By Art Menius, January 21, 2012
Original publication on http://artmenius.com
Update 1/23: Read the thoughts of FAI Executive Director Louis Meyers here.
Update 2/12/12: And as it turns out veteran among veterans Levon Helm wins.
The Grammy controversy about Linda Chorney brings up a number of fascinating topics of which Ms. Chorney herself is the least interesting. Suffice to say for me, the nomination doesn’t bother me much, but a win would.
In case you are not obsessed with who wins the Grammy for Best Americana Recording, in which she is nominated, or any of the folk/roots categories that remain after the recent contraction, let me briefly explain with links to more.
The journeyman Ms. Chorney, 51, has managed a living as a singer-songwriter for 25 years, self-releasing five previous CDs before the Grammy nominated Emotional Jukebox. None have sold out their initial 1000 copy pressing. The cover for Me So Chorney, features her dressed like an Asian teen prostitute. I get that it is a joke, but still…. At the time Emotional Jukebox moved into the third and final round of the Grammy balloting against the latest projects by granola legends Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm (winner of the first Americana Grammy in 2010), and Ry Cooder, the CD had sold not one copy recorded in Nielsen SoundScan system. By her own cheerful admission, the nomination resulted from aggressive social networking Grammy 365, a site set up exactly for this purpose.
For more on how she did this, read the Billboard article here.
The music industry reaction is described in this AP story.
A “fair and balanced” defense of her right to be a nominee by Kim Ruehl appears on the No Depression website.
The many more interesting matters brought up by the Chorney affair include, to me:
1) We are in a period when people with social networking skill and chutzpah can make things happen. Social networking remains a new technology, and that is when unusual things can happen. Ms. Chorney reminds me of Julia Allison, the Twitter queen of 2008. If you’ve forgotten, you can read the Wired article here. Ms. Allison became famous for having lots of Twitter followers because of her facility for self-promotion on Twitter. She made it on to the cover of Wired and into real world friendships with traditionally famous people simply for her ability to tweet herself and use that as a tool for social advancement. Her blog peaked at 10,000 daily readers of reports on stuff she did that day.
It is not like this began with the Internet. Was ole Thomas Paine any different, finding in the American Revolution a vehicle for self-advancement. Much more recently, witness Chloë Sevigny, who would become the middle wife on HBO’s “Big Love.” Five years before “Boys Don’t Cry” made her an art house film star, Ms. Sevigny was already legendary in Manhattan for…. Well, the best anyone could come up with was “her fashion sense” and that she was always at the right place at the right time. Fame ain’t fair.
I said all that to say this, social network promotion is an essential element these days. It is more than fair to criticize Ms. Chorney for releasing far less than the best Americana recording of 2011. Her website provides more than reasonable evidence of a certain self-absorption (even she notes it), so she can take that rap, too. It is patently unfair, however, to attack Ms. Chorney pedal to the metal networking efforts to get in on the ballot. It is hardly her fault that she could achieve the final ballot. Which leads us to….
2) The Grammy Process. This assumes, for purpose of discussion, that Grammys still matter in an era when Pitchfork (also see this 2012 piece) is far and away the most powerful review medium for recordings. Her success should not be too surprising, especially in the second round. A Grammy win for Emotional Jukebox would show that folks are either asleep at the wheel or voting in categories for which they are not qualified in the voter-for-one, winner-takes-all final round.
The second round of Grammy voting is more like the primary. More aberrations occur when one can vote for five, similar to independents voting in partisan primaries. Often in a category one knows something about, a voter will see 2 or 3 titles she or he actually heard and liked. Then, after marking those two or three recordings, the voter looks around and sees not another CD that fills both criteria, heard and liked. Sometimes, people vote for a record they heard and didn’t particularly like. More often, people fill in those last couple of votes based totally on name recognition.
And that is what I believe happened here, same as it always has, except that her networking campaign created the name recognition that caused her to move to the final ballot. “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of Linda Chorney.”
That will exist as long as folks self-police in which nine categories they vote. She just worked the system that was there.
If those two matters were all there were to this (and they are for the mainstream music industry), I would not have bothered to write. I am riffing on Linda Chorney because the reaction to her nomination reveals the less appealing side of the folk-roots-Americana world. This is the community where I live. It concerns me because our community carries the historical burden of being better than that. Ours is the music of the labor movement, of coal miners facing Pinkerton agents. Our community brought “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights movement and provided the soundtrack for it and the first half of the anti-Vietnam War campaign.
3) The Americana community is clubish and inward looking, especially in Nashville. This is my home and my friends. I know whereof I speak. So was the Greenwich Village folk scene fifty years ago. It is a pretty natural development among emerging communities. The controversy and our reactions to it – including mine – treat Ms. Chorney as an outcaste, as not part of our club, as the other, not the we. If one of our friends had done this, we would have thought it was cool, that he or she was fighting the power and beating the man at his own game. An editorial in Cohesion Arts explores this aspect in depth.
Instead, a stranger from the northeast made the final ballot. An actual complete unknown who has survived for close to three decades taking the gigs, such as cruise ships and resorts, that many think below us or what initiates do.
Other than Kim Ruehl, we have reacted not by asking what we can learn from this but by trashing Ms. Chorney’s efforts and spreading pretty bizarre rumours about her on the Internet. We have not shown ourselves to be open and welcoming.
4) Even more disturbing, the reaction to the nomination has brought up divergent perceptions of class strata within the folk and roots community. Within our ideal, classless group, we have as many differing perceptions of haves and have nots as we have people in our community. For millions of people, any one of us is a have because we manage to scratch out a lower middle class living in this field. For others the haves are those who have any kind of management and an agent, maybe a publicist and a recording label. I have been around a long time and think of the haves are those on labels with national distribution, and big name management, booking, and media representation.
It is as shifting as it is pernicious. The one thing, I submit, that we cannot do in this community is permit the perception of “The Other,” for us to think our differences are greater than that which we have in common. We can not vote for Ms. Chorney without putting her down. We can praise her opponents instead of tearing her down as if we were a bunch of Republican presidential candidates. We can explore how we can use tools like Grammy365.com on behalf of ourselves and our friends.
We are in this together from all aspects of the performing folk arts. The enemy ain’t each other. Nor is it a minor singer-songwriter who manages to get on the ballot.
The enemy is human nature, our propensity for imputing bad motives in those we do not consider friends. Our tendency to divide rather than unite, to see allies and enemies. Our foolish concern with who gets to wear the biggest headdress.
As the folk community, annealed in our desire to use the performing folk arts to build a better, more justice, equitable, and diverse society, we have a responsibility to humanity to model better ways of thinking about the world, to frame issues for the “both and” not “either or.”
We have the capacity as a community to change the world not just through our art but with how we look at the world.