This year's choice by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to reduce the number of Grammy categories by 28 percent was intended in part to recognize the common-sense reality that a victory means nothing if everyone wins.
Common sense, however, can feel like a slap in the face of a culture drunk on self-esteem. So it was inevitable that Professor Cornel West and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, both of whom have seldom met a windmill at which they wouldn't tilt, should protest the NARAS decision as an act of insensitivity. "Music of all arts should be expansive and inclusive," Jackson said. "So much talent comes from the base of poverty and those in the margins."
The same, obviously, could be said of professional sports. Yet not even Jackson or West would suggest expanding the NFL just so more athletes could shine.
But what occurred one day before this year's Grammys ended up rendering the category-elimination controversy moot: the death of Whitney Houston.
From 1985 to 1999, Houston scored six top-10 albums and 20 top-10 hits, 11 of which reached No. 1. And although her slick, Broadway-friendly pop didn't endear her to the rock crowd, only the militantly unpatriotic could dislike her performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV during the height of the Gulf War.
Then, in the midst of her success, with her talent, beauty, and popularity fully intact, she threw it all away.
She was not unprecedented. There were significant similarities, for instance, between her marriage to the abusive R&B singer Bobby Brown and Tina Turner's marriage to Ike. And one need only recall Amy Winehouse to acknowledge the allure that drugs hold for a certain type of performer.
What's puzzling about Houston's death is that she didn't seem like that type of performer. Unlike Kurt Cobain or Billie Holliday, whose emotional and chemical-dependence problems antedated any pressures resulting from their success, Houston, the daughter of the popular soul-gospel singer Cissy Houston and cousin of Dionne Warwick, came by her acclaim gradually. "Learning to love yourself," she sang from the top of the charts in 1986, "is the greatest love of all." Apparently she didn't love herself enough.
On the other hand, if, as G.K. Chesterton said, "a suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him that he wants to see the last of everything," maybe she loved herself too much. And, sadly, "suicide" is a fitting term for the last dozen-or-so years of Houston's life.
The Grammys weren't all about Houston. Of particular interest to Christians, other even than the winners in the five "Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music" categories, may have been Foster the People, whose album Torches (Startime) and whose single "Pumped Up Kicks" were nominated for "Best Alternative Music Album" and "Best Pop Duo/Group Performance," respectively.
The Los Angeles-based trio is not a Christian band. Of the 10 songs on Torches, only "Waste," which includes the line "the devil's on your back, but I know you can shake him off," suggests an awareness of principalities and powers.
Nevertheless, Christians may wish to pay attention to the group's bouncy, textured pop if only because, last April bassist Jacob Fink married CCM superstar Rebecca St. James.
Christians often talk about being salt and light within the entertainment community. Perhaps Fink has found a way to walk the talk.