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Grammy Awards Follow the Money
Every year when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences celebrates its Grammy Awards, I gag at the notion that any of this music industry pomp honors the best music of the past year. Although all of the big time entertainment awards cater to money and power, the Grammy ceremony offers up a particularly shameless brand of groveling. This years 42nd annual Grammy Awards (February 23) was more of the same.
To begin with the obvious, the Grammy Awards are selected by established industry big wigs (writers, producers, musicians, and other industry professionals) whose tastes and loyalties are bonded to the commercial successes of major label music companies. Accordingly, all of the shows big winners come from the rosters of music industry conglomerates and most enjoy blockbuster record sales (upwards of a million units sold).
No surprise then when the January 4 nominations included giant commercial acts such as the Backstreet Boys, TLC, Ricky Martin, the Dixie Chicks, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Santana dominating all the major awards categories (Album of The Year, Best New Artist, Male Pop Vocal Performance, Female Pop Vocal Performance, Rock Album of The Year).
In the non-mainstream music categories such as blues, folk, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, and world, the Grammys approach credibility. Less manipulated by the sway of commercial arm twisting, nominations in these categories include artists from small labels and generally tend to appreciate music not aimed at a mass market. Although, even here, older and established performers are favored over younger and less conventional musicians, nominations do at least draw attention to strong respectable releases from the past year.
This years bluegrass nominations, for example, presented a solid group of albums by the legendary Ralph Stanley, Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs, and David Grisman and friends. Blues and folk categories shined a light on worthy works by B. B. King, Robert Cray, Pinetop Perkins, Ramblin Jack Elliott, John Prine, and Doc Watson. In even more obscure categories such as Tejano, Polka, Latin Jazz, Classical, and Opera, the Grammys recognized musical riches well beyond the popular music mainstream.
The catch is none of these small market music awards get the spotlight of the prime time Grammy telecast. Handing out these lesser awards early and off camera, the Grammys reinforce the marginalization of all the non-mainstream sounds already excluded from virtually all visibility in the mass media. For its gala self-congratulatory event of the year, the music industry worships only at the alter of the almighty dollar.
So it is that most of the awards are predictable. The real action and suspense of the Grammy evening comes in the parade of the rich and famous flouting fashion, cool, and cleavage. Punctuating the ceremony with glitzy, overproduced performances from the years nominees, the show only underscores how little the proceedings have to do with musical excellence. Backslapping and self- promotion is the name of the game.
This is not to say that all the Grammy winners stink. There are some commercially successful artists whose music is exciting, emotional, and provocative in ways that shed light on the human condition. The ten nominations and eight awards going to guitarist Carlos Santana for his six million-selling comeback album Supernatural gives one of the pioneers of Latin-rock deserving recognition. For a fine tribute album to western swing giant Bob Wills, country veterans Asleep At The Wheel (with five nominations and one award) also earned due praise. Other respectable high profile winners included the Roots and Erykah Badu (Rap Performance By Group) and Diane Krall (Jazz Vocal Performance).
These triumphs (and a few others could be added), however, made it into the winners circle with the commercial clout assistance of major labels. Other winners in the major categories (TLC, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, the Dixie Chicks, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain) also predictably greased their path to victory with mammoth record sales and major label promotion campaigns. And as expected, it was a huge night for Santana.
With a record-tying eight Grammys, Santana managed to hold off teen-pop hit makers such as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Ricky Martin and N Sync for the years biggest honors (Album of The Year, Record of The Year, Song of The Year). Due respect to Santanas elegant and passionate guitar artistry, but the fact is the competition was dismal.
In a very bad year for pop music, Santanas Supernatural album grabbed ears not just because it was good, but because nearly every track featured happening rock-pop guests. Hitch that scheme to the years Latin music craze and youve got a far more compelling product than the party and dance offerings of Cher and Ricky Martin.
But judged against the full range of the years popular music and without any heavy allegiances to the music industry, Santanas Supernatural gains a more realistic appraisal. In the Village Voices year end nationwide critics poll, Supernatural ranked in at number 40. The other four Grammy nominees for best album finished as follows: TLCs FanMail number 31, Dixie Chicks Fly number 41, the Backstreet Boys Millennium number 133 and Diane Kralls When I Look In Your Eyes number 265.
The real surprises, and exceptions, on the nominations list were the unclassifiable and independent label-based Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco. Some portion of the Academy voters had to really like these small market artists to garner each of them three nominations. For Waits to land the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album was the evenings most pleasant shock.
Given the rigid categories of music industry marketing, the Academy wound up labeling Waitss singing on the tune Hold On a Male Rock Vocal Performance while his album Mule Variations was lumped in the hodge podge Contemporary Folk category to compete with John Prines country duets collection In Spite Of Ourselves, Beauseoleils cajun- rooted Cajunization, Ani Difranco and Utah Phillipss Fellow Workers, and Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadts Tucson Sessions. Naturally no chance in the big-time Male Rock Vocal category, but in this odd little niche, with one of the most acclaimed records of the year, Waits came out on top.
Aside from a few small breakthroughs, however, most of the Grammys continued to follow the money. Maximizing investments in Santana, the Dixie Chicks, and Shania Twain, the music industry doled out awards corresponding to commerce and giving one final commercial surge to the years already big winners.
Mostly from the new yeara small batch of good stuff that the Grammys 2000 ignored.
Chuck Prophet, The Hurting
Back in the early 1980s singer/ writer/guitarist Chuck Prophet gained a bit of semi-popular recognition while playing in the LA-based psychedelic roots band Green On Red. Since then, through a series of indie label solo projects, hes built a small but devoted following attracted to rough-hewn blues and country-flavored rock. But on The Hurting Business, Prophet bends his sound toward the scratchy turntables and rhythmic atmospheres of hip hop. The dry Tom Petty-flavored vocals and tough-minded storytelling remain intact. Prophets characteristic guitar fire, however, is restrained to suit moody groove-based tunes colored with Tex-Mex organ riffs, smooth soul samples, lap steel moans, and bluesy percussion. A kind of mean streets trip-hop for the new century. Special highlight: Dyin All Young, an eloquent and tragic ode to victims of urban violence.
Steve Young, Primal Young (Appleseed Recordings)
For over 30 years singer/songwriter Steve Young has remained too far out of the loop of the country music mainstream to be heard by the wide audience he deserves. Yet in the more offbeat regions of roots music, peers hail his work with reverence and awe. As a writer, says Lucinda Williams, Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williamsand he sings like an angel. The late great Townes Van Zandt once gushed, For that voice, that guitar, and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder. Now thanks to his first release in the United States in six years, fans new and old get a wonderfully balanced sampling of Youngs talents. Featuring original and traditional material, alongside exquisite covers of Merle Haggard (Sometimes I Dream) and Scotlands Dick Gaughan (Workers Song), Primal Young is a must buy for the left folkie and alternative country crowds and one of the early gems of the new year.
Various Artists, The Rough Guide To World Roots (RGNET)
Various Artists, The Rough Guide To Irish Folk (RGNET)
World music samplers abound in todays market, but unfortunately many of these collections seem put together only as comforting mood music for middle-class shoppers checking out exotic goods and fashion. The folks at Rough Guide do a better job, celebrating the genuinely rootsy expressions of five continents with over seventy-seven minutes of soulful and triumphant sounds that cant be dismissed as background listening. The range of musicians and voices includes more well known performers (to western ears) such as Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen, Senegals Baaba Maal, Cuban powerhouses Cubanismo and Afro-Cuban All Stars, and the awesome Pakistani star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The less heralded talent includes Ecuadors Carmen Gonzalez and Koral Y Esmeralda, South African Busi Mhlongo, Arabic singer/dancer Natacha Atlas, Indonesian pop star Detty Kurnia, and Brazilian indigenous music explorer Mariui Miranda.
Rough Guides Irish folk round-up likewise separates itself from the competition with a diverse mix of established and rising musicians. Followers of Irish music will recognize the bigger names such as De Danann, Reeltime, Deanta, Moving Cloud, and fiddlers Paddy Glakin and Kevin Burke. But lesser knowns like tin whistle master Brian Hughes and old style Gaelic singer Padraigin Ni Uallachain provide equally rewarding performances. In all, a consistently strong offering of jigs, reels, and ballads covering the ancient and evolving flow of a grand tradition.
Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador)
Rock and roll in general and post-punk indie rock in particular dont have much of a track record for proclaiming the glories of long-term emotional commitments. The Hoboken, New Jersey trio know as Yo La Tengo, however, has never steered a musical course that set easily within either camp, so the current excavation of the joys and weight of a long shared history is not so surprising. Since 1984 drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan have shared their muse and personal intimacies through nine albums worth (now ten) of oddly melodic alternative rock. The difference this time is a delicate mostly feedback free sound and sustained bittersweet confessions. Wonderfully original and one of Yo La Tengos finest.
Fela Kuti, The Black President: The Best Of Fela Kuti (MCA)
Nigerian Afrobeat innovator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti never made the big crossover in the U.S., but his amazing propulsive blend of West African sounds, jazz, and funk left an indelible mark on world pop. Building boiling grooves of hypnotic polyrhythmic beats, blasting horns, and steady pulsing guitars as a launching pad for incendiary free-styled improvisation, Fela laid out a jam band blueprint that avoided out there abstraction. In the hands of Fela, intoxicating sounds became a political weapon.
Since his death in 1997 of AIDS-related illnesses at the age of 58, Felas music has been scarcely available. But in upcoming months, with 20 original albums scheduled for domestic release, U.S. audiences get another chance to pick up on his stirring and flamboyant legacy. The place to begin, however, is the recently released two-CD Black President anthology. Covering recordings from 1972 to 1989, this best collection supplies a solid overview of the sound and politics that threatened Nigerian elites.
Sampling inflammatory tracks assailing Westernization, poverty, political and military corruption, Black President traces an evolving activist art boldly attacking reigning regimes. Song titles alone (Zombie, No Agreement and Coffin For Head Of State) suggest Felas dangerously uncompromising stance. No surprise that he was jailed and beaten often. In a particularly brutal attack in 1977, Nigerian soldiers fractured his skull and threw his 82-year-old mother out an upstairs window while burning his home and recording studio to the ground. To the end, however, Fela remained a voice of the poor still dreaming of a democratic socialist Africa. Less admired is Felas renowned egoism and defiant sexism. Though his mother was one of Nigerias first feminists, Fela reveled in the pleasures of polygamy and the rule of patriarchy.
Nonetheless, for taking a stand against Nigerias decadent upper classes through a fiery African-based brand of pop, Fela Kuti became one of the giants of world music.
Corey Harris, Greens From The Garden (Alligator)
Guy Davis, Butt Naked Free
One of the most significant blues trends of recent years has been the reinvigoration of rural traditions by a new generation of African American players. Corey Harris and Guy Davis are in the vanguard of that group (along with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keg Mo, and Eric Bibb), but raves for their impressive guitar work and singing has often been tempered by questions of originality. These releases should lay authenticity concerns to rest.
Released last year, Harriss Greens From The Garden carries forward the heavy Delta influences displayed on his two previous albums. But this time plowing more varied roots, including New Orleans brass band and Caribbean traditions, Harris opens up fresh possibilities for a modern Black American folk music. His stories are of current racial realities and the new multicolored sound is both tradition-based and contemporary.
While not forsaking his country roots, Davis, too, is breaking new ground. A full scale electric band yields a versatile and engaging sound that should widen his appeal. The real growth on Butt Naked Free, however, is in the songwriting. With 13 original blues, Davis brings traditional blues themes of ecstasy, sorrow, mortality, and protest into a 21st century context. Just the kind of vital vaccine the blues needs to avoid extinction. Z