Forever Old

NARAS Sifts Through an Arty Bunch in a Don't-Miss Year

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences—NARAS for short, overseer of the Grammys, which one old joke calls the Grannies, while another wonders why NARAS didn't shorten "phonograph" instead of "gramophone"—is a professional association. All professional associations have two purposes, with the obvious one, improving the economic prospects of its members, almost always secondary. Professional associations are about status, about getting more of what judges crave every bit as much as osteopaths—respect. If respect converts to cash, great, that's only just. But it's an end in itself. Which is sufficient explanation for why NARAS's concept of artistic quality veers toward what the larger culture respects—the middlebrow, the meaningful, the inspirational. The Grammys aren't supposed to be risky, avant-garde, or—must I?—cutting-edge. Nor, I'd better add, young. This is pop music. We share it with others less fortunate than ourselves. If you can't make your peace with Celine Dion's horrible Titanic song, watch some other show. Duh.

But since the recording arts and sciences are applied primarily to pop music, which means music that sells, economics are immediately smooshed back into this schema. When a nominee has failed to achieve a certain commercial level, its legitimacy is open to question. Beyond the Eminem guff, this is one reason 2001's album nominees were, to use the term of art, controversial. Of Beck, Eminem, Radiohead, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan, only one (guess which) had gone even platinum, whereas in 1999, say, Sheryl Crow, Garbage, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, and Shania Twain all had, the last three multi. And by Grammy standards, this was an arty bunch, too. The conservatives in the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll share many values with NARAS's enlightened mainstream, and so propelled Steely Dan to 19th this year. But it wasn't P&J old-timers who voted Radiohead third and Eminem fourth, and Beck third in 1999.

There's more P&J-Grammy crossover than one might suspect, or wish. In 1989, for instance, the poll honored all five NARAS album nominees—Don Henley, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Traveling Wilburys, Fine Young Cannibals. But the artier crossover is new, and it has a birthdate—1995, the year after Tony Bennett's MTV Unplugged was NARAS's surprise album winner. As the Grammy-watchdog L.A. Times indignantly noted, the old classmonger's youth-market gambit had made not a single major critic's top 10. To compound the ignominy, it had only gone gold shortly before its victory, and finally registered its Grammy sales bump five years later—it only went platinum last August. Loudmouthed bizzers fussed so much that loquacious NARAS prexy Mike Greene went out and expensed himself a designer hair shirt. Soon voting procedures changed, and since nobody understands them, I'll try to sum up.

Anyone who's made "creative" contributions to six recordings is eligible to join NARAS for $65 a year, a fee often covered by the creator's favorite record company. Some 12,000 members can vote in four general categories: song, record, and album of the year and best new artist. Beyond that, however, members are only allowed to cast ballots in nine (in the finals, confusingly, eight) of what have mushroomed, during Greene's expansionist realm, into 22 (according to one paragraph on the NARAS Web site) or 27 (it says two grafs down) "fields." Genres have always been problematic in an award that notoriously declared Nancy Wilson "r&b" (she defeated Sam Cooke, the Supremes, the Impressions, Dionne Warwick, and Joe Tex) and Jethro Tull "hard rock/metal" (AC/DC, Metallica, Jane's Addiction, Iggy Pop), but they currently include polka, reggae, "world," seven Spanish-language awards that presumably telescope into one "field," and brand-new-for-2001 Native American. Before 1995, the contest comprised a two-stage process in which five nominees per category were chosen from long lists of member-or label-"entered" recordings and then run off against each other. Now the first stage produces 20 nominees in each general category, which are winnowed down to five by a top-secret committee of 25 aesthetic standard-bearers said actually to listen to all 60 of the nominated recordings in a two-day marathon, though getting through the albums alone would take 15 or 20 hours.

Are you with me? Are you wondering why? Duh. Right, the new process produced a decent batch of album nominees in 2001 and in 1999, but I cleverly skipped 2000, when the venerable Carlos Santana vanquished TLC, the Dixie Chicks, the Backstreet Boys, and Tony Bennett fave Diana Krall. So rather than depress you with more examples, I will merely note that Mike Greene didn't become a music-biz powerhouse by rescuing the Grammys from the swing era and speechifying about artistic freedom whenever he got near a microphone. He did it by transforming the famously lame Grammycast into big-time television, and without benefit of Billy Crystal, who was stolen by the hated Oscars around the beginning of Greene's reign. With the awards imparting the kind of respect any good promo person can take to the bank and the performance slots mega-exposing to an audience of guaranteed music fans, labels vie so slavishly to take their artists to NARAS's stage that they happily foot production costs. The Grammys are famously lame even so—the Oscars are more entertaining, more mythic, more don't-miss. But if you care about music they're a hoot nevertheless. And this year, with bully-pulpiters boosting Grammy word-of-mouth like it was Eminem street cred and GLAAD branding Elton John a quisling, they were don't-miss.

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