Women rock, but Grammy can't hear

February 11, 1994|By Michael Saunders | Michael Saunders,The Boston Globe

It has been a bitter winter, but that doesn't explain why music industry experts who select Grammy Awards seemed to hibernate when asked to choose 1993's best rock singing by women. When the Grammys are awarded March 1, broadcast to millions of homes worldwide, there will be no presentation for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which oversees the Grammys, decided to merge the male and female rock vocal categories because academy voters could not find enough female nominees. In each category, at least 10 performers must make the list before it is whittled to five finalists. NARAS voters could not muster 10 names, so the seven women were lumped together with the men. However, no women's names appear on the final ballot for Best Vocal Performance. NARAS would not disclose the women nominees. About 7,800 members voted, and about two-thirds voted in the category.

This has happened twice before, most recently three years ago. But in a year when, according to NARAS Chairman Michael Greene, women made "some of the most provocative and innovative rock," the lack of women's voices is puzzling. It lends further support to the growing belief that Grammy voters are like distant relatives: nice people, but generally out of touch with new music.

"It's obviously not the year of the woman anymore," said Mika El-Baz of Island-Polygram, label of P. J. Harvey and the Cranberries. Both groups were critical and commercial favorites; the latter quality is often valued most by Grammy voters. Both acts have female lead singers who were overlooked by voters this year.

Mr. Greene raised a crucial question by subtly pointing the finger at record companies and their male-dominated talent rosters. "When you see so few releases by women solo rockers, you have to ask yourself the question, why is that? Why are there hundreds of male rock 'n' roll guys coming out with albums, and only a handful of women rockers?"

Another problem could be that many of the year's strongest rock women, Liz Phair and Johnette Napolitano, for example, are acts popular among younger listeners, the clubgoers and video-watchers who do not fit the typical demographic profile of a tenured NARAS member.

All voters looked for were solo performers, explained Mr. Greene. He supplied this example: Sade is a cool pop-jazz combo led by slinky singer Sade Adu. It has to compete in the Best Duo or Group category, even though Ms. Adu is the only singer in the band.

"The reason we have to do it that way is that if somebody has a band that is integral to the creative process, and they bill them that way, then we don't want just the leader of the band to be up for a Grammy, we want all of them to be up for a Grammy," Mr. Greene said. But, according to academy rules, voters are specifically asked to recognize vocal performance of one person, not songwriting, arranging or production. Categories exist for those team efforts.

The vagaries of Grammy voting usually mystify most people. Forget ever trying to explain the byzantine reasoning that allows the top-selling song of all time, "I Will Always Love You," by Whitney Houston, to be left out of the running for Song of the Year.

In the spirit of public service, here's a wakeup call for Grammy voters who missed the chance to perform their duty. We've assembled 10 performers who probably should have been chosen, even though some don't precisely fit the Grammy canon. We don't care. It's a silly rule.

You want gritty song belters able to match the men note for note? Then Polly Harvey from P. J. Harvey is a hands-down choice for "Rid of Me," as is Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, for any song on the band's "Mexican Moon" CD.

Rock 'n' roll has always rewarded attitude, so assertive, mess-with-me-and-I'll-Bobbitt-you singers should have been instant choices. Kim Deal of the Breeders is an undeniable selection for "Cannonball" or "Divine Hammer," as is Liz Phair, for any cut on "Exile in Guyville," the album Spin voted tops in 1993.

Gritty and assertive, too threatening to the status quo? How about quirky and off-kilter? Then a nod should be extended to teen-angst queen Juliana Hatfield for her bratty single, "My Sister," and to Icelandic cherub Bjork for "Human Nature" or "Big Time Sensuality."

There's little excuse for missing strong rock performances from singers who were mainstream favorites, like Whitney Houston. She deserved a mention for "Queen of the Night" from "The Bodyguard" soundtrack, a guitar-dense cut that is more rock than her usual R & B.

Dolores O'Riordan's voice launched the Cranberries on a

million-selling binge of "Linger," the single with a subdued, artsy groove.

Belly was nominated as best new artist and best alternative album "Star," but lead singer Tanya Donnelly was shut out, despite her solid work on "Feed the Tree."

Since most of Grammy voters hail from Los Angeles, they shouldn't have missed Linda Perry, leader of 4 Non Blondes. This California band got loads of airplay and critical praise for "What's Up," a well-bred rock song packaged as alternative.

The chorus of Ms. Perry's song asks, "Hey, what's going on?" It should have been required listening for Grammy voters.

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