Grousing About the 1997 Grammies

 

Ask anyone who watched the Grammy Awards last week what the highlight of the show was. They won't tell you it was Bruce Springsteen's humdrum acceptance speech for Best Folk album or the bloated, self-important run-through by Whitney Houston et al of songs from Waiting to Exhale or even Natalie Cole's heartfelt tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (though Cole was backed up by an impressive jazz band including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.) No, the big moment (actually several moments ) of this year's awards show was the performance by an Irish tap dancer troupe from the Riverdance musical. An amazing display of rhythm and grace, this was truly the standout piece of an otherwise unsurprising (and sometimes maddeningly predictable) Grammy show. Essentially, if an artist performed at the awards, you knew they were probably about to walk away with an award. While the energetic, innovative performers No Doubt — one of last year's most engaging newcomers — ended up shorted of an award, the "perform and reward" approach worked well for Eric Clapton, Springsteen, The Smashing Pumpkins, Celine Dion and for songwriters for the Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack ("Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" won two awards.)

As always, some aspects of The Grammy Awards proved an enigma:

How could The Smashing Pumpkins get nominated for seven awards and only take home one?

Why would the show stagers allow country and R&B live performances to ramble on through three songs each, but not televise the acceptance of major awards such as Best Pop Album (Celine Dion) and Best Rock Album (Sheryl Crow)?

Who can say? For the most part (as usual) the awards went to the most conservative and established artists: Eric Clapton and "Change The World" walked away with Song of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal beating out more current, vibrant acts like Tracy Chapman and Smashing Pumpkins. And Celine Dion captured both the Best Album and Best Pop Album beating out (again) Tracy Chapman and Smashing Pumpkins, among others. (For the cynical, there were, by the way, several albums released last year that showed both more originality, heart, soul and imagination than Celine Dion's disc).

And if you want to talk about the power of conservatism and traditionalism in the Grammy choices: The Beatles walked away with three Grammy awards — only one less than the total number they won when they were still actually together as a band. The Beatles took both the long form and short form video awards for Anthology, and in a sympathy/nostalgia vote, beat out the more deserving (and currently productive) Gin Blossoms for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or a Group. Don't get me wrong — I love The Beatles. But resurrecting a substandard John Lennon track and adding background vocals and instruments to it doesn't strike me as a good reason for a Grammy when it beats out other artists are creating vital, current music. Perhaps this should have engendered its own category — Best Musical Archaeology. There were stranger-named awards given out.

Speaking of sympathy votes, the Best Rock Instrumental went to a group of seasoned blues performers for the Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute "SRV Shuffle." (Chicagoan Buddy Guy was part of this group.) The instrumental finesse and originality of virtually any song on guitarist Eric Johnson's 1996 album Venus Isle was more deserving of this award but..."SRV Shuffle" was a tribute and included a handful of the best blues artists around so Johnson was ignored.

There were a few surprises, mainly in the Country categories: Lyle Lovett beat out the more popular Vince Gill and Patty Loveless for Best Country Album for his excellent The Road to Ensenada. And Lee Ann Rimes, a 14-year-old with an amazingly mature voice walked off with two big awards, Best Country Song and Best New Artist, the latter an ironic award considering that she has been called the reincarnation of Patsy Cline. Rimes beat out the more popular and original sounding Jewel and No Doubt for Best New Artist, a surprising coup for a new country star. Folky pop singer Jewell, however, staged her own coup at the awards — she appeared as an award presenter in a stylishly transparent outfit that must have had TV sensors scrambling for the phones as teenage boys were hitting the record buttons on their VCRs. She definitely won the "unpresented" award for Most Provocatively Dressed Pop Star. Hip Hop Alternative Rocker Beck, by contrast, actually wore a full suit.

Hillary Clinton was an unlikely Grammy winner this year, for a spoken word recording of her book It Takes A Village. While her award category wasn't broadcast on the air, her acceptance speech was, and Clinton voiced her support for the arts calling them "a necessity for the American cultural experience."

Grammy emcee Ellen DeGeneres did a decent job at holding the proceedings together with her usual self-effacing humor, and staged a couple moments of true hilarity — her opening "This Is Ellen's Song" performed with an all-star band of femmes including Bonnie Raitt and Sheila E. was (as she would put it) a hoot. And midway through the Grammies, her dead-on rendition of the songs performed live by their artists during the show to that point was hysterical. But her ending was, well, too short. DeGeneres was forced by the clock into a quick, "well, good night" just as many of the artists were during their acceptance speeches. This, even more than the stale big-name approach to awarding Grammies — is the real problem with the awards show. The Grammies are awards for artists, not the public. Television has certainly broadened the appeal of the Grammies, but at the same time, it has forced the awards ceremony to get things done in a compressed timeframe which doesn't allow artists to make any sort of real acceptance speeches for their awards—which is wrong. If the artists come and sweat through the show to see if they win, the least they could expect is to be able to say what they want to when their time in the spotlight finally comes. How many of these statues can you expect to get in your life, after all? But instead, as we saw too often during this show, just as an artist got around to saying some important thank-yous, the orchestra started playing louder and louder, not-so-subtlely pushing the artists away from the mic. It's not as rude as a long hooked cane, but...It would be nice if the Grammy Awards would truly recognize the most innovative, original and groundbreaking music of the year, and then let those artists have their time in the sun to express their gratitude for the awards. But neither of those is likely to happen at a Grammy ceremony any time soon. In about 10 years however, you can look for this year's real Grammy Award deservees, if they survive that long, to be at the mic, accepting awards for projects that repeat the same ground they broke a decade before. It takes that long to be accepted by the establishment. This year's Clapton may be 2007's Pumpkins or No Doubt.

Or maybe even Green Day.