Closing the Genre Gap

Singer/producer Lauryn Hill gets 10 Grammy Award nominations, but the real star of this year's show is versatility

January 06, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain and Madonna garnered the most mentions as the Grammy nominations list was announced yesterday, the spin most commentators took was that 1999 would be yet another "Year of the Woman" for the music business.

Don't be fooled. This ballot's big trend wasn't about gender -- it was about genre.

Despite an abundance of women on the ballot, what the Recording Academy is ultimately endorsing has less to do with Sisterhood in Song than with the stylistic fluidity of today's pop market.

Winners in the 41st Annual Grammy Awards will be announced on Feb. 24 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The awards ceremony will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. on CBS (WJZ, Channel 13).

Hill, who earned an astonishing 10 nominations, began her career as a rapper (with the Fugees) and is up for the Best Rap Solo Performance award. But the Grammy voters will also be weighing her work as a pop singer, an R&B singer and a producer.

Likewise, Twain, who is up for six Grammys, started out in Nashville and was much more TNN than MTV. The Grammy ballot, though, has her cast as both a country and a pop star.

Crow, too, earned nominations across several styles, with "My Favorite Mistake" up for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, while "There Goes the Neighborhood" is contending for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. In addition to her singing, Crow -- like Hill -- is also being lauded for her work behind the board, competing against full-time producers Michael Beinhorn, Tchad Blake and Rob Cavallo for Producer of the Year.

Perhaps the most astonishing crossover of all was by Madonna. In years past, Grammy voters acknowledged her -- if at all -- merely as a video artist. This year, however, not only was she (finally) recognized as a singer, but she was nominated in five categories, including Record of the Year and Album of the Year.

Joining Madonna's "Ray of Light" in the Record of the Year category are Brandy & Monica (for "The Boy Is Mine"), Celine Dion (for the "Titanic" love theme, "My Heart Will Go On"), the Goo Goo Dolls (for "Iris") and Twain (for "You're Still the One"). Overall, it's the broadest field in years, offering R&B, C&W, alt-rock, dance-pop and ultra-schlock.

Things are just as varied in the Song of the Year category, where "Iris," "My Heart Will Go On" and "You're Still the One" are joined by the hard-rock ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" (recorded by Aerosmith for the "Armageddon" soundtrack) and the modern gospel hit "Lean On Me" (written and recorded by Kirk Franklin).

But even that spread isn't as impressive as the range demonstrated in the Best New Artist category. There, you'll find Hill up against teen idols the Backstreet Boys, operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli, the country combo Dixie Chicks and soap-actress-turned-singer Natalie Imbruglia. It's as if the Recording Academy members were murmuring, "One from column A, one from column B "

It's hard to know what, exactly, to make of the Grammy ballot's sudden and extreme diversity. Has the Recording Academy (formerly known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) taken on a hip, new attitude along with its short, sweet name? Or is this just a reflection of the music market's increased diversity, as old-time rock and roll increasingly gives ground to newer forms?

Whatever the reason, the prevalence of genre-jumping makes a real hash of the Grammy ballot's obsessive categorizing. Is Tori Amos a rock singer or an alt-rocker? Hard to say, seeing as she's nominated in both Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (for "Raspberry Swirl") and Best Alternative Music Performance (for the album "From the Choirgirl Hotel").

What about Aerosmith -- are these guys a pop group or a rock band? Apparently, that depends on whether you're talking about "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," which is up for Best Pop Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals, or "Pink," which is up for Best Rock Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals.

Lucinda Williams may be a rocker. After all, she's vying with Amos, Crow, Alanis Morissette and Ani DiFranco for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. But she may also be a folkie, since she's also up for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Oddly, DiFranco -- usually considered a folk singer -- is nominated only in the rock category.

Then there's the enduring debate: "What's the difference between hard rock and metal?" Don't ask the members of Metallica, as they apparently do both. The band is competing against Kiss, Marilyn Manson, Pearl Jam, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in the hard rock category, and against such acts as Judas Priest, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein in metal. What makes Rage a metal act when Kiss isn't is anybody's guess.

As is the case every year, this Grammy ballot is even more bloated than last year's, with three new categories bringing the total to a yawn-inducing 95.

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