What's Not to Like?

A Success Story Where the Good Guys Win?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Never take the Grammys seriously, but this year—with the biz suffering its biggest downer since disco went bust, Buddy Holly died, or Herbert Hoover was president (Lord how I miss him)—they have their meteorological attractions. Unless you believe Eminem had a snowball's chance in Harlem, or can name a bizzer other than L.A. Reid and maybe Clive Davis who knows how brilliant Pink is, Jones's five-statuette victory wasn't surprising or especially unjust. The Rising and Nellyville and Home (Dixie Chicks, you remember, great title gals) are overrated feel-good albums too, and The Eminem Show is for newbies. But though the biz needs Norah Jones structurally, it doesn't need her aesthetically, and in both respects, as hasn't been said loudly enough, Come Away With Me is the same record as last year's surprise winner, O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Sincere left-field entry on music man's corporate imprint wins aging voters and consumers alike by proving that young people can too play real/honest/ genuine/authentic music. This means music that cossets neither computers nor scary black guys. It also means music that pays fealty to an aesthetically respectable past authorized by public broadcasting, tony feature stories, and an educational system in which jazz is a major at North Texas State.

Some wags explain the Grammy winners' mega sales another way—the they-play-their-own-instruments thing, it is said, targets an audience too old and technophobic to download. And though Jones is one of Amazon's star performers, there could conceivably be truth in the joke. But even if home burning is killing music, a convenient oversimplification at best, it's not acting alone. The NARAS posse also bears some responsibility, and in part the Grammys constitute a self-reproof and/or statement of principle—a way to compensate for the cynicism many bizzers believe they're driven to by a nose-diving economy, demanding bosses, fickle fate, and the stupidity of the young. This would be dandy if only the principle weren't so limited. It's not as if the adult alternative market many crow about is a bad idea. It's been ignored too long, and will provide succor to some lively geezers as well as many soulful bores. By definition, however, it's not much of a future. Jazzypop is more promising than neobluegrass—it's possible to imagine Jones or someone like her adding bite to the recipe without wrecking its outreach. But what we really need is more NARAS aesthetes alert enough to realize that the Neptunes have earned some kind of prize—and that the greatest pop musicians have always wanted things to get out of hand. In this, Norah Jones is of less than no use.

Since I bear Jones no ill will, I regret to report that she has new product out. Following in the blurry footsteps of debut divas Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Jill Scott, she has followed her first studio album with a premature live album. That this one is a DVD doesn't help a bit—I thought the visualization of music was part of the problem. Anyway, showpersonship is not her long suit in a presentation replete with gawky smiles, gawkier stage talk, lots of pictures of hands, five songs that aren't on the album, and 10 that are—several of which become unbearable under the spotlight.

Norah Jones is not a "hype."
photo: Blue Note Records
Norah Jones is not a "hype."

Stardom is never easy, is it? My advice is that Norah Jones study the career of Tracy Chapman, who for 15 years has exploited the unexpected multiplatinum of her debut for all the privacy and autonomy it's worth—and who has thus remained honest and unpretentious whether you like her or not.

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