang smooth blockbuster pop.
"Smooth" is absolutely the word for 24K Magic, glistening with 80s-styled Yamaha DX7 keyboard patches, lush vocals, and complex quiet storm chord progressions. As a pastiche, it's top-of-the-class, sold with enthusiasm and genuine reverence for the Teddy Rileys and Babyfaces who inspired it. It's not important, but it is very good. The same can be for the self-titled 1979 debut album by Christopher Cross, one of the definitive yacht rock albums. No one would mistake it for profound, but its effortless songwriting and perfectly played and arranged songs classify it as an achievement. It won Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1981, the same year Pink Floyd were nominated for their influential and bestselling rock opera The Wall. Cross' yacht rock anthem "Sailing" took Song and Record of the Year, too. Ditto for Toto's fourth album (of "Africa" fame), claiming Album of the Year and Record of the Year for "Rosanna" in 1983. The Doobie Brothers got Song of the Year for "What a Fool Believes" in 1979, Santana got Record of the Year for the actual "Smooth" in 2000. Again, these songs and albums are still fire, (other than "Smooth") but ultra-safe. The hell is going on here, other than the Grammys' typical detachment from the most vital music being made at each moment in time?
For the yacht rockers, it's mainly to do with the fact that those albums shared musicians and songwriters, all of whom were part of the Los Angeles major label music machine at the time. Toto's Jeff Porcaro, a drumming legend, was on most of these records, as were songwriters Michael McDonald, David Foster, and Rod Temperton. It was a scene, and scenes do indeed usually celebrate themselves. Hence, the LA soft-rock sound ran rampant over the LA-focused Recording Academy. This episode of the classic, well-researched web series Yacht Rock provides a good fictionalised summary of how the whole thing worked in the case of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature":
Bruno's scenario is a little bit tougher to parse. His sound is indeed as jazzy as yacht rock, but it's not that exactly. Plus his production and songwriting are largely self-contained, so the incestuous LA soft rock cabal – in whatever form it's in today – isn't as big an influence here. Nostalgia might be key here, as older Recording Academy voters appreciated the expert reconstructions of new jack swing and classic R&B. Maybe there was another voter split by genre, like the kind that resulted in Beck winning over Beyoncé in 2015. Maybe... just maybe, though... 24K Magic was just a very enjoyable and well-made album that succeeded in its goals, even if they weren't particularly lofty. In any case, it's no surprise that, once again, an inoffensive but meticulous pop album ran away with the Grammys' major awards. That's not a bad thing, since 24K Magic is a blast to listen to. The Academy could have nominated and given it to Ed Sheeran, for Pete's sake. We should stop placing so much onus on the Grammys to provide approval for where music is going, anyways.
Phil is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.