Grammys, again, plays it safe

February 25, 2003|By Greg Kot | Greg Kot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Grammys, as has been their recent pattern, tried to be all things to all demographics Sunday.

The 45th annual awards in New York were a study in compromise, and how the 18,000-member National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences can launch careers, push them to a new level or serve as an overdue career capstone.

The aura of compromise hung thick during the tribute to the Clash's late Joe Strummer, in which Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Steve Van Zandt and Dave Grohl tried mightily to bark "London Calling." From the phony Cockney accents adopted by three of the four singers to the fact that there wasn't a certifiable punk among the lot, anyone with a smidgen of appreciation for the Clash's legacy had to wonder: Was Johnny Ramone washing his hair in some other part of New York and couldn't make the gig? And what about Strummer's former bandmates: Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon? Were they doing the laundry?

Little wonder that each of the major award winners didn't feel so much like a rule-breaker as a deal-maker - even the once-notorious Eminem. The Detroit rapper is now entering his humbler, Hollywood-approved incarnation, snapping up a best rap album Grammy while giving props to the MCs that preceded him, and collaborating with hip-hop's finest band, the Roots. Like Ice-T and Ice Cube before him, Eminem is figuring out how to soften his nihilistic, crude-as-he-wants-to-be image just enough to attract mainstream dollars.

The Dixie Chicks cleaned up in the country categories, in large measure because they've managed to bridge pop and country without offending the purists (at least not too much). The Chicks' arsenal of stringed instruments and twangy voices make them sound more "authentic" than Shania Twain, even as they court the pop market just as voraciously.

A similar formula is at work in the exploding career of Norah Jones. The piano-playing singer (and her songwriting compadre Jesse Harris) won a bucket of honors affirming her status as the new-music diva least likely to offend one's neighbors/dinner guests/parents.

Her sweep of the four major Grammys (record, song and album of the year, plus best new artist) over such veteran favorites as Springsteen and Alan Jackson - whose "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?" became something of a national anthem in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon - was not entirely a surprise.

But it was difficult not to escape the notion that the reputation of the 23-year-old Jones so far rests on one lovely piece of supper club pop and a whole bunch of publicity photos. Her breakthrough song, "Don't Know Why," succeeded on radio precisely because it sounded fresh and sophisticated next to callower rappers and singers her own age. She's a class act - softspoken yet articulate, easy on the eyes but in an all-natural kind of way, a pleasant singer and pianist who favors understatement rather than flash - but her Come Away With Me album feels as evanescent as mid-priced champagne.

It's not that risk is a prerequisite for true artistry. But it sure helps. A lack of boldness may have ultimately hampered Springsteen. Denied a 1984 Grammy when his biggest-selling album, Born in the USA, lost to Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down, Springsteen was the odds-on favorite to win this year's big prize for The Rising.

This collection of midtempo rock flavored with gospel, Celtic and country colorations has all the best intentions: earnest songs of loss, healing and redemption designed to honor the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. But ultimately, it's Springsteen pulling his musical punches, as if daunted by his subject rather than liberated by it.

Starting now, Jones will be asked to make even more compromises to keep the gravy train rolling. How she reacts could well determine if she ever gets the chance to make an album that justifies the Grammy hype.

Grammy moments

Mother of All Ambiguous War Statements: No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani's black bandeau top bearing the word "Love" paired with camouflage hot pants. Was it pro-love, pro-war or just pro-skin?

Best Fumble and Recovery: "This is what I get for not coming to rehearsal ... but I look good, right?" Erykah Badu, fabulous in a retro afro-and-denim ensemble despite repeated flubs reading the TelePrompTer.

Most Candid Acceptance Speech Quip: "I'm always thinking about being palatable to the people at home," the extremely mainstream John Mayer, accepting his best male pop vocal performance award.

Most Subtle Slam of Someone Standing Next to You: Accepting the award for best rap album, Eminem read off a long list of rappers who'd inspired him, from the old school rhymes of Big Daddy Kane to Jay-Z, his current competition on the charts - but failed to include Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who'd presented him with the award.

Most Promising Tease That Might Have Livened Things Up: Robin Williams' claim to be introducing Axl Rose and Charlton Heston on the "Guns N' Moses" tour.

Greg Kot writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service contributed to this article.

Winners

Some of this year's Grammy winners.

Record of the Year: "Don't Know Why," Norah Jones.

Album of the Year: Come Away With Me, Norah Jones.

Song of the Year: "Don't Know Why," Jesse Harris (Norah Jones).

New Artist: Norah Jones.

Female Pop Vocal Performance: "Don't Know Why," Norah Jones.

Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Your Body Is a Wonderland," John Mayer.

Pop Vocal Album: Come Away With Me, Norah Jones.

Female Rock Vocal Performance: "Steve McQueen," Sheryl Crow.

Male Rock Vocal Performance: "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen.

Female Rap Solo Performance: "Scream a.k.a. Itchin'," Missy Elliott.

Male Rap Solo Performance: "Hot in Herre," Nelly.

Female Country Vocal Performance: "Cry," Faith Hill.

Male Country Vocal Performance: "Give My Love To Rose," Johnny Cash.

Musical Show Album: Hairspray.

- Associated Press

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