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The best and the worst

Culture | The Grammys: notoriety sells, but talent thrills

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences held its 40th annual Grammy Awards celebration late last month in New York. A glittery mirror of American culture at its best and worst, Grammy Awards night may be a barometer of cultural decline, but it also shows that American culture is still alive. For all of the commercialism and decadence of the music industry, we still have some talented musical artists, including a number of Christians, who won the recognition they deserve.

The Grammys remain an institution of unquestioned authority in the crazed world of producers, promoters, and starving musicians. Half-renouncing its conservative past, the Academy recognized proven stars like Bob Dylan and Elton John, but admitted the sheer talent of newcomers like Jamiroquai and Chemical Brothers. Probably the biggest upset of the evening was the victory of '60s survivor James Taylor's Hourglass over Fleetwood Mac and Paula Cole for Best Pop Album. And although many prophets had predicted 1997 would be the "year of the female" in Grammy history, winners of both sexes abounded.

Listed alongside nominees like Babyface and Whitney Houston, Erykah Badu predictably won best Female R&B, but her additional success in the best R&B album puts a higher premium on her future work. Her vocal stylings combine a nasal edge with fresh melodic embellishments.

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Now that Gangsta Rap is out and "message" rap is in, best Rap Album winner No Way Out (Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and the Family) was due for a Grammy. Mr. Combs's veiled eulogy for departed icon Notorious B.I.G. assumes the latter's ascension into rap "heaven." However, movie star Will Smith was chosen over Mr. B.I.G. in the Solo Performance category, suggesting that the late hard-core rapper's style is also passing on.

Mr. Combs's style, for all of its supposedly good "messages," is heavily laden with four-letter expressions. Does this mean that only generous sprinklings of expletives can adequately express one's social anguish? Even if its technical production is of fairly high quality, No Way Out betrays a schizophrenia of polish and vulgarity.

In the Pop Performance by a Duo or Group category, relative newcomers Jamiroquai won with the single "Virtual Insanity." The best album in this category went to the venerable Mr. Taylor for Hourglass. Although Jamiroquai has a fresh sound, it is derivative-clean vocal lines, easily understood text, jazz influences with rock pulse, unusual percussion timbres. The group's success is due partly to its artful improvement of the borrowed sounds.

Christian artists were among the elect at the Grammys, notably in Jars of Clay's best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album, Much Afraid. Johnny Cash won best Country Album for his brilliant Christ-haunted album Unchained, while the family-values hit "Butterfly Kisses" by Bob Carlisle and Randy Thomas took best Country Song. Take 6 took the prize for Contemporary Soul Gospel Album with Brothers, while God's Property won best Gospel Album by a Choir or Chorus.

But producers of Stomp (God's Property, Kirk Franklin) and You Don't Have to Be Afraid (Take 6) were doubtless disappointed when Blackstreet's flesh-glorifying No Diggity won the Grammy for best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. It hurts when the competition appeals to pure gratification but wins the day.

Folk, jazz, and classical awards went to predictably conservative winners like Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. (Remember when Bob Dylan would not have been described as "conservative"?) Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton easily won best Jazz Instrumental Solo with "Stardust." And classical fans could not be surprised by Beethoven: The String Quartets by Emerson String Quartet in the Chamber Music Performance category.

The surprise of the evening was Aretha Franklin's stepping in for ailing Luciano Pavarotti in Puccini's "Nessun Dorma"-a soulful showstopper. The spectacle of the Queen of Soul singing opera shows what can happen when pop culture and the high culture combine, no matter the genre.

Among the messages sent by the academy in its 40th awards event, central was the truth that, while notoriety sells records, sheer talent still thrills. And if you regard the Grammys as an exercise in gratuitous self-promotion by the elite of the music industry, you are correct. At the very least, the Spice Girls were ignored. There is still hope for American music.

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