Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Forever Old

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 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 oldtimers who voted Radiohead and Eminem third and 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 when it 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 Website) or 27 (it says two grafs down) "fields." Genres have always been problematic for 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 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.

So a little after 7, I put on the MTV preshow. Jill Scott wore Patti LaBelle's jewels and suggested that Eminem's critics "listen a little bit harder," Kid Rock brought a mom he evinced no interest in raping, and Eminem told the camera, "When I find out I'm nominated for a Grammy, I'm like--don't you hate me?" Meanwhile, over on VH1, the ever more gargoyle-like Donald Fagen explained his belatedly newsworthy "Janie Runaway": "Every once in a while you need to write a dirty song." Nonfeatured winners scrolled along the bottom of the screen: Radiohead alternative, Foo Fighters rock, Dr. Dre producer, Baha Men dance (philosophical in defeat, Moby cited Milli Vanilli, whom in fact the junkanoo heroes predate). This was fun, but all too soon it was showtime, as Lil' Bow Wow opened the limo door for a Madonna suddenly as reputable as Miss Daisy. "Music," she sang, writhing youngly and thematically.

Rosie O'Donnell had been a passable MC two years running, so naturally Jon Stewart replaced her. Like so many Grammy hosts, he seemed ignorant of music. Coming from Chris Rock, the Puffy dis "I'm sure Sean would want everybody to know that it's an honor just to be indicted" might have been a howler; from Stewart it was just contemptuous. He was more apropos warning, "If there are any kids watching, I wanna tell ya, no matter what it says in the song, Saturday night is not all right for fighting." Macy Gray beat out five white women for female pop vocal, which made Eminem beating four black guys for best rap solo easier to take, as did the fact that he was the best. Although I'd hated the red plastic snakeskin encasing the newly shorn Justin Timberlake and will always love the sexual politics of Donald Fagen's totally unpedophilic line about a lech's mind turned to applesauce, I moaned when "Cousin Dupree" beat "Bye Bye Bye" for the pop group award--at the Grammys, rooting young is as noble a lost cause as rooting avant-garde, only sometimes you win. Usually not, though. Maybe "Say My Name" and "Bye Bye Bye" split the youthsymp vote, but I bet "Music" finished just behind U2's "Beautiful Day" for record of the year. How the latter--about which a passing-for-humble Bono reported God had said, "Don't thank me for that song--there's no hook, the chorus is weak, and they'll never play it on the radio"--defeated the literally inspirational "I Hope You Dance" as song of the year is for NARAS and the CMA to thrash out.

Finally the big moment arrived: Mike Greene's apologia for Eminem's "Stan," the song someone in GLAAD's clod squad went so far as to observe "contains misogyny and images of violence and murder," clearly all a decent person need know. No no no, the big moment joke was Stewart's, and it stopped being funny once Greene passed the 60-second mark. The real big moment was The Duet, with Elton, in a polka-dot blouse-and-pants outfit that evoked Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, singing "Stan"'s Dido sample soulfully rather than ethereally, and Eminem proving to millions who'd never heard a minute of his music that he was at least, as first-timer Fagen has allowed, a good actor. Eminem later said he believes The Duet, which after all climaxed with The Hug, absolves him of homophobia. As we who love him know--a few of us, anyway--he has a great deal to learn.

In this, he is totally unlike Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who know everything, and were rewarded for it when Steely Dan's Two Against Nature was voted album of the year. Hey, I like Two Against Nature. It's smarter than Kid A, not to mention jumpier than Aja. And it's a hell of a lot more vital than Paul Simon's limp, picked-to-click You're the One, aptly described by Eric Weisbard as "sort of like spending a social evening with your boss." It's riskier, too--watch for the exegeses on "Janie Runaway" coming to an op-ed page near you. Kudos to NARAS for brushing Simon off. And for giving Eminem three Grammys--rap single, album, and, with Dr. Dre, duet. He didn't lose the big one because the voters considered him morally reprehensible. He lost because they considered him young.

Village Voice, Mar. 6, 2001