Trying To Get To You

Monday, February 12, 2007

Further Grammy Reflections: Nothing's Changed

You can bank on reading many articles or blogs today about how irrelevant the Grammys are. And I agree with most of them. But here's the thing - The Grammys have never been relevant. They've almost always honored the safe, middle of the road selection. They pretty much ignored rock for thirty years until The Joshua Tree won Album of The Year in 1987. Remember Jethro Tull winning the first Heavy Metal Grammy over Metallica in 1989? Here's an article from 1986 by Jon Pareles in the NY Times, who's got another article about the Grammys in today's issue.

February 23, 1986

Tuesday night at 8 on CBS, the 28th annual Grammy Awards will be bestowed with great fanfare by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Performers and record-business executives will buckle on their cummerbunds and smile for the television cameras; an audience of millions will tune in to see just what 1985 meant to the music business.

''The Grammys are a big factor with records that appeal to a more passive audience,'' says Dan Beck, vice president of product development at Epic Records. ''There's an audience that isn't tuned into hit radio, or doesn't recognize the names on the charts, but still has some interest in music. That night they can tune in and get a synopsis of what music is considered important - what records they should add to their collections.''

Will they get a reliable picture? Do the Grammys really, as the recording academy's president Michael Greene puts it, reward ''creative and technical excellence'' in recorded music?

In theory, the Grammys should single out a good selection of the year's best recordings -pop, rock, jazz, classical, soundtrack, spoken-word, blues, reggae, comedy, even music video. With 71 categories this year, including two new ones - splitting up Best Jazz Vocal Performance into separate awards for male and female singers, plus Best Polka Recording - the Grammys might well seem encyclopedic. But like the movie-business Academy Awards that initially inspired them, the Grammys often leave observers bemused, bewildered or outraged.

The Grammys bring nationwide attention to a record, certifying - as any top award does - that the material is not just popular, but important. In the music business, which is continually striving for respectability, the Grammy is often considered a kind of pinnacle. Some who complain about the Grammys may just be sore losers; others may simply have been overlooked amid the thousands of records released every year. Year after year, however, the Grammys have made stodgy, middle-of-the-road choices and ignored major achievements.

Should the Grammys be taken seriously? ''Sure - if we win,'' says one record-business executive. The Grammys do bring both commercial and cultural recognition to their winners.

Certainly the Grammys reward their winners financially. Bob Merlis, a vice president of Warner Bros. Records, says a top Grammy - for Album of the Year or Song of the Year - can add a million LP sales to an album that's still selling actively at the time of the Grammy broadcast (records released from Oct. 1, 1984 through Sept. 30, 1985, are eligible for 1985 Grammys). ''What it boils down to,'' Mr. Merlis says, ''is when you're hot, you're hot.''

Irwin Katz, the director of merchandising at RCA Red Seal Records, believes the Grammy for Best Classical Recording of 1984 doubled the sales of the winning album, Leonard Slatkin conducting Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, said the Grammy awarded to Clifton Chenier's album ''I'm Here'' (for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, 1983) boosted the album's sales up from 5,000 to 8,000 copies, a significant gain of 3,000 for a specialized offering. ''For an artist like Clifton or Koko Taylor, who shared a Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy for 1984,'' he added, ''winning the Grammy tells the artists themselves that they're recognized beyond a few hundred screaming fans in a bar or a nightclub. That recognition is important.''

Dr. George Butler, Columbia Records' vice president of jazz and progressive music, said that the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's jazz and classical Grammy awards in 1983 had a ''significant impact'' on his career, as did his live performances on the awards broadcast. To coincide with this year's Grammy broadcast and its nationwide exposure, the pop band Dire Straits, which has been nominated for six awards, will release a new single this week.

Records are nominated and selected for Grammy Awards by a membership of 6,000 music professionals - performers, songwriters, producers, engineers, arrangers, backup musicians and others with at least six recording credits. The full group votes for Record of the Year (which means top single), Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Members can then vote in eight other categories, presumably those in which they're familiar with the genre and the nominees.

Yet the Grammy, the most prestigious award in the record business, does not have a great track record in popular music. (In the classical field, the awards almost always go to long-established performers playing mainstream repertory.) Looking through the Grammy Awards since 1958, the year they started, it's easy to see a bias toward unchallenging pop songs and performing styles.

Almost invariably, the Song of the Year is a torchy ballad - such as Debbie Boone's ''You Light Up My Life'' in 1977, Barbra Streisand's ''The Way We Were'' in 1974 and the Police's ''Every Breath You Take'' in 1983; the Album of the Year is a collection of tuneful, smoothly crafted pop, such as Billy Joel's ''52d Street'' in 1979 and Olivia Newton-John's ''I Honestly Love You'' in 1974.

What's missing is the most vital element in the American record business - rude, noisy rock and roll. The coming of rock changed the esthetics of mainstream American music, showing that willful, self-directed amateurs and outsiders could make better music - more heartfelt, more innovative, riskier and, yes, more popular - than the pop professionals. With the Grammys, the pop professionals continued to look down their noses at rock even as it was earning them their salaries.

Among those who have never received the award are the Rolling Stones (who will get a Lifetime Achievement Award on Tuesday, apparently as penance), Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix and Talking Heads. Similarly ignored were the great Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland - whose songs, such as ''You Keep Me Hanging On'' and ''How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You,'' have proved as durable as anything from Tin Pan Alley. It took the Academy until 1979 - more than two decades after Elvis Presley - to admit that crooning wasn't the only game in town. That year, it instituted Best Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Instrumental Performance awards, still distinguishing rock from pop.

John Coltrane received his one Grammy posthumously, in 1981. Henry Mancini has 20 Grammy Awards; Bob Dylan has two - one shared with the other performers at ''The Concert for Bangladesh'' (which also garnered the only Grammy for Phil Spector, as co-producer) and one for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male, for his 1979 single ''Gotta Serve Somebody.''

Blockbuster albums such as Michael Jackson's ''Thriller,'' Fleetwood Mac's ''Rumours'' and the ''Saturday Night Fever'' soundtrack have won Grammys, but in the years between mega-hits, the Academy honored, for example, the studio band Toto and the songwriter Christopher Cross. Remember them? Things were even stranger in 1965 and 1966 -years of Beatlemania and Motown -when Frank Sinatra had the Album of the Year twice.

''Prior to 1981,'' says Michael Greene, the Academy's president, ''I wouldn't say the Grammys were a good reflection of American music. The Academy has gone through a long maturing process, finding its way to be more inclusive of certain genres of music. As in any organization, a certain group starts the organization, and the Academy was for many years light in rock, new music, Latin and the more ethnic-based styles. By their very nature, those groups are anti-organizational, anti-structural; it's pretty logical that they would be the last to come in. But we now represent a pure cross-section of the music industry.''

Still, an anti-rock bias persists. At last year's awards, multi-million-selling, critically applauded, musically influential albums by Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Prince were contending for Album of the Year; the winner was Lionel Richie's ''Can't Slow Down,'' a well-made but slight album of formulaic pop songs.

Outside the top pop categories, the Grammys are often eccentric. There are confusing categories, such as those for Best Gospel Performance, apparently meaning country-pop music with devotional lyrics; Best Inspirational Performance, meaning pop with devotional lyrics, and the separate-but-equal Best Soul Gospel Performance, for black gospel music.

There are also unexpected clusters of nominations. This year, the Atlanta Symphony has stirred up the classical community by getting four out of nine nominations for Best Classical Album, prompting accusations of bloc voting. ''Who wins that category will be the most telling thing,'' Mr. Greene said. ''Next year, we're going to take a look at what happened there.''

And there are also odd nominees. This year, the British pop songwriter Sting shows up in the Best Jazz Instrumental category with the one-minute 15-second title tune from his album ''The Dream of the Blue Turtles.'' Last year, Best Latin Pop Performance went to the well-known pop stylist Placido Domingo, while the British singer Sheena Easton shared Best Mexican/American Performance for a duet with Luis Miguel.

Because nominees and winners are chosen by secret ballot, it's impossible to know for certain what causes those selections. ''I don't think the Grammys are more unfairly given than other awards,'' Mr. Iglauer of Alligator Records says. ''But a lot of people do vote in categories they don't know about, and choose names they know rather than albums they've heard. I've been guilty of that myself.''

The Grammys can be counted on in some areas, notably craft awards for technical achievements and Hall of Fame Awards, which honor historically significant recordings from pre-Grammy days. And it is difficult for any award to keep up with the shifting music business; Mr. Greene says the Academy is considering adding such categories as the accordion-driven dance music known as zydeco (which dominates this year's Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category), ''new age'' music and another rock category for hard-rock/heavy metal.

The recording academy has, indeed, become somewhat less insular in recent years. But as with any award, the Grammy is still only a reflection of those who choose the winners - and not, by any means, the last word on current music.

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