You can summarize all that is traditionally wrong with the Grammy balloting in a single nomination this year.
There’s an “MTV Unplugged” collection in the running for best album.
But it’s Tony Bennett’s … not Nirvana’s.
Yes, the 7,000 members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences somehow made it through the year once again without acknowledging, in the key best album category, the most important currents in pop music.
If you look at the five nominees for best album, it’s as if the rock revolution of 1994 never happened. Given all the news made last year by such artists as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Hole and Soundgarden, that’s a pretty remarkable feat.
“Embarrassing” may be a better word.
It’s as if we are going through the
‘50s and ‘60s all over again - a time when, except for the Beatles, the emerging rock forces from Presley to Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to Dylan were snubbed, even though they were later given lifetime achievement awards by the academy.
In a way, the Grammy omissions aren’t surprising.
There was such anger and alienation in the music of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails that adults generally want no part of them. That’s why the generation gap in rock is deeper than at any time in the music’s 40-year history.
But the Grammy voters are supposed to be more discerning than the average pop fan. Supposedly, they are listeners who are committed to searching for the voices that define our times musically.
Today’s vital voices weren’t ignored altogether. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were nominated alongside veterans R.E.M., the Rolling Stones and Neil Young & Crazy Horse in the best rock album category.
And you can find Nine Inch Nails in the ill-defined alternative music category, where it will compete against a hodgepodge of Tori Amos, Green Day, Sarah McLachlan and Crash Test Dummies.
The best of these acts shouldn’t be relegated to consolation prizes. Like the key rap acts of recent years, they are the heart of contemporary pop and they deserve a place on the main stage.
In ignoring these acts, the Grammy voters went mostly for the familiar and safe. In doing so, they opened themselves to further ridicule.
If the “Three Tenors” concert album emerges as the winner in the best album or best pop album categories, the howls of laughter will probably stretch into the next century.
The Dodger Stadium concert had moving moments, but it was chiefly a circus spectacle whose pop component was so clumsy that the versions of such songs as “My Way” may eventually find their way into one of Rhino Records’ “Golden Turkey” compilations.
Most of the other best album nominees are longtime academy favorites: Eric Clapton, who has eight previous Grammys; Bonnie Raitt, who has seven, and Bennett, who has already been given a lifetime achievement award. The wild card among the nominees is Seal, the English singer-songwriter whose stylish if one-dimensional music is characterized by a relentlessly optimistic, spiritual tone.
Of the five nominees, I’d vote for Raitt, whose songwriting continues to gain intimacy and character. But given the absence of any of the year’s truly landmark rock works, the temptation is to simply write on the ballot the protest words “none of the above.”
The news is better in the best single record competition, where one work stands out: Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia.” A record of superior commentary and craft, “Streets” is a compelling ballad about a man whose body is being destroyed by AIDS.
When Springsteen steps to the microphone on March 1 at the Shrine Auditorium to accept the award, the academy, too, can take a bow. The Grammy voters will have actually lived up to their mandate to isolate pop excellence. Too bad the bows are so rare.