It was a big week for glittery, over-the-top and slightly perplexing contests. First
the Grammy Awards ceremony, with its requisite preening and prancing and bizarre outfits, then two evenings of the Westminster dog show, which offered more of the same.
Not that the Leonberger or Finnish spitz showed up in a giant egg, as Lady Gaga did. Nor did fans of the bearded collie, which was among the runners-up for best in show, take to defacing the Wikipedia page of the night’s big winner, the Scottish deerhound, as Justin Bieber’s fans did to the Esperanza Spalding page when she beat him for best new artist.
Still, the two events, which tend to fall within a few weeks of each other every year, have always shared some key traits. There are, for starters, the exotic names. Consider the following (those under 25 not eligible for this challenge): Lady Antebellum, Kings of Leon, Lamb of God, Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction, Swizz Beatz, Fireside’s Spontaneous Combustion. Which are humans with an Auto-Tune machine and a dream, and which are high-achieving canines? Before I began this column I couldn’t have told you. In fact, I’m still not sure.
Then there are the hairstyles. Red-haired singer Florence Welch sported her shaggy/wavy do, Lady Gaga wore a side ponytail that brought to mind a lopsided unicorn, and rapper Nicki Minaj had a leopard-print dye job under what can only be described as a massive white pouf of fiberglass insulation accented with a streak of black. As unique as these looks seem at first glance, they’re merely knockoffs of the preferred coiffures of the Irish setter, the briard and the bichon frise.
The two events part ways, however, when it comes to judging standards. As with most big pop culture competitions, the Grammy Awards tend to reflect some nebulous combination of big sales and artistic merit, though the fact that past winners have included the elevator-ish likes of Kenny G, not to mention the lip-syncing duo Milli Vanilli, suggest that artistry has always been a rather fluid concept.
The dog show, on the other hand, has standards that are almost crudely transparent. Sure, the judges bring their own tastes and biases to the ring, but their task would appear to be as much a science as an art. Dogs are evaluated on, among other things, the size of their heads, the width of their shoulders, their gait, the arch of their tails and their overall body proportions. The standards can be specific down to fractions of an inch: the Ibizan hound must be 22 1/2 inches to 27 1/2 inches at the shoulder, for instance. And you thought being in a beauty pageant contestant was hard.
Speaking of which, dog shows are often equated (disparagingly) with beauty pageants, the idea being that it’s just as shallow to favor dogs that conform to standards as it is to glorify women who fall within a relatively narrow range of body types, facial features and, arguably, personalities. It also bears mentioning that with millions of adoptable animals in shelters or on the street there’s something vulgar about celebrating dogs bred for head size and height at the withers.
But there’s also something kind of great about it, no matter how arbitrary or even silly the standards sound to the layperson. Because, let’s face it, standards are rare these days. We’re obsessed with contests, with survivors and competing bachelorettes and wannabe chefs, but we’re a little fuzzy on what makes a winner. Is it raw talent? Is it originality? It is that intangible thing called star quality? Can any of these things really be accurately assessed anyway?
When you think about it, most of our opinions come down to the old “American Bandstand” school of criticism: “It has a good beat; I can dance to it.” Beauty pageants, which are fundamentally about breast-to-waist-to-hip ratio, try to maintain the pretense that they’re not quite as superficial as all that, hence the scholarship programs and the interview portion of the contest. The Grammys purport to represent the best of the recording industry, as judged by the recording industry.
But dogs don’t vote each other on or off the island. They don’t have to answer questions about world peace. They don’t even have to wear swimsuits. All they have to do, quite literally, is measure up. And we really don’t see enough of that these days.
By Meghan Daum
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. ― Ed.
(Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)