Want to De-Polarize America? Be The Grammys.


by Howell J. Malham Jr.


The folks at the Grammys have cracked it.

They have designed perhaps the one experience where the cultural representatives of Blue States and Red States can come together for a few hours, under one roof, happily, peaceably, even joyfully.

It’s where some guests, like Joy Villa and Ricky Rebel, can show up decked out as loud and proud supporters of the president, and head into a televised event where the opening number is all about building bridges, not walls.

And where a Red State country and western icon like Dolly Parton and Michelle Obama can receive thunderous rounds of applause— from the same audience, on the same stage.

And where the obligatory "In Memoriam" segment can include a cast member of "Hee-Haw" and a guitarist for Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as singers for The Temptations and The Crystals.

Ms. Obama underscored this amazing feat in these polarizing times when she told us that "whether we like country or rap or rock, music helps us share ourselves: our dignity and sorrows; our hopes and joys.

“It allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in."

That’s exactly what The Grammys can do that few national spectacles can do nowadays: It enables us “to invite each other in,” especially others with whom we don’t necessarily agree: musically or politically.

It’s a place where the unwritten rules of Red or Blue social events don’t apply. The norms of musical reference groups don’t hold either: a rap performer can openly express appreciation for a country singer, and vice versa, something that may be frowned upon by their respective peers outside of the safe space of The Grammys.

Even as open-minded as The Oscars are getting these days, it still feels like a “don’t ask/don’t tell” affair based on dress requirements alone. The event is billed as “formal,” with a dress code that at least on the surface provides a feeling of unity through uniformity: Uniformity through haute couture, that is, which makes another statement: “We’re neither Red nor Blue tonight, we’re all just part of the 1%.”

At The Grammys, it’s “tell even if no one asks,” and the best most effective way to deliver that statement is through fashion, although western piping and a country twang doesn’t always mean a performer is a Red Stater these days, as Kacey Musgraves and Little Big Town have made it clear.

It's commonly believed that the universal language of music can unite a country as diverse and divided as America at present. And, as Kabir Seghal suggested, musicians should use their art as an "op-ed" on the industry's biggest night: You want to persuade someone to accept your point of view, sing them a song.

But it's more about the form of the experience than the content that makes The Grammys so extraordinary. The event planners have designed for difference not for sameness.

In fact, The Grammys is the one place where openly diverse cues and clues about various socio-political preferences, and not just musical, are encouraged.

Though again: song category and the fashion that, historically, correlates with it don’t always line up with how a performer votes. But category and fashion can still tell you something about whether a performer’s fan base is Red or Blue.

That’s certainly the case with country music, which is still primarily for Republicans.

In 2013, organizers of The Grammys did issue a “wardrobe advisory” to attendees, mostly to avoid displays of “obscenity” deemed “unacceptable for broadcast.” The advisory also noted that displays of “any organized cause visibly spelled out on talent's wardrobe be avoided.”

Fashion itself can be political, especially at The Grammys, and it doesn’t need a lapel pin.

Attendees nowadays feel free to show up in whatever they would wear to a gig be it rock, jazz, country, rap, or other so long as it’s in reasonably good taste, and doesn’t violate the obscenity rule.

Further, one can cheer, and cheer loudly, for whomever one wishes without fear of criticism or ridicule from peers.

In other words, guests are allowed to exercise their freedom of expression, indulging publicly in musical guilty pleasures and representing for fans, Red or Blue, Green or other through fashion — an important design consideration for any forum that wants to encourage diversity and inclusion, and not just among the people who vote like them.

Among everyone.

The Grammys has this first step down. What we need to do next is figure out how to get people with different musical tastes and different political views, particularly those that are the most polarized, not only to sit together and cheer together, but to actually have important and meaningful conversations. Together.

At least those who are, in fact, capable of conversing in a dialectical fashion: not “Real Time with Bill Maher” style where it’s more of a “Punch and Judy” show rather than a sincere, earnest effort for opponents to find a common or even a transcendent interest, and build together from there.

I'm talking about the hard conversations, which are the ones we seem to avoid in heterogenous social settings when we find ourselves mingling with actors with opposing views so as not to spoil the party. Or run the risk of increasing polarization through a pointless screaming match.

Yet these are the conversations that we must learn to have, but only if we're serious about figuring out a way forward, peacefully, happily.

As we think about how to design interactions for these kinds of conversations with people with whom we don’t agree, maybe we should take a cue from The Grammys: Greet and accept everyone as they are, and play every category of music under the sun. ::

Howell Malham