Award-winning stupidity

Every year, a few steadfast critics accept the Sisyphean task of encouraging Grammy voters to acknowledge quality instead of hype and sales numbers. And every year, they push the boulder less than halfway up the hill before it retreats, rolls over them, and rests comfortably at the base of the incline. By the time the majority of Grammy nominations go to the most deserving artists in their respective genres, a college football playoff system will be in place, the Chiefs will have won a Super Bowl, and flying cars might well be a reality. The Grammys have been an unfortunate joke for almost half a century, and judging by the most recent crop of nominees, there’s little hope for immediate improvement.

After inexplicably being honored as “Best New Artist” last year, although she had released two albums with a multiplatinum group, Lauryn Hill continued her streak of unlikely nominations by racking up four mentions. She received those honors despite not releasing an album in 1999. This year’s fraudulent entry in the “new” artist sweepstakes is Kid Rock, who has been kicking around in well-deserved obscurity since the dawn of the decade.

This year’s nominations continue the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ (NARAS) long-standing tradition of ignoring quality hip-hop. (Despite many reports to the contrary, Lauryn Hill is not a rap artist — she’s a soul artist who incorporates hip-hop elements.) The inexcusable shutout of Prince Paul, who delivered two of the year’s best albums, was sadly predictable, given the fact that classic rap milestones, such as N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions …, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, earned a combined total of two nominations and zero wins.

For the most compelling evidence of the academy’s lack of respect for hip-hop, check out the recently released Ultimate Grammy Box Set. The only track conceded to rap is M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” which hardly represents the apex of hip-hop creativity. Including Hammer at the expense of, say, A Tribe Called Quest, is akin to choosing Toto over The Beatles or Michael Bolton over James Brown, two more implausible oversights on this four-disc collection.

But there is hope for cutting-edge artists, albeit at the end of a long tunnel. These performers need only wait until they lose relevance to be rewarded. The Rolling Stones won no Grammys until 1986, when they picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award. After that, they were nominated for songs from Steel Wheels and for the album Voodoo Lounge, works that pale in comparison to the group’s earlier, unrecognized achievements. And James Brown didn’t win a Grammy until his 1986 nod for “Living In America,” though he’d crafted dozens of superior songs 20 years earlier without being rewarded.

Given the relative paucity of standout albums this year, it’s more interesting to note the slew of critically reviled artists that were honored than to bemoan the deserving talent that was overlooked. Racking up nominations were the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, which is akin to seeing Big Daddy and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo sweep the Oscars. Sure, all of these performers offer a few catchy hooks and occasional moments of guilty pleasure, but do they really represent the pinnacle of music as an art form? Perhaps these teen sensations would be deserving if they had actually written their own music or lyrics. But given that their albums are purely producer-driven, it’s folly to shower them with nominations at the expense of those who don’t merely fill in the blanks.

Granted, as with any major choice made in this era, financial considerations factor heavily into the nominating process. Millions of people will tune in to see what possible award-winners Spears, Madonna, and Cher will be wearing, whereas snubbed candidates, such as Mos Def and Mr. Bungle, offer little in the wardrobe department. And by overlooking Fiona Apple’s stellar sophomore album, the academy has ensured that Apple won’t drive viewers away with another inane acceptance speech, which conceivably could have been interrupted by another deserving candidate, fellow awards-show pariah Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But by pandering to television ratings, the Grammys have become a dumbed-down popularity contest instead of a legitimate celebration of excellence.

But there are bright spots this year. After years of ignoring Carlos Santana, the academy honored him in a big way — with 10 nominations. Regardless of whether his album Supernatural deserved such acclaim is irrelevant — the man has paid his dues. Other worthy veteran acts are looking to fill sparsely populated awards closets (Motorhead and Black Sabbath) or making space on the dusty mantle (Donna Summer and Jeff Beck). The Roots, Chris Rock, Ani DiFranco, Moby, and Eminem rank high on the short list of critical favorites who managed to catch voters’ ears. The academy receives partial credit for choosing innovative artists Korn and Beck for material they recorded in 1998 rather than focusing on their more recent albums.

In the lower-profile categories, plenty of evidence shows that those who made the selections were doing their homework. BR5-49, June Carter Cash, Dixie Chicks, and Alison Krauss produced some of the year’s most memorable country tunes, and the works of Etta James, Diana Krall, Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau, Tom Harrell, and Cassandra Wilson unquestionably rank among the best jazz had to offer in 1999. The embracing of Luther Allison’s scorching Live In Chicago gives the contemporary blues category instant credibility, as does the inclusion of Tom Waits and John Prine among the formidable contemporary folk contenders.

Most of the 98 categories feature five nominees — roughly 500 slots with which to honor the year’s best musicians. When their selections are viewed as a whole, the Grammy voters seem to have done a passable job at recognizing top talent. However, most music fans aren’t going to judge the list as a whole. They’ll look straight to such categories as “Song of the Year,” “Album of the Year,” and “Best Male/Female Vocalist,” and that’s where the contenders are lacking. It’s like an umpire who makes hundreds of perfect judgments and then blows the call that decides the game. Years from now, few will recall the overall quality of the artists selected, but they’ll remember that the high-profile slots were filled with bland pop performers.

Barring a substantial change in the voting criteria, that trait is destined to be the lasting legacy of the Grammys, an event that continues to allow celebrities to bolster their credibility with dubious awards while forcing pioneers to be content with fan mail and year-end Top Ten lists until they receive the Lifetime Achievement Award pity prize in the twilight of their careers.

Contact Andrew Miller at 816-218-6781 or amiller@pitch.com.

Categories: Music