Why Philly's War On Drugs Grammy win is a big deal, and why Kendrick Lamar got robbed again

APTOPIX 60th Annual Grammy Awards – Show
Bruno Mars accepts the award for record of the year for "24K Magic" at the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

It’s a big deal that the War on Drugs won best rock album at the Grammy Awards on Sunday.

That’s true for the Adam Granduciel-led band, who were justly rewarded for their gorgeously realized fourth album, A Deeper Understanding, and as a feather in the cap for the Philadelphia independent rock scene in general, which has been the strongest in the nation throughout this decade, and which now has a Grammy-winning band repping it all over the world.

That’s what the the War on Drugs were doing Sunday when they won, deservedly beating out big names like Metallica, Mastodon, and Queens of the Stone in a pre-telecast ceremony at the Theater at Madison Garden. Or, more precisely, the Philly sextet was Down Under in the bottom half of the world, playing the Laneway Festival in Auckland, New Zealand.

After appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last week —  Granduciel wore a shirt with “Fly, Eagles, Fly” on the back —  the band is on a southern hemisphere tour that will carry them though most of February before they return to play festivals in the U.S. in the  spring and summer, including the Coachella festival in the California desert in April and the Xponential Fest in Camden in July.

On Sunday, bass player Dave Hartley posted a photo of band members toasting their win with blue Solo cups backstage, and the band posted their acceptance speech on their official Instagram feed.

“From our family to yours, thanks for all the love today,” they wrote. “Even though we weren’t able to accept in it in person, playing for our friends in New Zealand was the perfect celebration. Looking forward to seeing you somewhere in 2018.”

The Grammy glory for the band was less than it could have been on Sunday, of course, because the award was bestowed  off-camera, as were a full 75 of the 84 total trophies. That, of course, is in part for logistical reasons: The Grammys as a telecast is a performance-based TV show first and foremost, a music industry advertisement for itself at which it displays its wares for a prime-time broadcast TV audience while staking out self-congratulatory political ground and trying not to embarrass itself too much with the wrongheadedness of its choices.

It’s a reflection of rock’s niche status within the industry as a whole that the award for A Deeper Understanding wasn’t given out on screen. Country, pop, comedy, and rap all had at least one award presented on live TV. The rock awards were all presented in the preshow proceedings.

But the awards that are given off-camera also tend to more accurately reflect quality, because voting is limited to specialists who might actually know something about their chosen fields.

Lots of excellent music makers won awards that weren’t shown on TV. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit won for best American roots song and best American album. The Alabama Shakes won best American roots performance for “Killer Diller Blues.” Randy Newman’s “Putin” won a best arrangement trophy. Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness took home best folk album honors. LCD Soundsystem’s “Tonite” got best dance recording.

By contrast, all recording academy voters get to have their say on the big four awards: for album, song, and record of the year, plus best new artist, so those results tend to produce groans of “they screwed it up again” year after year.

That was the case again this year, with Alessia Cara topping the more worthy SZA, Khalid, and Philadelphia’s Lil Uzi Vert for best new artist, and Bruno Mars sweeping away all comers, including Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, and Lorde in the three biggest categories.

(A word on Lorde: In this year of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the Grammys managed to miss an opportunity to take a unified feminist stance. Yes, the big showcase with Kesha leading a group of women singing her forgiving survivor’s anthem “Praying” was powerful. But Lorde was the only female artist nominated in the album of the year category, and she elected not to perform on the show when she was not offered a solo slot. The  only performance opportunity offered her was as part of a larger Tom Petty tribute.)

What can you say about Mars’ win for the likable but lightweight 24K Magic over Lamar’s formidable DAMN. other than maybe: “Damn you, Grammys, you did Kung Fu Kenny wrong again!” Lamar did go home with five trophies, including best rap album, and he soundly trounced Jay-Z, his friendly hip-hop competitor, who had eight nominations and won nothing.

But just like in 2014, when Lamar’s superior Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City lost out to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist for best rap album, and 2016, when his To Pimp a Butterfly was beaten by Taylor Swift’s 1989, Lamar did not go home with the big trophy.

This year, it was supposed to be different, as hip-hop was represented so strongly in the major categories. It turns out, though, that rather than reward a fiery rapper who makes thought-provoking music like Lamar, Grammy voters are more comfortable rewarding an eminently agreeable song-and-dance man like Mars, whose music has cross-generational appeal and, though it’s anything but challenging, is hard not to like. Only a curmudgeon could have fully resisted Mars’ teaming with rapper Cardi B. on the kinetic “Finesse” on the show Sunday night.

In DAMN., Lamar made an album that is far superior to 24K Magic in part because it succeeds in making some listeners uncomfortable. As Dave Chappelle put it during Lamar’s Grammy performance: “The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”

Lamar can rest assured that DAMN. will stand the test of time. Nobody should have been surprised that that didn’t make it good enough to be recognized by the Grammys for its highest honor.