By Tim Baumann, Opinions Editor
We’re all old enough to remember the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which featured Michael Phelps’ uncanny performance. The most incredible moment of a run filled with incredible moments occurred at the end of the 100 meter butterfly, where he beat the Serbian Milorad Cavic by one one-hundredth of a second. It was the damnedest athletic triumph I had ever seen up to that point. But in the greatness of the achievement—Phelps had tied Spitz’ record for gold medals won in a single Olympics—I couldn’t help but wonder about the greatness of the competition. Phelps, the best swimmer in human history, had not won an individual medal by more than 2.32 seconds over the course of the Games. That’s an eternity in modern competitive swimming, but think: how long is two seconds? Even in an event that is meticulously timed, there is an element of absurdity. Video replay has shown that Cavic certainly touched the pad first, but Phelps pushed it harder and his time registered before Cavic’s.
Let’s move on to another type of performance, albeit one that requires less athletic ability: awards shows. The Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars, and the Tonys award were created to recognize and award excellence in television, music, film, and theater, respectively. As a group, they’re often abbreviated to EGOT. They hold a competitive sway that is not so different from the Olympics, and the Olympics and EGOT both capture significant attention here and abroad.
At the most recent Oscars, The King’s Speech won Best Picture over other luminary nominees such as Black Swan, True Grit, and The Social Network. In my opinion, it was a case of liberal humanists getting suckered into tired tropes as they so often do. (The indomitable nature of the human spirit! Nazis are the bad guys! Feeling bad for the excessively privileged! British people!) As I’ve written elsewhere, the movie I find most similar to The King’s Speech is Remember the Titans. But film, thank goodness, is subjective. The difference between The King’s Speech and The Social Network could be .01 seconds or it could be 2.32 seconds, but how would you know? The EGOT have become such a large part of our collective consciousness that they’ve become authoritative, and that’s the real trouble with awards shows. EGOT wants us to believe that judging the artistic merits of a movie or a sitcom or a musical is just as easy as judging the 100 meter ‘fly.
As we’ve already seen, it’s difficult enough to objectively ascertain that. How much more so is it when subjectivity is the name of the game, or when it’s subjectivity that may transcend even the song or drama at hand?
The best way to sidestep that absurdity is to make a dramatic declaration after months of clandestine action and build-up. Have huge ceremonies where all the stars of the medium show up dressed in opulent finery. Note the glorious dead and provide historical retrospectives to denote progress. Hope for controversial moments like the streaker at the 46th Academy Awards, or SacheenLittlefeather at the 45th, or Adrien Brody kissing Halle Berry at the 75th. Wrap it all up with a sealed envelope, opened live with pomp and fanfare. Thus, we make definitive the things that cannot be possibly be quantified. It’s absurd.
Knowing all this certainly hasn’t stopped me from watching the Oscars and memorizing all sorts of trivia. But I always remember that they don’t mean a blessed thing in terms of accurately awarding quality. Same goes for television, music, and theater. (How many Grammys would John Cage have?) Pretending that the EGOT seal of approval means anything is a gentle self-delusion.