“Who the Hell Is That?”

February 10, 2013
Remember this damn egg? I was standing in front of a bunch of photographers like a jackass when this egg came out, and everybody freaked out and took off.
Remember this damn egg? I was standing in front of a bunch of photographers like a jackass when this egg came out, and everybody freaked out and ran off to take pictures of the egg. So I just walked away. I think I went out to the parking lot.


Since Grammy nominations have just been announced, I thought I’d republish a piece I wrote for Billboard about my experience at the ceremony in 2010. This is a longer unedited version of the piece.


Last year, I was asked to arrange and produce an album by cult legend Roky Erickson. The project was a massive undertaking, the often-troubled singer’s album first in 15 years. I culled 60 songs down to 11, and it took me about a year of my life to complete. Once it was finished, I thought, “What the hell, I guess I’ll write up some liner notes for this thing too.”

One morning months later, I was woken up by a chorus of text message alerts.  All my friends were writing to tell me I’d been nominated for a Grammy – for liner notes.

To friends, I played the whole thing off, saying, “Winning a Grammy for writing is like winning an Oscar for cooking.” But I’m secretly a big fan of glitz, pageantry, and excess. I told the label that I wanted to do the whole thing – attend the taping, parade down the red carpet, crash the big parties. They tried their best; apparently when you’re nominated for one of the non-televised awards the private-party invites don’t exactly come pouring in.

I arrived in L.A. Saturday night (the cab driver was thrilled when he learned I’d been nominated for a Grammy; awkward silence descended when I told him it was for liner notes) and by Sunday morning I was up bright and early for the non-televised portion of the ceremony. Located in a giant room inside the Staples Center complex and with a vibe that’s decidedly more “convention center” than “awards show,” this ceremony is where 80% of the actual awards get given away; they hand you a paper schedule so crowded with entries that it resembles a karaoke menu, and hosts take pains at the beginning to tell winners to get on and off stage as fast as they can and keep speeches as brief as possible. Bobby McFerrin hosted and took every available opportunity to remind the audience he’s Bobby McFerrin. As the announcements and thank-yous and 5-minute a cappella slap-bass improvisations rolled by, I felt a surprising nervousness take hold.

In the end, the liner notes for the Big Star box set won the category, and being a worshipper of Big Star I couldn’t really complain.  My category over with, I was fielded outside to walk the red carpet, where a volunteer who looked about 13 paraded me around to various news outlets who all whispered, “Who the hell is that?” before declining to waste their batteries on my photo. At the end of the carpet, I was brought before a small panel of tweens paid to do their best Beatles-in-64 scream for all of the carpet people, and then they quickly ushered me out.

“Who the hell is that?” seemed to be one of the Grammys’ Big Themes this year, up there with excessive, inescapable choreography, flames blasting up from the floor, and country bands inexplicably named in tribute to the pre-abolitionist South. When Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding was handed the “Best New Artist” award, an almost audible “Who the hell is that?” swept through the room and a hilarious TV cutaway shot showed Justin Bieber’s face momentarily awash with shock and disbelief before his swagger coaching kicked back in. When the Arcade Fire capped the night with an energetic performance of “Ready to Start,” a member of the famous metal band seated behind me remarked, “What are they called? The Suburbs? Not exactly my bag!”

By morning, someone had already assembled a Tumblr site dedicated to collecting all the irate reactions about the Arcade Fire’s Best Album win and some people’s perception they “stole” the award from Eminem (who was fantastic in his Grammy appearance). On my way home this afternoon, I scrolled through the site. I read pages and pages of people shouting in all caps: I’VE NEVER HEARD OF THEM, as if that’s a valid musical criticism, as if that’s anything but a declaration of proud ignorance, as if somehow the prefab pop royalty whose handlers have unloaded the most money on promotion have a Grammy somewhere in their birthright, just as Will Smith’s kids are guaranteed hit singles and blockbusters if they want them and Gwyneth Paltrow is apparently allowed to show up anywhere at any time and sing, whether or not we want to hear her. I’ve never heard of Esperaza Spalding either, but now I’m excited to. It was neat to see the losers win.


Originally published on Billboard.com, February 15 2011. Revised.

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2 Responses to ““Who the Hell Is That?””

  1. elizabeth

    I remember these Grammy awards. In fact, they were the last ones that I actually watched. I wish I could say this was due to some concious effort or healthy disdain- but the truth is that I think I have been moving to and from locations or working late on a Sunday since then. Will. When I think about the music you’ve written, the songs I know by heart, the poetic hodgepodge of grand passions and pitfalls of life- I can only laugh good and hard after reading this. It’s so whatever beyond preposetrous is- thinking about you there.

    I know you probably hear this all the time- but even if you never win a damn reward for unthinkably rhyming oubliette in a perfectly serious and heartfelt manner- your music has been loved and has made a genuine difference, and always presents a new possibility of sound. Maybe it’s hard for you to take that statement seriously- or maybe not.

    I know you’re not thinking about any of that when you’re writing. Some people write best when straining for accolades, some people write to shed light on something they have found to be true- in any case, not everyone can wake up in the morning and feel fortified or musically transported to an inspiring mindframe by listening to Taylor Swift. A lot of people can. Which is really disturbing. But even if it’s just me who can’t- and I have to believe it’s not just me- your music provides a voice for alternative thought. If I could, I’d at least bestow some manner of reverse citizen’s award (though not technically a citizen of your country) Awarded to Will Sheff: for wonderfully disturbing the silence.

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