The Grammies: 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 and propaganda 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 year's 42nd annual Grammy Awards (February 23rd) 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 show's 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 nomination announcements 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 to respectable releases from the past year.
This year's 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. And 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 year's 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. Here and there are 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 winner's 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 year's biggest honors (Album Of The Year, Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year). Due respect to Santana's elegant and passionate guitar artistry, but the fact is the competition was dismal.
In a very bad year for pop music, Santana's 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 year's latin music craze and you've 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 year's popular music and without any heavy allegiances to the music industry, Santana's Supernatural gains a more realistic appraisal. In the Village Voice's year end nationwide critics poll, Supernatural ranked in at No. 40. The other four Grammy nominees for best album finished as follows: TLC's FanMail No. 31, Dixie Chick's Fly No. 41, the Backstreet Boy's Millennium No. 133 and Diane Krall's When I Look In Your Eyes No. 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. And for Waits to land the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album was the evening's most pleasant shock.
Given the rigid categories of music industry marketing, the Academy wound up labeling Waits' 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 Prine's country duets collection In Spite Of Ourselves, Beauseoleil's cajun rooted Cajunization, Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips' Fellow Workers and Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt's 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 year's already big winners.