This past Sunday, I decided to watch this year’s Grammys ceremony. Though I hate the Grammys, I was excited; rarely in my life have I had the opportunity to complain about something I so vehemently despise for three and a half hours straight.
To clarify, I hold nothing against the acceptance speeches or the musicians themselves. Some of this year’s speeches were inspiring, and some of the acceptances (and absences) quite powerful. The performances, however, are what I despise. They are staged for a live audience and yet broadcast poorly over television. They feature strange sets and over-the-top costumes. In many acts, bright lights and pyrotechnics obscure nearly everything occurring on stage.
And on the television end, the production is incredibly rough. Production crews cut haphazardly between awkward close-up shots and poorly-lit wide shots while the audio quality lags significantly behind that of a produced recording.
Given that I found the ceremony to be such a bleak artistic experience, I began wondering what made it so enjoyable to me. I hated it, I thought, and yet on some twisted level I loved hating it. Had the performances been good, or mildly entertaining, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the ceremony as much as I did. There’s something enjoyable, I find, in watching art that is truly bad, something inexplicably pleasant about spending an entire evening complaining about what I was watching.
This experience got me thinking about other performance arts pieces that I love to hate. Milton Babbitt’s “Philomel,” for example, is a particularly thorny piece of electroacoustic music that I absolutely despise. It is humorously nonsensical: A soprano sings strange snippets of sounds that vaguely resemble English while a frenetic, hyperactive electronic recording scurries about in the background.
As a high schooler, I would sometimes watch videos of this piece being performed with my music friends. We would laugh at the otherworldly sounds being produced onstage and the confused, incredulous looks of unsuspecting audience members forced to sit through the work. After a little while, I became more familiar with this work than I was with other, more important works in the 20th-century classical music repertoire. Though I absolutely hated “Philomel,” I also loved to hate it.
Thinking on a broader scale, there are many pieces of 20th-century art that I think became famous more for the derisive, negative reactions people have to them than their potential artistic merit. John Cage’s “4’33”,” for example, is a piece of performance art that many audiences I have seen love to hate. It’s gained notoriety in the larger cultural lexicon as the silent piece of music, the strange, avant-garde thought experiment that proves how out of touch contemporary classical music is with the rest of society.
In many recordings of this work, audience members can be heard laughing or leaving their seats in reaction to the piece unfolding around them. Despite these audience reactions, the piece remains a staple of the post-war American classical music lexicon. If anything, the fact that major orchestras such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra continue to stage the work demonstrates the large audiences that it draws. Though some of these audience members may take the work seriously, I would argue that many more simply attend for the spectacle; as with “Philomel,” it is incredibly entertaining to witness something that one does not like or understand unfold onstage.
Another example that comes to mind is the musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” It was terrible in nearly every regard (though I will admit that I never went to see it.) Actors were frequently getting injured on stage. The script was written over and over, both while the musical was in lengthy previews and repeatedly once it opened. And yet the show managed to run for nearly three years. While it never became profitable — it ended up costing between 65 and 75 million dollars — it did generated a surprising amount of interest, particularly for something widely regarded as the worst musical of the 21st-century.
I remember reading an uncomfortably scathing review of this musical in The New York Times by theater critic Ben Brantley. At the performance that Brantley attended, inexplicable “mechanical difficulties” caused the play to be delayed for a lengthy period of time. As he described, “something like genuine pleasure spread through the house” as “the actors deflated before our eyes.” The audience members, in other words, had not attended the performance to appreciate the work. Instead, they wanted to see it fail — or at least be as unsuccessful as they had heard it to be from others.
As strange as this may sound, I’ve actually found there to be an inexplicable beauty in this hate-watching of the performance arts. There is something beautiful, after all, in the fragility of this artform; the elasticity of the boundary separating the best of art from the worst of art.
When it comes to great artists and their work, we frequently think of as being geniuses on a higher platform than us mere mortals — immortal artistic minds incapable of failure. In hate-watching many of these performances, I am constantly reminded that even the best artists fail all the time. The best artists, I am reminded, create terrible works. And even the worst artists, I must admit, sometimes create amazing works. The performance arts are just as frequently a matter of hard work and luck as they are in pure artistic skill — and if it takes binge-watching an awards ceremony to be reminded of this, I am more than comfortable with that.