The three artists that earned the four biggest wins of the 56th GRAMMY Awards — Daft Punk, Lorde and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — are not, first and foremost, “pop” artists. Daft Punk, which won album of the year for “Random Access Memories” and record of the year for “Get Lucky,” is a French electronic duo whose latest album possesses long passages of vocoder, horns, woodwinds and synthesizers, all of which combine for a vintage sheen on their trusted house formula. Lorde’s shuffling beats and fluttering vocals draw from obscure influences like the Weeknd and Burial, and her songs — including “Royals,” which earned the song of the year GRAMMY — are now staples on alternative radio. And best new artist winners Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are a white rapper and his producer, pushing the confines of hip-hop with their lyrics but nonetheless abiding by the genre’s sonic foundation of rhymes, beats and hooks.
None of those three artists would describes themselves as pop artists… but then again, pop is changing, expanding, and reconfiguring at a faster rate than ever before. Lorde, Daft Punk and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis spent the past year dominating pop culture, as well as Top 40 radio and Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Add the GRAMMY Awards to that list of achievements — with their wins in the major categories at this year’s ceremony, Lorde, Daft Punk and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis kept slowly erasing the rules of traditional pop music, and subtly prodding their peers to keep up with their acts of innovation.
The GRAMMYs, an institution many have long perceived as intolerably stodgy, were downright — dare we say it? — progressive with its major awards this year. Consider the fact that the song of the year trophy was not given to something as straightforward as Katy Perry’s “eye of the tiger” anthem or Bruno Mars’ swaggering sex ode, but to a 17-year-old outsider, lobbing shots at luxury over unorthodox rhythms. “Roar” and “Locked Out of Heaven” both deserved their song of the year nominations, but “Royals” was an artistic triumph that topped the Hot 100 chart for over two months while sounding like nothing else on the radio. During an evening in which Katy Perry gleefully presided over a haunted house, P!nk astounded with acrobatics and Sara Bareilles delivered a simply sweet piano performance, Lorde presented the most lasting impression of them all, during her lurching, esoteric take on “Royals.” Her sinewy beats threatened to swallow her voice before Lorde rattled off the familiar “Gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom” bridge; then, her hands lifting upward and her eyes closed, she soared on the chorus. Lorde has always been arrestingly original — a songwriter from New Zealand who rejected the personal polish of her pop star peers — and on GRAMMY night, the new school was rewarded.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” lost the song of the year award to “Royals,” but that didn’t stop the Seattle duo from continuing their stellar year at the GRAMMY Awards. Recent history tells us that hip-hop artists have struggled to engineer ubiquitous Top 40 singles this decade, and that a rap artist winning the best new artist GRAMMY award is an even rarer occurrence (the last one came in 1999, but calling Lauryn Hill a “rapper” also feels like a misnomer). But Macklemore & Ryan Lewis made those accomplishments look effortless — and then brought Mary Lambert, Madonna, Queen Latifah and 33 couples together during a show-stopping performance of their gay-rights song, “Same Love.” Love or hate Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, casual music fans have to respect the group’s gutsiness — they have never attempted to conform any aspect of their presentation in order to gain a bigger audience or more “cred” from hip-hop’s core audiences. They are outlandish, and positively so. Like the song itself, their GRAMMYs performance of “Same Love” was bold and moving, at an occasion where they could have just let people sing along to “Thrift Shop” without having anyone slight their effort. Recent best new artist winners — Adele, Bon Iver, John Legend, Fun. — found refreshing ways to express soul, folk, R&B and rock music through new voices. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have done that with hip-hop, but more markedly with pop music.
Remember the 54th GRAMMY Awards in 2012? That was the one where EDM was “exploding,” Skrillex was nominated for best new artist and deadmau5 somehow performed with Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and the Foo Fighters simultaneously. That ceremony was an important moment for the mainstream recognition of electronic music, but Sunday night’s gala was an even bigger step toward giving the genre the type of accolades it has deserved for decades — and producers everywhere can thank two mute robots for giving them a voice.
|GRAMMYs | NEWS, PHOTOS, WINNERS & MORE|
In an alternate universe, “Random Access Memories” would be Daft Punk’s third album of the year GRAMMY nominee, after 1997’s “Homework” and 2001’s “Discovery”; both of those albums are awe-inspiring works, but were released at times in which Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, along with the style of songs they were crafting, were still unknown to too many listeners. In 2013, the group’s dance single “Get Lucky,” featuring Pharrell Williams’ sumptuous voice and Nile Rodgers’ spry axe work, was the perfect gateway drug into Daft Punk’s house music high, during a time in which EDM artists had pushed casual pop fans toward the discovery of electronica’s bass-drop-laden rush for years. On paper, “Get Lucky” should not have been a mainstream hit in the year 2013, the song’s disco guitar and robo-breakdown too out-of-step with the synth-pop du jour of contemporary pop — but luckily, “Get Lucky” does not just exist on paper, and throbs with the power to make anyone instinctively bounce their shoulders along with the bass line. Likewise, Daft Punk, Rodgers, Williams and special guest Stevie Wonder brought “Get Lucky” to life stunningly at the GRAMMY Awards, in what was the most crowd-pleasing display of the evening, despite being helmed by DJ’s who refused to show their faces. Other EDM artists stuck their foot in the GRAMMYs door in 2012, but Daft Punk effectively busted it open.
With its prog-pop center and Giorgio Moroder’s spoken-word breakdown, “Random Access Memories” is the strangest album of the year recipient since Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” a decade ago. But then again, Lorde’s song of the year is just as much of an eccentric gem, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are challenging what a best new artist winner can be. These three artists created some of 2013’s biggest hits by being wholly left-of-center, and there will be those that disagree with their GRAMMY wins, but their victories also feel like defeats for widely accepted conventions of popular music. You don’t have to look a certain way, sound a certain way, or be a certain way to win an album of the year, song of the year or best new artist award. Pop’s possibilities are widening, and that’s always a good thing.