Back in February, Justin Bieber was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best New Artist category. Since North America’s youth was in the throes of “Bieber Fever,” he was the odds-on favorite, though it’s worth pointing out the publicity machine behind the curtain, which timed the release of his 3-D film, “Never Say Never,” for the same weekend as the Grammies.

But something happened on the way to Bieber’s supposed Grammy coronation—he didn’t win. Instead the award went to Esperanza Spalding, a relatively unknown jazz singer and bassist.

In the hormone-addled hearts and minds of teenagers, Bieber and his $750 haircut can do no wrong. Within hours of the Grammies, an angry mob of “Bieliebers” chose Spalding’s Wikipedia page as the target of their outrage. They changed her middle name to “Quesadilla,” and added comments such as, “She now has the 2011 Grammy for being the Best new Artist! Even though no one has ever heard of her! Yay!” One even used all caps:  “JUSTIN BIEBER DESERVED IT GO DIE IN A HOLE. WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?”

Hostility aside, the trolls had a point. How did a little-known 26-year-old jazz musician win an award over a pop music juggernaut? If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is honoring “outstanding achievement in the music industry,” surely Bieber’s album sales and tour revenue (over $100 million in 2010) had to count for something.

I saw Spalding perform recently, which got me thinking about the two of them. (I have not seen Bieber perform. Full disclosure: It may not happen.) What’s striking to me is how similar they once were—and how opposite they turned out to be.

Both musicians came out of poverty. Bieber’s mother gave birth to him when she was only 18 years old, and she worked a series of low-paying office jobs and raised him as a single mother. Yet he taught himself to play the piano, drums, guitar, and trumpet.

Spalding was also raised by a single mother, who worked as a carpenter, security guard, dishwasher, and day-care worker. A 2010 New Yorker profile of her notes that they were near homelessness many times, and on at least one occasion forced to live in a friend’s attic. The profile also portrays a girl whose abundant musical talent was on display as early as the age of four, when her mother was struggling with a Beethoven piece—and Spalding climbed onto the piano bench and played it by ear.

Bieber was discovered when a marketing executive ran across him on YouTube while looking for someone else (his mother had been posting videos of him singing). Bieber auditioned for Usher, who won a “bidding war” against Justin Timberlake for the rights to manage him.

Spalding’s path was more gradual, but it was hardly smooth. After seeing Yo-Yo Ma on “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” she told her mom she wanted to play cello. The local community music program didn’t have one, and she ended up with a violin. In her early teens she was playing piano, oboe, clarinet, guitar and violin when she discovered a cheap plywood stand-up bass at school. She’s offered various answers about how she chose the bass over all other instruments, including that “the resonance was attractive.”

That led to local jazz gigs,learning from more experienced musicians, and an apprenticeship with the American Music Program, a local youth jazz orchestra. (Spalding was in her hometown of Portland, Ore. playing at a benefit for them.) The program director helped Spalding get a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music. When she graduated, Berklee hired her as an instructor when she was 20, making her one of the youngest in the college’s history.

Though he’s reputed to be the most Googled person on the planet, Bieber isn’t easy to discuss as a musician or a person. There’s already a biography of him, a no doubt august tome covering his first 16 years, whose title hints at the hagiography, bombast, text spelling, and commodification it doubtlessly contains: Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever (100% Official). (Further disclosure: I didn’t read the book either, though I did watch a video of Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent satiric reading of excerpts.)

The manager of my local music store says he heard Bieber sing a live duet without the benefit of Auto-Tune, and claims he was really flat. However, a writer for the Guardian reviewed one of his concerts and said he danced less acrobatically and sang more tunefully than expected, and “plays passable drums and piano, too.” Though she couldn’t help adding, “A childhood video montage shows the baby Bieber twanging a guitar, reinforcing the message that he’s a musician(ish) as well as a pretty face.” She also noted the way he hovered over the crowd of teenage girls, twice, suspended inside a cage.

If there’s a through-line here, it’s that Bieber’s every move from his audition to his biography have been videotaped, styled, and staged. As soon as Usher and Justin Timberlake bid on him, he became a product, an idol selling records and concert tickets to teenage girls. He’s too young to drink, too young to have a biography, and in some states he’s still below the age of consent. He is barely more than his image, a symbol, of marketing, of pubescent sex, of musician(ish)ness, a cute Frankenstein created by the music industry, dangled over the crowds in a cage.

It’s hard to think of Esperanza Spalding as a symbol, because what shines through is her talent and humanity. When I saw her there was no Auto-Tune, or dancing, or suspended cages. She played an acoustic standup bass and sang through a single mike. The benefit was organized in a month, and the haste was apparent every time Spalding had to move her bass so other people could cross the stage.

Even before she performs you notice how petite she is, which is unusual for someone playing stand-up bass (the bass players in my middle school were chosen because of their height). She wore heels, and still her left hand was often up above her ear to reach low notes on the neck.

In her recordings, her ability is obvious. She sings in a clear, alto voice high above the bass register—in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, no less. And to be a marquee performer on an instrument that typically accompanies instead of solos says something about her chops. But seeing her live was an entirely different experience. As a part-time bassist, I recognized her runs and arpeggios, and my own shortcomings on the instrument made me appreciate her speed, fluidity, and sense of time all the more.

Spalding is no less impressive when she isn’t playing. A Portland radio station asked her what the single best result of the Grammy has been. Her answer:

This spotlight started shining on me. Since I don’t exist alone, I’m not a floating free agent, all these people, and forces, and music and bands and influences that I’m connected with, at least the edges of them are getting illuminated too. So I guess the value in winning the Grammy so far has been bringing some of that spotlight around—like being in Portland now, that spotlight has attracted you here, but also people to these benefit concerts this week. So the spotlight will hopefully also illuminate really important programming and educational needs that may not have been getting the light they deserved.

I like how she improvised on the spotlight theme until it was pointing in other directions. I also like how she used an opportunity to solo as a way to draw your attention to people and organizations she thinks deserves it equally—if not more.

Did a not-very-famous jazz bassist deserve the Grammy? Was it a scandal that a pop idol like Justin Bieber didn’t win?

In a sense, the Grammy Awards got to have it both ways. Yes, Snubbing Bieber was a small gesture that just because assembly-line pop makes more money than some small nations, might doesn’t make right. The award implicitly favoring Spalding’s authenticity, genre, and craft over the pop flavor of the year—but it was Bieber, not Spalding, who appeared in the commercials and performed at the ceremony.

Still, the award did shine a spotlight shining on a deserving artist, one who took time between gigs at places like the Montreaux Jazz Festival and at the White House to play benefits for youth jazz orchestras and music programs in obscure little towns like Battle Ground, Wash. At the end of her interview, Spalding said, “For whatever it’s worth, I will do my best to carry that little light around as much as I can, for as long as I have it.”

And that resonates with me.

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JOHN OCHWAT is a recovering journalist, the co-author of one of the most obscure academic books of all time, and winner of a dishonorable mention in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. He was a columnist for the publication the Columbia Journalism Review called "The Worst Newspaper in America" (regrettably, he was not singled out for mention). His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Soma, and Forbes ASAP, among other places. He's also a dabbling musician, an intermittent blogger at First Person Irregular, and procrastinator on Twitter.

16 responses to “A Tale of Two Nominees: Justin Bieber and Esperanza Spalding”

  1. Yay! Another unpronounceable Canadian name appears on TNB! Welcome!

    And a lovely piece.

  2. Cindy Ohama says:

    Great piece! I wouldn’t read Bieber’s “biography” either, if I were writing this article. Spalding sounds like a true winner. I’ll have to go to her website and check it out. I wondered what all the Grammy hooplah was about. Now I know. Thanks!

  3. letty anderson says:

    A pleasure to read, a really balanced and well constructed piece. Without trashing Bieber, Ochwat totally nails him – he’s product. Spalding’s response to the grammy-winner question pretty much tells us all we need to know about her. This is a gem.

  4. Jack Wozniak says:

    Finally!
    The ‘star maker machinery behind the popular song’ is overshadowed by talent beyond mere entertainment.
    It was a joy to read Mr. Ochwat’s revelations on how that machine came, at least momentarily, to a grinding halt.
    It’s nice to know talent and intelligence can still triumph over styling and staging. At least once in a while…

  5. Sue Christakos says:

    Excellent writing! John has a true gift for writing and I enjoy reading his material. Bring us more!!

  6. Don Hanks says:

    Excellent article! I thoroughly enjoyed both the subject and the quality of the writing. When can we expect to see more from Mr. Ochwat here on TNB?

  7. […] Nervous Breakdown, “an online literary publication type deal.” It’s titled “A Tale of Two Nominees: Justin Bieber and Esperanza Spalding,” and it uses the 2011 Grammy awards as a pivot to discuss two very different types of […]

  8. Great piece, and now I want to check out Spaulding’s work. Thank you!

  9. Gail Duwe says:

    Thank you, John O., for introducing us to Spalding in a touching remembrance of her young life. She is special. Of course, Bieber is, too, in his way, but we cannot help being media-smothered with his life. Yes, he is a product. His fault? Not really. I cannot claim to live in a Bieber-free zone as I have a 9 year old granddaughter! But, I can claim to spend more time paying attention to Spalding.

  10. Russ Titelman says:

    John,
    Great article. Nice to see you shining a light on the fact that might is not always right
    and that the Academy members chose art over commerce in this case. It doesn’t always happen.
    Best,
    Russ Titelman

  11. Matt Langford says:

    John, A nicely balanced piece of writing giving an insight into at least one part of the Grammy Awards. I almost felt a little sorry for Bieber after your discourse. I wonder what it must be like to be productized before you are mature enough to make that decision for yourself? Keep the writing coming. Cheers, Matt

  12. John says:

    Matt, being productized to the tune of $100 million a year would be an interesting problem to have. George Clooney once said (of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, I think) that if he had been that rich and famous when he was that young, he would have been shooting cocaine behind his eyeballs. But as much as people think he’s a harbinger of the apocalypse, Bieber thus far still seems a decent Canadian boy.

  13. Matt says:

    Excellent piece, John.

    I can’t help but fear what becoming a product at such a young age is going to do to the Bieb in the long run. Michael Jackson seemed like a decent kid, too.

    That said, his photo-bombing Russell Brand and Katy Perry at the VMAs was pretty damn funny.

  14. Corey Ohama says:

    Interesting piece- I liked hearing more about Esperanza Spalding as all I remember is her getting attacked afterwards. I had also somehow never heard of auto tune before! Thanks.

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