NARAS, the Grammy organization announced a couple of weeks ago that they were getting rid of a number of categories for the Grammy awards. One of them was Spoken Word for Children, which I have won twice and which I was nominated for this year. Spoken word recordings will now be included in the Best Children’s recording category. A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it, and I’ve been giving it some thought.
The short answer is I wasn’t surprised. There are a lot of categories, and there aren’t a lot of submissions for Children’s Spoken Word category. It is one of the reasons I ever had a chance to be nominated, let alone win. So, on one hand, it’s understandable, I kind of saw it coming, and I have been lucky to be there at all.
But it’s a very complicated issue and trying to separate all the elements of it is pretty difficult. It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about it. Let me try to identify a couple of strands of issues
The first thing is that children’s spoken word has been kind of a catch-all, and the people who make the decisions are probably aware of this. Historically, it’s dominantly been people reading books. In the past fifteen years, people like me who have called themselves storytellers, working with oral narrative, not necessarily with a written script, have gotten nominated. This is an apples and oranges thing, and I view my oral narrative as an art form, different from a reading of the written word. But that is a pretty subtle point to make for people who don’t pay attention. Also, there’s no doubt that it is also a category that people have entered because it seemed like a good place to get a Grammy – fewer nominees, and many of them (me, for instance) not household names. It’s an awkward thing, but I usually found myself up against a franchised character, or someone everyone knows who thought it would be great to make a children’s recording. The same thing happens in the Children’s Music category.
Along with this problem of what exactly a spoken word recording is (anything with people talking 51% of the time), there is the nature of the Grammy process. Anyone who’s a member can vote in the categories they want. A big list comes out in November, people vote where they want, and there are finalists. In each category, interested members can vote for one of five finalists. There is no proof that anyone listens to anything. NARAS asks that recordings be listened to and judged solely on their merit. But the truth is, it is often a beauty contest – you vote for who you know, and while lobbying and outright promotion is supposedly forbidden, everyone has their lists of people who vote. Big recording companies have more clout and access to voters than Round River Records in Seekonk, Massachussetts. So if Bruce Springsteen decided to do a storytelling album for children, you can kind of figure that he’s going to have another trophy on his wall. (Actually, I’d like to hear a Springsteen storytelling album for kids….)
And here, of course, I should point out, I have benefited in some weird way from the beauty contest aspect of it. Because I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years, and was first nominated over ten years ago, there are a certain number of people who know me in the “industry”, and indeed, who have been my champions. In a small category, someone like me had a fighting chance. And I like to believe that my recordings were the best, but you could certainly reasonably argue that others were as good, and that the people voted in the category because they knew me. It’s inescapable, and I’d be disingenuous to think anything different.
That part has always troubled me, and continually adds to the imposter syndrome I have, as do most other artists. And I don’t like the competition aspect of it at all – I’ve been up against friends and it’s awkward, and can make one small. Me included.
Other awards, like Parent’s Choice and the Just Plain Folk award depend on a panel of experts who listen to all the stuff – as did the late great National Association of Independent Record Distributors – I’m very proud I won a “best of” award from them. But NARAS doesn’t work that way.
Still, I should say that the beauty contest aspect isn’t the only thing . Often, a recording is recognized by peers as just being superlative, or artists will win because there is a recognition that their body of work and who they are as an artist deserves recognition. A lot of times awards are saying “It’s about time.” This was true for Bonnie Raitt and her “Nick of Time” album and Carolos Santana’s multiple wins, and Herbie Hancock’s surprising award a couple of years ago. Sometimes the good guys win, and for the right reason.
But there were too many categories, it was said. Now, here the question is whether that was an artistic decision or a commercial decision, and I think you can say pretty clearly it was a commercial decision, based on numbers of entrants and economic clout. The recording industry is in deep trouble, and trying to shore itself up. Note I say industry, not recordings themselves. At the awards ceremony I watched the presenter Kathy Griffin (comedian, ha ha ha) openly denigrate the smaller categories as worthless. No one did anything to contradict her. It was a sad display, and a comment on the Academy’s priorities, even if they were her words.
It was industry, not art that was behind the decision. Let me be clear on this – spoken word is an art form, and the recording of spoken word is an art that has been practiced ever since Edison. Caedmon and Weston Woods pioneered spoken word recordings for children, and they cared passionately about what they did. I am, still, deeply influenced by Bill Cosby’s recordings I listened to growing up, and those of Stan Freberg, and Gene Shepherd, and Dylan Thomas, and Carl Sandburg.
I think something is an art if practice and study makes one better at it, and the possibility of improving is open-ended. I am a better storyteller today than I was twenty years ago, and I take great care with my spoken word recordings. I have an approach to recording stories that has evolved over the years. The last recording I made, just under an hour in length, probably took 70 to 80 hours of work on my time – recording and re-recording, editing, listening, adjusting, rethinking, and mixing and mastering. And that was after the years spent developing the stories in the first place. If I were smarter, I could have done it faster, but sometimes it just takes time. Anyone who has ever listened to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter books knows that a master is at work. And it is a significantly different art than music.
Because the recording industry is almost exclusively about music, I sometimes hear musicians dismiss the spoken word as something anyone could do.
And anyone can play a piano.
Also, it’s part and parcel of working with children to have your work discounted. A very typical experience for me is to have someone fawn all over me when they hear I’ve won a Grammy, and then suddenly lose interest when they find it was a storytelling recording for children. Suddenly, I’m just not very interesting. That’s more of a comment on them, but there it is. Is recording for children an art form or afterthought? Hmmm.
So, I’m saying if this was based on artistry, there was no reason for it to happen. But having been to the Grammys numerous times, I also know that it is mostly about the industry. That’s okay. There is still something exciting about it, and art continues to assert itself, even where Mammon rules. Us little guys get to hang on the fringe, and in some cases have some say. Here I should note Cathy Fink’s dogged determination to have the Grammys mean something to us, and for that I am deeply grateful. She is, really, amazing.
So, I’m sad but understanding of it all. I was very lucky to be there. Spoken word recordings will receive even less attention, and NARAS will have less to do with that one aspect of recording. It is an art, and a fine one, but there is not much money in it. And not a lot of people do it. And my guess is that we’ll never see another spoken word album for children win a Grammy.
Unless, of course, the Boss decides to make one.