Sunday, 20 August 2017

Can We Categorize Clipping?

There is a long tradition of pop stars getting their geek on by recording high-concept sci-fi-inspired
Clipping frontman Daveed Diggs will
have to wait another year to complete
his EGOTH. Photo from Worldcon 75.
albums, from David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars to Stix’s Mr. Roboto to Rush’s 2112 to Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk. While some of these works have been celebrated by music critics and the broader public, until this year they’ve been largely overlooked by the Hugo Awards process.

Splendor and Misery from L.A.-based experimental hip hop group Clipping is an ambitious and challenging work that is an exemplar of this tradition. In the 2017 Hugo Awards, it became only the second such work to be nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award (after the 1971 album Blows Against The Empire by Jefferson Starship, which finished in the voting below ‘No Award’).

However, Splendor and Misery failed to generate much popular support among voters, placing last amongst other nominated works in the category and losing to Leviathan Wakes from the TV series The Expanse. While Leviathan Wakes is an awesome bit of television (and is the work that we voted for) it is kind of a shame that there isn’t a good category to recognize eclectic and unusual works in the Hugo Awards.

Format-Agnostic Awards

At a panel at Worldcon75, we were impressed by the Hugo Awards administrators’ commitment to the idea that anything with merit and the necessary nominations deserves to be on the ballot, regardless of format. There was some discussion about the inherent strength and flexibility of current categories, which could accommodate works like board games, as an example.

However, at what point does flexibility begin to take away the original meaning of a category? Perhaps there should be scope for more opportunities for the Hugo awards to present special
As has been noted earlier on this blog,
a lot of great SF from 1972 was not
recognized at the Hugo Awards.
The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust
is another example of this.
(Image via
recognition for science fictional or fantastic works that defy easy categorization into one of the traditional awards areas. Or perhaps Hugo Administrators might be given the discretion on an as-needed-basis to offer a grab-bag format-agnostic category for works that fall outside the standard mold. If any genre can handle liminal works based on merit, not format, it should be SF and fantasy.

It would be foolish, however, to suggest that there should be a Best Album category at the Hugo Awards. The longstanding unofficial rule of thumb is that there should be a good expectation in any given year that there are at least 15 worthwhile nominatable works to make a category viable. In most years, there would be far fewer science fiction or fantasy concept albums to choose from.

Unfair Comparisons Shortchange Odd Nominees

Under the Hugo Award rules as they currently stand, science fiction concept albums clearly fall into
The Archandroid is the second of seven
planned albums chronicling the story
of Janelle Monáe's time-travelling
android alter-ego Cindy Mayweather.
(Image via 
the category of short-form dramatic presentation. But since the Best Dramatic Presentation category was split into long-form and short-form categories, the short-form category has been dominated by television episodes.

In most years, the only shortlisted works for best dramatic presentation short subject are television episodes. In 2011, Janelle Monáe’s exquisite album Archandroid – which told the tale of an android messiah fighting to restore freedom, love and unity to a robot metropolis – wasn’t on the ballot, while three episodes of Doctor Who competed against each other.

But how can you compare Archandroid to The Pandorica Opens, the Doctor Who episode that won the category that year? Should the liner notes be considered when judging an album’s merit?

The pop album and the video are mediums so disparate that how one judges the success of either one as art – or as science fiction – are completely different. There isn’t a reasonable grounds for comparison.

Comparing Apples And Orions

One might note that, as a group who are united only in their love for science fiction and fantasy as a
We suspect that Splendor and Misery
would have fared better at the Hugo
Awards if the related music videos
had explicitly been part of the nomination.
(Image via YouTube) 
genre, Hugo voters are an incredibly diverse group who might not all share the same taste in music.

Which brings us back to Splendor and Misery. Hugo voters are not an audience that is known for their love of experimental rap. However, when Clipping performed a concert at this year’s Worldcon in Helsinki, the response was electric. It is clear to those of us who were at the performance that Clipping’s inclusion on the ballot meant something both to the band, and to the audience.

A evocative tale of slavery, isolation, and yearning for freedom, Splendor and Misery is elevated by the richness of the language, and the deftness of Daveed Diggs’ delivery. This should be remembered as a great work of science fiction, regardless of how it was adjudicated at the Hugo Awards this year.


  1. Each year's Hugo Award administrators *can* give special recognitions and can have one special category of Hugo Awards. That's how we got Best Series this year (before the new category was ratified and official).

    As you've said, though, I'm not sure how they'd define a category that can catch some of the awesome unusual things like these albums. Something to think about!

    Also, I DID NOT KNOW there were music videos to go with the clipping. album! Thank you!!

    Splendor and Misery may have come in last place, but it was nominated (and beat out quite a few other very popular shows to make the ballot), got nearly as many first places on ballots as BOTH Game of Thrones episodes and the Doctor Who episode, and finished way above No Award. That's a solid Finalist in my book.

    Now please excuse me, I need to go look up some music videos... :-)

  2. This is a nitpick, but it segues into something important as well. There has been a third music album that has been nominated for a Hugo: Seanan McGuire's "Wicked Girls", nominated in 2012, though it was nominated as a Best Related Work. It ended in a solid third place. Unlike Clipping or Jefferson Starship, Seanan's work falls squarely into the realm as a work made within science fiction fandom.

    To me, the Hugos have its roots as a community award. It's science fiction fandom's way of honouring its best and brightest, and due to the way science fiction was marketed and produced for a long time, that meant that the Hugos came to honour the best in science fiction. But that was a side effect in the beginning. But the old musical tradition within sf fandom, filk, is more focused on community interaction rather than artistic showmanship, excellence, or innovation.

    There might be a need for a grab-bag category, or perhaps to break out the literary and genre analysis from the Best Related Work. Come to think of it, that might be the best path going forward. Better to break something we know is viable from the grab bag than try to find something new and viable from scratch.