The Grammys theory of the GMAs

Okay, it’s pretty fun to see Mayday in the Wall Street Journal. It’s only fair, you know, since Mayday has name-checked Wall Street twice in their songs (“Noah’s Ark” and “Good night, Earthlings”). Nothing in the post-GMA news has surprised me, including the fact that the boys had broken two of their Golden Melody Awards while horsing around backstage before the ceremony was even over, or the the fact that the big question on everyone’s minds immediately after the program was “where were they keeping the bananas?” (Masa’s answer: Once you have a boyfriend, you’ll figure that out. Ashin’s: Men’s pockets are larger than women’s. So yes, it really was a banana in his pocket….)

While basking in the glow of the big Mayday victory at the GMAs – which somehow feels like a victory for all of us – I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer my theory of the awards. Like the American Grammy awards, the GMAs often come under fire for what they do and do not recognize. In both cases, the awards are completely unimportant, even ridiculous – until you win one. (Just ask Cowboy Jay, who has gone back and forth between declaring them all dilettantes when he wasn’t nominated to geniuses when he won.) In the United States, there’s always some added controversy about whether certain styles of music are being recognized, or whether a really popular artist whose impact has been great but whose musicality might not appeal to the judges should be given an award. For the former, think rap music, which has dominated top 40 radio, gets loads of nominations, but rarely wins; for the latter, think Justin Bieber losing “best new artist.”

Taiwan’s GMAs have their own controversies, the greatest of which I think is still the decision that starting in 2005, there would be separate categories for Album of the Year for Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and Aboriginal languages. The rationale was that a Hakka-language album rarely stands a chance against the likes of Cowboy Jay (though as we’ll see, few people stand a chance against him). At the same time, though, the language division segregates non-Mandarin albums to their own, far less competitive categories, which neither get the attention nor seem to merit the honor of winning by competing with the mainstream. It also meant the end of things like Mayday’s old format of half Taiwanese, half Mandarin albums, though that change might have come anyway as they made inroads with the mainland Chinese audience.

Although the GMAs have kept pace with a lot of changes in music – certainly, they’ve had no trouble accepting Cowboy Jay’s hip hop/R&B/dodgy country contributions – but I think there has been a tendency to overlook the contributions that bands have made to Taiwan’s changing music scene. In 2009, the Association of Music Workers of Taiwan published a book outlining the 200 most outstanding popular music albums in Taiwan from 1975 to 2005. It included three selections from Mayday: their first album, for being the avant garde of a new era of “rock and roll,” the second album, for showing that the first was not a fluke, and Time Machine, which celebrated the band’s return after two years of separation and showed its range and musicality for the first time. I think this assessment is about right; it’s easy to forget, all these years later with sodagreen or the Superband, not to mention Tizzy Bac, the years of rivalry with the Shin Band, the rise of the Chairmen, Totem, Monkey Pilots, or even (*sigh*) Champion, just how new Mayday was in 1999. They didn’t invent rock music, they weren’t the first to play it in Taiwan (for that, you’d have to go back to the origins of campus folk in the 1970s), but they brought it to a mainstream, youth audience in a way that influenced future acts. There has always been a “best male singer” and “best female singer” category at the GMAs; the “best band” category was only added in 2001. That year, there were three nominations, and Mayday won.

It’s hard to be a pioneer. The Association of Music Workers of Taiwan book acknowledged that Mayday’s early albums were not technically proficient, and their live performances were more energy than polish (case in point, what two things do we look for at a Mayday concert? For Ashin to slide off key, and to forget his lyrics). Their first album wasn’t important because it was objectively good, but because it was objectively different. With that kind of history behind them, it is not at all surprising that as they’ve grown, polished their style, improved their technique, and honed their craft, they’d still be remembered as the revolutionary band that wasn’t really GMA caliber. This is, of course, just a theory, but I’d suggest that Mayday paved the way for other bands to get much faster recognition despite being bands (and not individual artists, which still dominate the awards), but that it meant the GMAs were too slow to recognize the change in Mayday. This theory is why I think it was important for Mayday to finally come due and sweep the awards, as they did, and why it didn’t really bother me that sodagreen’s excellent album was somewhat overlooked.

To see how true this is, let’s look at a little GMA history. On the award for best composer, Qingfeng has been nominated four times and won once (for “Little Love Song”) – one nomination was his writing for A-mei. Jay has seven nominations and two wins. Masa’s win was the only nomination Mayday had ever received in this category, and it is otherwise dominated by songs for individual artists. Lyrics has been Mayday’s best category (other than Best Band) for nominations – Ashin has had three, though two of those were in the same year (from Poetry of the Day After ), but no wins. Qingfeng has had two nominations, the Superband one. Jay has been nominated once, but his lyricist, Vincent Fong, has had a record seven nominations and two wins. Again, few bands in this category.

Best arrangement has seen sodagreen nominated four times without winning, the Superband once, the Chairmen once, and Natural Q once – that might possibly be the strongest representation bands have had outside of the Best Band category. The Best Producer category has few nominations for bands (one for sodagreen and one for Natural Q; no others I recognize, though I could be wrong) but one big win: Tizzy Bac won for It’s All Your Fault.

The big categories, Song of the Year and Album of the Year, have likewise not seen many bands make the grade. Before this year, the Superband, sodagreen, and Mayday all had a single nomination for Song of the Year. (I’m not counting last year’s “Jonathan’s Song” for the Superband, because he was awarded Song of the Year as an individual, playing with the Superband as backup.) Beyond that, you have to go back to the early 1990s to find a single nomination for each The Little Tigers and East Train. Album of the year is similar, though Cowboy Jay has had four wins and another four nominations, sodagreen has been nominated twice, Natural Q once, and Mayday was nominated once before: for People Life, Ocean Wild (note to Mayday: if you want to be nominated in this category, your album must have “人生“ in the title).

Beyond the ridiculous domination of Cowboy Jay against all reason, what do these numbers tell us? Well for one thing, sodagreen has not had trouble being nominated in music and production categories. This is for two reasons: one, they are very, very good, and two, the GMAs had time to get used to bands before they appeared. As a result, I wasn’t that worried about them this year. Mayday has, by contrast, very rarely gotten attention outside of Best Band (they have four wins in Best Band with two additional nominations; sodagreen has two wins with four additional nominations, though two of those nominations were in the same year for different albums). Moreover, most of the nominees for Best Band are not nominated in any of the other categories. I think the Superband was easy to understand, because the artists in it were all so well known; it’s easy to see how four talented people could be more talented together. People like Wu Bai, who plays rock music with a band, are nominated as individuals, so he does not challenge the domination of individuals in the awards.

As the number and variety of bands making inroads into the Taipei music scene increases, I expect there to be more nominations recognizing them when it’s warranted. But none of this changes the fact that for Mayday’s contribution to the shift in the music scene that made the rise of the band era possible, it was hugely important for them finally to get some GMA recognition. In the coming days, there will be the usual editorials that argue that Mayday swept the awards either because of the band’s popularity (or even its promise to attend) or because there wasn’t anything good last year, so Mayday was the best they could do. That’s all subjective, of course, and certainly I’ve dismissed Cowboy Jay wins in similar terms. But I do think that whether or not Second Round was the best Mandarin album last year, the awards were a way to recognize the longstanding contributions the band has made to the industry, and that’s a fair reason for giving them so many.

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3 Responses to The Grammys theory of the GMAs

  1. Steve says:

    Bravo! Very astute analysis. I’d love to hear you theorize as to *why* individual artists are so dominant in Chinese pop.

  2. joms says:

    it is a great theory for grammys, i like the way you make the theory. but sometimes the way we understand it is different

  3. y says:

    stumbled over your blog many years ago, and I vaguely recall that I enjoyed your posts. just thought I’d check back to see if the blog is still around after so many years, and am surprised that it’s still up, although you don’t post anymore.

    wonder if you will come back and post something since Mayday just released their new album (waited so long that I’ve almost forgotten about them). These days I read old articles of Mayday with a sigh (maybe because I’m now at the age I start to reminisce), because time really don’t stop for anyone, and people moved on (true also for Mayday, as 2 more members are married now leaving only Ashin lol). Though, when I listened to them again after so many years, I came to the strong realisation that I still like them and this did not diminish even after some years of not paying attention to them. Shall enjoy listening and watching them for these few years till they disappear from limelight again (probably when they need to write the next album). (:

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