The Grammys must not much like Arizona.
The nominations for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' (NARAS) 45th annual musical awards shindig were announced last week, and the nominations revealed that the academy still struggles with its own relevance. A stated commitment to open-mindedness made by former NARAS president Michael Greene in the late '90s has helped prevent backwards-looking debacles like the sight of smiley king-of-swing Tony Bennett dragging his old bones to the podium to accept the statue for Album of the Year for a pretentious unplugged live record in 1994. In its craving for credibility and hipness, however, NARAS winds up pandering to a populace whose modern-day tastes are increasingly superficial and attracted to gimmick.
So while it may be refreshing to see an artist as fresh as angel-piped jazz/country singer Norah Jones receive five nominations, other choices are confusing and downright weird. Does anyone, for instance, really think that Nelly, as progressive as his melodic rapping may be, made one of the best albums of 2002, even if "Hot in Herre" was the year's most inescapable single? Or that Britney Spears belongs in the same category (Best Pop Vocal Album) as No Doubt, Pink and Jones or the same planet, for that matter? Or, in a fit of NARAS' past sins, that Sting, Elton John and James Taylor should stand as three of five nominees in the same category (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance)?
From my perch here in the desert, I'm especially disappointed in the treatment of Sedona's Michelle Branch and Mesa's Jimmy Eat World.
Branch's down-to-earth style lit up MTV all year, and her single, "Everywhere," an acoustic pop nugget, really was goddamned everywhere. She received just two nominations, one for Best New Artist, the music biz's equivalent of a black hole, and another for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals, a peripheral category that likely won't make the CBS telecast.
How did "Everywhere" not land in the Record of the Year category? Over the years, this award has become the second-most high-profile award of the ceremony, next to the Album award, and may now be the most revered. But that stature is illusory: It's really a bogus category that rewards the artist for putting out a song that got sucked up by radio DJs until the chrome came off the trailer hitch. There's no real merit here, save for the ability to make a record so clean and so pop-friendly it survives for months of heavy rotation. Celine Dion won this one a few years back for "My Heart Will Go On."
By this criteria, "Everywhere" should have a shot: It won the Viewer's Choice award at last year's MTV Video Music Awards, meaning that the channel played the song's video countless times every freakin' day, and the minions loved it so much they called the special number just to grant it that award. Sounds like enough airplay to warrant a Record of the Year nomination to me. I know Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" is a much better song, but in the long run, it didn't enjoy the multimedia mass exposure that Branch's ditty received. But as long as NARAS established that this category is more about exposure, then why not give our Branch the laurel?
I also have to lament Branch's nod for Best New Artist. Does she fit its criteria as one of the five artists whose leap into the pop spotlight was most praiseworthy? Yes. But the history of this category is dreadful. Christopher Cross won the award in 1980, right before MTV made the world precarious for fat, bald men. Men at Work won it in 1983 with the decree, "We are the Men, and we will you see you again." We never did. And in 1990, Milli Vanilli . . . well, you know the story.
Now we're watching as 2000 winner Christina Aguilera gets pilloried by the music press. If Branch wins this year, she'll no doubt hear questions from media types wondering if she's the next one doomed by the Best New Artist curse.
Chances are, however, she won't win, up against Avril Lavigne, John Mayer, Norah Jones and Ashanti, not only a very talented lineup of newcomers, but certainly one of the best-looking in recent memory.
At least Branch has it better than Jimmy Eat World, one of last year's feel-good breakout stories. The band, after several tumultuous years of dealing with life on major labels, made one of the best albums of 2001, Bleed American. After a slow build, the album produced two monster singles last year, "Sweetness" and the top-five pop hit "The Middle." A third song, the hopeful, inspiring "A Praise Chorus," is threatening to explode now. Bleed American is as good if not better than any power-pop record released so far this decade. It went platinum last August and helped pump emo back onto rap-rock-weary radio. For these efforts, bandleader Jim Adkins and his cohorts received zero nominations. Nothing, not even a token nod for Best Rock Song the much clunkier 3 Doors Down and Godsmack made that cut.
Hell, country-soul chanteuse Shelby Lynne, who went through her own tumult, made out a lot better, two years ago winning Best New Artist nearly a decade after she starting putting out records. It's too bad the academy couldn't give the same kind of recognition to JEW.
But then, consistency isn't something we're likely to get from the Grammys. There won't be much rooting for the home team this year, and that really sucks.
New Times threw a party last week, and people came. Lots of people, as it turns out, from all different corners of the Valley music scene. The turnout intensifies my hopes for this year's New Times Music Showcase.
Now, even if only three publicists and some drummer for a shitty death-metal band with a CD to push showed up at our nomination party at Sugar Daddy's in Scottsdale on January 8, you'd still expect me to be all smiles about our own in-house venture. We rule and you don't! But I don't need to pour on the artifice not much of it, anyway. Our experiment was simple: This year, we wanted to open up the process of establishing nominees for 11 categories, including Most Enjoyable Singer and Most Likely to Make it Big, and hand it over to the people who know best, namely the artists, managers, club owners, promoters, genre hawks and journalists who fuel the local scene. Rather than select a lineup on our own, let's give these folks a say. If the showcase marks a vast improvement over last year, these will be the people to thank. And hey, if it sucks, this new venture gets us off the hook just a little.
It was an absolute thrill, in the midst of playing party host (for future reference: I really suck at it and need some practice), to see Rob "Fun Bobby" Birmingham, the tall, skinny ponytailed booker for Mesa's Hollywood Alley, sharing laughs with shorter, plumper and older blues singer Big Pete Pearson. Everyone I talked to admitted that it was just weird to have so many local music honchos in one place, and with no punches being thrown or feelings being hurt. I saw quite a collection of folks mingling, from drum-and-bass promoter Jason Ayers to Steve Larson of Tempe power-poppers Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, from KEDJ-FM program director Nancy Stephens to Kimber Lanning and Leslie Barton of college-rock palace Modified Arts.
Hopefully, events like this party at Sugar Daddy's won't be such a foreign concept after last week's event. Yes, there is a scene in Phoenix and, for a night, it grew closer.
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