The split personality of last Saturday's Madison Area Music Awards came into focus for me when Christina Thompson, Miss Madison, was at the mike. Her finely polished articulation and personal warmth, augmented by her lovely eveningwear, made her a site to behold.
Seated immediately behind me, like bleacher bums at a baseball game, were an inebriated row of rock 'n' roll dudes.
"I really like her crown, man," they guffawed in full-on slurring bravado.
And so it goes. Now four years old, the MAMAs remains a near perfectly organized, upscale event that tries hard to pay tribute to a scene that really isn't a scene at all, but a collection of scenes divided in the usual ways our community is divided - by age, race and class.
It was easy to see which sides of the scene had bought into the event and which ones hadn't. The former was represented by the many musicians in attendance who had gray hair.
It's not that young bands were completely unrepresented, but they seemed like kids at a wedding. They were mostly clean-cut and mindful of their elders.
"I just want to say how excited we are to be a young band recognized by a community of musicians we look up to and respect," said Erin Ellison of the Celtic group Rising Gael.
Let's face it. The MAMAs is a lovefest among the city's longtime resident musicians. It's a family gathering where patriarch Clyde Stubblefield and matriarch Jan Wheaton sit at the head of the table. And all the while the city's beloved house band, the Gomers, provides the soundtrack to our lives.
And that's not such a bad thing. There is no event that comes close to celebrating the ongoing cultural contribution of local music like the MAMAs.
This year's Lifetime Achievement Award went to local radio legend Jonathan W. Little. The video that preceded his award was pure Madison social history. We learned about the origins of Z104 and imagined a generation of teens with their transistors - kids who talked about 45s, not MP3s.
MAMAs organizer Rick Tvedt no doubt tried to avoid last year's four-hour program length by having all awards in the "best song" category announced by video, not presenters. That helped shave 45 minutes off the show.
The Barrymore Theatre was also less stiff than last year's venue, the Wisconsin Union Theater. You can bring beer into the seating area at the Barrymore, and that turned the show into a bar gig of sorts. Audience noise maintained a steady pitch throughout.
While newcomers made their presence felt (Felicia Alima brought down the house with her urban/hip-hop song-and-dance routine), the night belonged to our legends. And why wouldn't it? They were in the company of lifelong friends.
Art Paul Schlosser rambled in the loving way only Art Paul can. About his compilation album, he said, "We would have world peace if more people could work together."
Stubblefield danced gently with pride onstage as he accepted his award and hugged presenter Katy Sai gleefully. He pointed and waved to friends in the crowd.
"Thank you for one of Madison's greatest awards," he said. "Peace and happiness. I love you."
Let the votes be free
Rick Tvedt, Roy Elkins and the many others who donate heaps of their personal time to organize the Madison Area Music Awards deserve a lot of credit. They've given the community an extraordinary local music showcase that meets the highest standards of professional production. And they've managed to solicit enough sponsorship in four short years to not only pay their bills, but to raise a modest (and increasing) sum for music education.
There's only one thing stopping the MAMAs from continuing to grow and improve: a "pay to submit, nominate and vote" system that guarantees the show does not reflect the scope of Madison music.
There was almost no sign of either punk or Latin artists at last Saturday's event. When I interviewed Tvedt before the show, he acknowledged that the MAMAs can't get local punks to submit their materials.
"We depend on the musicians themselves to throw their hat into the ring," he said. "There are all kinds of people we wish would do that."
MAMAs nominations and voting are restricted to MAMAs members, who pay $5 to join the organization. That sounds reasonable enough, but hey - these are Madison musicians. Our community of artists includes more than a few anti-establishment personalities. Paying to nominate and vote for yourself and the members of your clique, even if it is for charity, simply doesn't work for a large contingent.
"Was there really only one entry in some of these categories?" wrote Robin in a post at the Motor Primitives blog. "So one really can buy themselves a MAMA if they plan right?"
Tvedt has defended the membership fee as a necessary part of the MAMAs' charitable mission. The 657 people who signed up to participate in 2007 MAMAs voting will enable the organization to donate more than $3,000 to "put musical instruments in the hands of kids."
What might happen if the MAMAs abandoned its pay-to-vote system? The organization risks letting go of a reliable source of fund-raising. But it also potentially grows into an event representing the entire scene. And that might attract a lot more business sponsorship dollars in the end.
There is no such thing as a perfect voting system, but I'd vote for this one: 1) Let anyone nominate anyone for free, 2) let anyone vote in the first nomination round for free, 3) let anyone vote in the second winners' selection round for free, 4) have ballots and nomination boxes at clubs and record stores throughout the city, right alongside MAMAs donation boxes.
As for memberships, let the MAMAs fulfill its mission as the Madison Area Music Association, with a $25 annual membership fee that's a subscription to a support network for local musicians. And that has nothing to do with voting for awards.