Grammys: Like watching cells divide

Music categories keep on multiplying

Pop Music

February 23, 2003|By Jon Pareles

Compared with the Grammy Awards, the Academy Awards have it easy. Year in and year out, the fundamental things apply in movies -- writing, directing, acting, illusion-making techniques -- and the 75th annual Oscars still have only two dozen categories. The Grammy Awards, which return to New York City tonight for the first time since 1998, suffer the perils of pluralism.

Long ago, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences decided that, except for the top Grammy awards, it was unfair to pit classical music against pop, country against gospel or, more recently, polkas against Native American music. The Grammys continue to add categories for more niches and subgenres in a delightfully futile quest that's something like mapping an amoeba.

This year, the 45th annual awards are up to 104 categories, including completely indistinguishable ones like best R&B album and best contemporary R&B album; more are doubtless on the way. Categories keep splitting by gender, separating male and female vocalists; they also separate by generation, with traditional as the code word for graying (as in best traditional R&B vocal performance). For the Grammys, it's too late to turn back now. Hey, there's still no punk-rock category (only rock, hard rock, metal and alternative).

With all those categories, shouldn't the nominations and awards provide an accurate reflection of the past year's music? (Officially, it's the year from Oct. 1, 2001, to Sept. 30, 2002.) That's the idea, but it ain't necessarily so. The Grammys have a gift for embarrassing oversights.

This year, two major producers -- the Neptunes, who had hits all over the pop, R&B and hip-hop Top 10, and Linda Perry, who's forging a new confessional pop with Pink's best-selling album Missundaztood and Christina Aguilera's Stripped -- weren't nominated, simply because no one sent in applications for them.

Perverse calculation

Although the Grammys are back in New York, neither the best new artist nominations nor the rock categories noticed the Strokes, who are leading a New York rock renaissance. Although the Strokes' album was released in September 2001, just before this year's deadline, singles would have been eligible. (The best new artist nominees do include Michelle Branch, whose debut album came out in August 2001.)

When it comes to choosing winners, the Grammys often back away from the show of rebellion, sex and youthful energy that the music business spends the rest of the year marketing. No wonder the show gets unimpressive ratings. Meanwhile, predicting the awards tends to be an exercise in perverse calculation.

The Grammy voters, who qualify to vote by amassing credits on six tracks, have historically shown a penchant for ballads over rockers, professionalism over punch, familiar names over newcomers, old songs over new ones. Movie connections also seem to help. Last year's big winner, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was not only made for a film; it had by far the oldest songs: traditional ones.

This year, the top awards are likely to split between youth and experience. The experienced side belongs to Bruce Springsteen's song and album The Rising, his heartfelt attempt to come to terms with the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Nominated for album of the year, The Rising seems weightier and worthier than Eminem's sour The Eminem Show, the Dixie Chicks' smart string-band anachronism, Home, Nelly's party-rap album Nellyville and Norah Jones' album of old and new torch songs, Come Away With Me.

Thanks to Grammy pluralism, though, the also-rans can get awards, too. Eminem should win best rap album, Nelly can pick up the best rap / sung collaboration and the Dixie Chicks should ease past Alan Jackson for best country album.

On the youthful side, the 23-year-old Jones, a ballad singer who never raises her voice, exudes the knowledgeable decorum that the Grammy voters love.

For best new artist, best pop vocal album and best female pop vocal performance, Jones faces the teen-age Canadian pop-rocker Avril Lavigne, whose album, Let Go, speaks to high schoolers' insecurity, self-pity and self-righteousness. Unless Grammy voters let their daughters and granddaughters fill out the ballots, Jones should prevail.

More complexities

Jesse Harris, who wrote "Don't Know Why," and Lavigne and her collaborators on "Complicated" are nominated for the songwriters' award, song of the year. But so is Springsteen for "The Rising" and Alan Jackson for another Sept. 11 song, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)"; on a New York stage, Springsteen should win.

One best-new-artist nominee, Ashanti, may end up working against herself. Ashanti sang hooks on hip-hop songs before making her own album, and she is nominated twice, dividing her fans, for a best rap / sung collaboration, appearing in songs with Fat Joe and Ja Rule. (The category certifies the latest crossover formula.) But she could make up for it by winning best contemporary R&B album.

That's only the beginning; there are more than 90 other awards, including hotly contested ones like best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalist(s). And they're full of unanswerable questions.

Try as they might, the Grammys can't bring order to recorded music. And that's a good thing.

Once the thank-yous have been mumbled and the black ties are off, musicians can go back to scrambling categories, daring the Grammys once again to keep up.

The Grammies

What: The 45th Annual Grammy Awards

When: 8 p.m., CBS (WJZ, Channel 13)

In brief: Muddled music event back in NYC

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