Here's a question: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only listen to three records for the rest of your life, which would they be? I think about this myself a lot, and sometimes I ask other people their answers to make up for my inability to make substantial conversation with other people.
But usually the reaction is pretty exciting. Almost without fail, people apologize, wandering around their list as if they have something to hide, and then finally unloading a trio of very distinct, if maybe less acknowledged records. And I always go back to ask why they felt so insecure with their choices. What sort of obligation did they feel going into it? Because the point of the whole exercise is that their list should have been different from other people's––it's a reflection of your own personality.
But that expectation is everywhere. We expect for there to be some universality in musical preference, which is why we feel the need to quantify album reviews and derive lists that rank the year's best albums each December. But no matter how many numbers we throw on a page, what it comes down to is very simple—how happy would you be if you were stuck on a desert island with only this record to listen to?
Where this gets complicated is when you try to make a universal list for a population that maybe hasn't been exposed to the same records. To be sure, if you're going to be stuck on a desert island, you'd be hesitant to choose to spend the rest of your waking life listening to any old album. And so we make concessions and choose things that maybe aren't our favorites but that we can tolerate all the same.
That's necessary when you accept any amount of authority, though. And so revisit that first question, but this time imagine you're part of a list-making group that garners genuine excitement and investment from a very wide audience. That is, imagine you're the Grammys. Your role, then, becomes something like the electoral college of pop music's presidency. You need to reconcile what people seem to need (qualitative or substantive excellence) with what people seem to want (for lack of a better measurement, expressed through sales figures). We get those things mixed up a lot, relying on numbers or ""hard facts"" to stand in for the more complicated and immeasurable qualitative functions. It's what got shows like ""Party Down"" and ""Arrested Development"" cancelled before they could garner appropriate audiences, and what makes politicians confuse cutting costs with cutting liberties (Scott Walker, raise up).
This year, the Grammys regained a middle ground. Of all the finalists, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs sold the fewest records, and there's an entire web phenomenon tracking the public outrage over how a band they've never heard of could have won—or, how so many people could be stuck on an island with a record by a band of ugly Canadians (not all of them are ugly). But this isn't the kind of sea change many people are making it out to be—Arcade Fire have sold out Madison Square Garden and headlined large festivals, and it's not like they're starved of attention from the media. The album's award doesn't represent any major shift in popular music, but it does represent a shift in where the Grammys focus their attention. The Grammys opened their doors to indie culture, and when you're making a democratic decision about eternal damnation, that's all that really matters.
Who is Arcade Fire, you may ask? Kyle will be happy (or at the most just mildly annoyed) to tell you at email@example.com.