`Slim' Grammy chances


February 18, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic



In the last two years, we have seen the Grammy Awards honor the Year of the Woman (with Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, Madonna and others getting multiple nods in 1998) and the Year of Santana (with the Latin guitarist claiming a record-tying eight awards in 1999).

Neither resulted in much excitement over the course of the endless three-hour telecasts. While the Grammys stand as the music industry's most prestigious and credible annual awards, the broadcast itself is almost always dreadfully dull.

Now comes the 43rd annual show and the controversial Year of Eminem. For all of the sanctimonious hand-wringing and mock outrage by Mike Greene, president of awards sponsors the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, one thing is certain: The hate-spewing rapper could be the most exciting thing to happen to the Grammys since the half-naked Soy Bomb tried to mosh with Bob Dylan.

Well aware of the ratings bonanza that can be generated by controversy, NARAS jumped at the chance to have four-time nominee Eminem perform on the telecast, which airs at 7 p.m. Wednesday on WBBM-Channel 2. But the organization is also extremely conscious of political correctness, and the show is pairing Eminem with pioneering gay rocker Elton John for a duet on the rapper's song "Stan," a portrait of a crazed fan who imitates Eminem by murdering his wife and child.

The motives for all concerned are obvious. Eminem gets to claim that he doesn't really hate homosexuals, despite his frequent slurs against "fags" and the threats of violence in his lyrics. Princess Di's biggest fan and the author of "Candle in the Wind" gets tons of publicity and some much-needed street cred with Generation Y. And NARAS gets to have its cake and eat it too, taking advantage of both artists to hype its broadcast, while appearing to take the high road of "stimulating debate."

"There is no question that the prospect of Eminem performing on the Grammy telecast has been greeted with a great deal of interest, heat and controversy," Greene said, smacking his lips in the press release announcing the duet. "The addition of Elton John--always the musical adventurer himself--joining Eminem onstage will no doubt generate further debate and comment. But we view this moment not only as musically significant, but also as an opportunity to help tear down some of the unfortunate walls of division that Eminem's lyrics have built."

Hey, Mike: Get serious! Do you really think that pairing Em 'n' Elton erases the offense of lyrics that even you've deemed morally reprehensible? Can't you just be honest with us? As another hip-hop sage once put it, this is all about the Benjamins.

This should come as news to no one. Since their inception, the Grammys have been torn between their stated ideal of honoring artistic excellence and their actual role of celebrating the industry's commercial accomplishments.

Every year, Greene gives a long and boring speech about the many worthwhile activities by NARAS, an organization of some 17,000 artists and recording industry professionals. There are the efforts to fund music education in the schools, and the work by MusiCares, the group's charitable



arm devoted to providing assistance to indigent musicians in need of health care.

But the actual Grammy broadcast--and to a large extent, the awards that are presented during it--is about big business. It's right up there with the Super Bowl in terms of ad revenues and ratings pressure, and it has very little to do with art or charity.

Simply put, with sales of more than 7 million, there was no way the Grammys could ignore "The Marshall Mathers LP," regardless of any real consideration of its artistic merits.

As always, the rest of Wednesday's live broadcast (7 p.m., Channel 2) from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles will be a mixed bag. The show tries to be all things to all people, and as a result, it pleases pretty much no one.

Also slated to perform are veteran superstars Madonna and U2; teenybopper favorites 'N Sync, Christina Aguilera, Destiny's Child and Take 6; country performers Faith Hill and Brad Paisley (who's doing a duet with Dolly Parton), and, in the token bids for hipness, Macy Gray and joint appearances by Moby and the Blue Man Group and Beck and D'Angelo.

As for the awards themselves, predicting the Grammy winners is a notoriously dicey business. Because it is such a large and disparate group, it's impossible to accurately read how NARAS will vote in any given category. Nonetheless, I'll gamely take a stab at the biggest prizes--and stand prepared to be contradicted three days hence.

Record of the Year

(Awarded to the performer and producer of a single track.)

The nominees: "Say My Name," Destiny's Child; "I Try," Macy Gray; "Music," Madonna; "Bye Bye Bye," 'N Sync; "Beautiful Day," U2.

Predicted winner: U2. I'm betting that all the controversy about Eminem will spur many voters to side with old favorites. Plus, U2 has the edge on moral superiority.

Most worthy: Not much here to get excited about; Macy Gray's song is probably the best.

Sadly overlooked: "The Light," Common.

Album of the Year

The nominees: "Midnite Vultures," Beck; "The Marshall Mathers LP," Eminem; "Kid A," Radiohead; "You're the One," Paul Simon; "Two Against Nature," Steely Dan.

Predicted winner: Simon. Conventional wisdom holds that Beck and Radiohead will split the hipster voters and Simon and Steely Dan will split the old-timers, allowing Eminem to claim the prize. I think too many conservative NARAS members will be outraged by the prospect of that and will vote for the guy with the best chance of blocking it. Besides, NARAS loves Simon--he has 12 previous awards for his solo work.

Most worthy: Radiohead. Though I don't think that "Kid A" is nearly as innovative as many of its champions claim, it's the best of a mediocre lot.

Sadly overlooked: "Voodoo," D'Angelo, the most inventive album of the year.

Song of the Year

(Awarded to the songwriter.)

The nominees: "Beautiful Day," U2; "Breathe," Faith Hill (Stephanie Bentley & Holly Lamar, songwriters); "I Hope You Dance," Lee Ann Rimes (Mark D. Sanders & Tia Sellers, songwriters); "I Try," Macy Gray; "Say My Name," Destiny's Child.

Predicted winner: U2. The country voters will split between Hill and Rimes, and the rest of NARAS will go with an old faithful. I'd say Simon again, but he isn't nominated in this category.

Most worthy: Macy Gray; "Beautiful Day" is just U2 by numbers.

Sadly overlooked: "Devil's Pie," D'Angelo.

Best New Artist

The nominees: Shelby Lynne, Brad Paisley, Papa Roach, Jill Scott, Sisqo.

Predicted winner: This one is tough. We have two country-ish artists, one rap-rock band, one R&B artist and one poppy rapper. I'm gonna say Brad Paisley, just because he's performing on the show and Nashville loves him.

Most worthy: Nobody; this is one of the sorriest slates in recent history.

Sadly overlooked: P.J. Olsson, Neko Case, Guster, Kittie, North Mississippi Allstars, Shivaree . . . I could go on and on.

Best Pop Album

The nominees: "Inside Job," Don Henley; "Music," Madonna; "No Strings Attached," 'N Sync; "Oops! . . . I Did It Again," Britney Spears; "Two Against Nature," Steely Dan.

Predicted winner: Britney and 'N Sync will split the teenyboppers, Steely Dan and Henley will divide the geezers, and Madonna will take the prize.

Most worthy: Madonna.

Sadly overlooked: Veruca Salt, "Resolver."

Best Dance Recording

The nominees: "Who Let the Dogs Out," Baha Men; "Blue (Da Ba Dee)," Eiffel 65; "Be With You," Enrique Iglesias; "Let's Get Loud," Jennifer Lopez; "Natural Blues," Moby.

Predicted winner: Lopez. She's hot, hot, hot.

Most worthy: Moby (though last year should haven been his year).

Sadly overlooked: "Original Motion Picture Score for `The Virgin Suicides,' " Air.

Best Rock Album

The nominees: "Crush," Bon Jovi; "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," Foo Fighters; "Mad Season," Matchbox 20; "Return of Saturn," No Doubt; "The Battle of Los Angeles," Rage Against the Machine.

Predicted winner: Matchbox 20. They move units, as the industry says, and Rob Thomas had that hit with last year's Grammy god, Santana.

Most worthy: Another pathetic roster of nominees. Best of an awful lot: Rage.

Sadly overlooked: Where the heck are the Smashing Pumpkins?

Best Rock Song

The nominees: "Again," Lenny Kravitz; "Bent," Matchbox 20; "Californication," Red Hot Chili Peppers; "Kryptonite," 3 Doors Down; "With Arms Wide Open," Creed.

Predicted winner: Creed, one of the best-selling rock bands in rock-starved times. I'm surprised they didn't get more nods in other categories.

Most worthy: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, although again, this is a sorry list of nominees.

Sadly overlooked: "Feelgood Hit of the Summer," Queens of the Stone Age.

Best Alternative Music Album

The nominees: "When the Pawn . . .," Fiona Apple; "Midnite Vultures," Beck; "Bloodflowers," the Cure; "Liverpool Sound Collage," Paul McCartney; "Kid A," Radiohead.

Predicted winner: Radiohead, because it won't win album of the year.

Most worthy: Radiohead, but that's relative to a list that is proof positive that alternative is dead.

Sadly overlooked: "The Post Wave," the Blue Meanies.

Best R&B Album

The nominees: "Nathan/Michael/Shawn/Wanya," Boyz II Men; "The Heat," Toni Braxton; "Voodoo," D'Angelo; "My Name Is Joe," Joe; "Who Is Jill Scott?," Jill Scott; "Unleash the Dragon," Sisqo.

Predicted winner: Jill Scott; the best new artist nomination says she's on voters' minds.

Most worthy: D'Angelo.

Sadly overlooked: "Mama's Gun," Erykah Badu--but that's because it wasn't eligible because of the weird way the Grammy defines the year 2000 (the cutoff is in September).

Best Rap Album

The nominees: ". . . And Then There Was X," DMX; "Dr. Dre--2001," Dr. Dre; "The Marshall Mathers LP," Eminem; "Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter," Jay-Z; "Country Grammar," Nelly.

Predicted winner: Eminem. Seven million record buyers can't be wrong. Or can they?

Most worthy: Nelly.

Sadly overlooked: "Like Water for Chocolate," Common.

Best Country Album

The nominees: "Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye," Vince Gill; "Breathe," Faith Hill; "Under the Influence," Alan Jackson; "I Hope You Dance," Lee Ann Womack; "Real Live Woman," Trisha Yearwood.

Predicted winner: Faith Hill; she's performing on the show, and that's always a tip-off.

Most worthy: Yearwood, the least plastic of these performers.

Sadly overlooked: "Furnace Room Lullaby," Neko Case & Her Boyfriends.


Grammy info you need to know

1. The Grammys remain the most credible awards in popular music.

The music industry's Oscars, the Grammys are determined by the voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, an incredibly diverse professional organization composed of 17,000 people from all corners of the music industry. These range from the hippest young techno DJs to the crustiest old recording engineers who only work on commercial jingles or polka records.

There are problems with the voting system--primarily in the way that select committees winnow down the thousands of artists into a short list of those who are then eligible to be nominated--but it is at least democratic and conducted in a serious and credible fashion, as opposed to the dubious methodologies of the MTV Video Music Awards and Dick Clark's American Music Awards.

2. The Grammys are slowly and steadily improving.

When the awards originated in the '50s, the recording academy was devoted to placating the old guard in shutting out the dire new scourge of rock 'n' roll. Through the '70s and '80s, it spent most of its time trying to make up for everything that it had wrongly dismissed in the previous decades, as well as making some infamous mistakes (among them: the coronation of forgettable acts like the Starland Vocal Band and Christopher Cross, Jethro Tull's 1988 award for the best metal performance, and the rescinded Grammy for lip-synchers Milli Vanilli).

Over the last decade, the Grammys have been steadily improving, albeit at a glacial pace. Where once they were as hip as the ancient nun who taught third-grade Catechism, they have now morphed into Richard Dreyfuss as Mr. Holland. It's better than it was before, but. . . .

3. The Grammys still aren't as good as they should be.

The academy as a whole still seems overly impressed with commercial success at the expense of musical excellence and innovation. While the genre awards have become more credible, the "big four" prizes of record, song and album of the year and best new artist tend to hone closely toward the top of the pop-sales charts. And when in doubt, NARAS' membership will always throw the prize to a venerated geezer.

4. Instead of complaining, you could actually join NARAS and work to change it.

Membership in the group is open to any musician or studio engineer who has worked on six tracks, as well as to some educators and other music industry professionals; for eligibility, check the NARAS Web site, www.naras.com, or call the Chicago branch office at (312) 786-1121. There is an annual membership fee of $65, but there are also fringe benefits: You'll be eligible to buy many CDs at a discount that's better than the Columbia House Records Club, and you'll be able to vote on next year's Grammy nominees instead of just whining about them.