Monday, February 12, 2007

Grammy Awards Represent Repudiation of Neo-Conservative Views on American Culture

February 12, 2007

Defiant Dixie Chicks Are Big Winners at the Grammys

New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 11 — After death threats, boycotts and a cold shoulder from the country music establishment, the Dixie Chicks gained sweet vindication Sunday night at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, capturing honors in all five of the categories in which they were nominated.

They were the top winners during a night when the Recording Academy spread the wealth, even handing out ties in two categories, as it bestowed four awards on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and three on Mary J. Blige. Carrie Underwood, Justin Timberlake, Tony Bennett, John Mayer, Ludacris and the late jazz musician Michael Brecker were among those who also received multiple awards.

The Dixie Chicks took home Grammys for the top three awards: record, song and album of the year. Their “Taking the Long Way” (Open Wide/Columbia) won best country album and “Not Ready to Make Nice” also captured best country performance by a duo or group with vocal. That song is an unapologetic response to the furor set off in 2003 when the band’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, made an off-the-cuff antiwar remark to London concertgoers: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”

But Sunday’s awards were the Recording Academy’s rejoinder to the country music radio establishment, which ignored the album. Accepting the award for song of the year, Ms. Maines joked, “For the first time in my life, I’m speechless.” But she found her voice on later trips to the stage. “I’m very humbled and I think people were using their voice the same way this loudmouth did,” she said, self-referentially, after “Taking the Long Way” was named album of the year. The Dixie Chicks’ sweep of the major Grammy categories served as a sharp counterpoint to their shut-out at the Country Music Association awards in November. The Recording Academy consists of members across the nation who work in all genres of music. The Country Music Association’s membership is concentrated among artists, engineers and executives tied to the Nashville establishment.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose enduring punk-funk hybrid has recently captured critical acclaim to go along with its longstanding commercial success, took three Grammys before the nationally broadcast show began at the Staples Center (97 of the 108 awards were not televised). It was an auspicious beginning on a night when the band was up for as many as six awards. “Dani California,” set like many of the band’s songs in Los Angeles and its environs, won for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocal and best rock song. The band’s double album “Stadium Arcadium,” the first of that veteran group’s albums to reach No. 1, won best boxed or special limited edition. And on the televised portion of the proceedings, right after it performed, the band captured the Grammy for best rock album.

Soon after the live telecast began on CBS, Ms. Blige’s album “The Breakthrough” (Geffen) won for best R&B album and best female R&B vocal performance, complementing the Grammy for best R&B song that she and three co-writers won before the broadcast (“Be Without You”).

While most of the acceptance speeches paid tribute to the usual managers, producers and family, one winner, the rap star Ludacris, veered off the beaten track when his “Release Therapy” (Disturbing tha Peace/Def Jam) was named best rap album. In addition to a litany of music executives, Ludacris thanked the Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly and Oprah Winfrey, who have criticized him in the past.

Mr. Timberlake, whose album “FutureSex/LoveSounds” (Jive/Zomba) was nominated for the most prestigious category of album of the year, won best rap/sung collaboration with T. I. for “My Love,” while he and Timbaland, the go-to producer of the moment, won for best dance song. T. I. also captured the Grammy for best rap solo performance for “What You Know.”

Mr. Dylan’s “Modern Times” (Columbia) picked up the award for best contemporary folk/Americana album, while Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” (Columbia) won best traditional folk album.

Another music-industry veteran, Mr. Bennett, won two early awards, including one for his duet with Stevie Wonder (“For Once in My Life”) in the category of best pop collaboration with vocals.

And Mr. Brecker, who died last month, also received two Grammys, for jazz instrumental solo and large jazz ensemble album on his brother Randy’s album, “Some Skunk Funk” (Telarc Jazz/BHM).

The country category offered up at least one more surprising twist, as the New Jersey arena rock band Bon Jovi won best country collaboration with vocals for “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” with Jennifer Nettles. Less surprising were the awards to Ms. Underwood, an “American Idol” victor turned commercial superstar, who won for female country vocal performance with “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” (That song, which she did not write, received the best country song award.) Ms. Underwood also won for best new artist.

Continuing a Grammy tradition, the polkameisters Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra won for best polka album, “Polka in Paradise” (Rounder). It was their 16th Grammy. And former president Jimmy Carter, whose recent book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” has encountered a storm of opposition, won for a less contentious but as pointed production. His “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis” (Simon & Schuster Audio) tied in the best spoken word category with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together” (Time Warner).

This year’s nominations had a heavy R&B and neo-soul flavor, with a dash of topical antiwar sentiment.

Ms. Blige and her unvarnished, hip-hop-tinged brand of rhythm and blues led with eight nominations, but her album “The Breakthrough” did not receive a nod for album of the year. Ms. Blige, who has previously won three Grammys, has made the demand for respect a recurring songwriting motif. She emerged more than a decade ago with a style that departed from the slick R&B in vogue at the time, making her survival of a rough childhood and abusive relationships an integral part of her songs. But her nominated song in the record of the year category, “Be Without You,” testifies to a resilient relationship and perhaps a more hopeful state of affairs.

Amid the melodramatic neo-soul of James Blunt (five nominations), there was also some pointed antiwar commentary in the work of other nominees. The title of Neil Young’s work nominated for best rock album, “Living With War,” and best rock solo vocal performance, “Lookin’ for a Leader,” made that clear. And Mr. Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” which comes at the war in a more oblique manner, despairing of his generation’s seeming apathy, won for best male pop vocal performance.

The Grammys would not be complete without a little controversy. Mr. Dylan, whose “Modern Times” garnered impressive reviews (Blender compared him to Yeats and Matisse), received no nominations in any of the most prestigious categories. Rascal Flatts’s album, though one of the best selling of the year, was snubbed in the country album category. And Timbaland, who guided much of Mr. Timberlake’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and produced “Promiscuous” for Nelly Furtado, was shut out.

Another of the year’s biggest musical influences, the hirsute producer Rick Rubin, did win the Grammy for producer of the year, but given his aversion to these sorts of record industry social gatherings, he stayed away from the pre-telecast ceremony, held at the Los Angeles convention center, next to the Staples Center.

Mr. Rubin, who produced nominated albums for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dixie Chicks, as well as tracks for Mr. Timberlake’s album, has been less nimble at avoiding another uncomfortable situation: he has been at the center of a tug-of-war between two record companies. Sony BMG Music has recruited him to become co-chairman of its Columbia Records label, but his boutique label, American Recordings, is still under contract to a rival, the Warner Music Group’s Warner Brothers label.

Last year’s ceremony, held on a Wednesday, bumped up against the juggernaut that is “American Idol,” and the Grammys paid the price in the ratings. Slightly more than 17 million people tuned in to the telecast, down 10 percent from the 18.8 million who watched in 2005 and the lowest tally since 1995, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In this digital-cable universe of hundreds of channels, few awards shows attract the hoopla and ratings they used to. But the Grammys have fallen more than most. They once hit a high of 51.6 million (in 1984), but even in the last decade they have reliably drawn audiences in the mid-20-million range.

Executives of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, best known as the Recording Academy, were hoping that a little bit of the old razzle-dazzle would reverse this trend. The Police, who are likely to announce a national tour on Monday, opened the show with a blistering rendition of “Roxanne.” Earth, Wind & Fire, whose funkadelic sound reached its heights in the 1970s, joined Ms. Blige and Ludacris for a performance of “Runaway Love.”

And the Recording Academy even tried to co-opt a little of the “American Idol” magic by holding a “My Grammy Moment” contest for one lucky unsigned artist to perform with Mr. Timberlake during the show. Fans voted online at Yahoo!Music, and the winner, Robyn Troup of Houston, was announced live on the show.

But even if the casting stunts goose the ratings, the larger travails of the music business will still loom over any good vibes emanating from the festivities. Even a doubling of sales of digital albums failed to make up for the continued downward trek of CD sales. Album sales last year dropped almost 5 percent, to 588 million, following a 7 percent drop the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

One worrisome trend was the decline in sales of hip-hop albums, which had been among the stronger performers in recent years. (Hip-hop acts also received little love from the Recording Academy; no rap album received a nomination in any of the major categories.)

The best-selling album of 2006 was the soundtrack to the Disney Channel movie “High School Musical,” which sold 3.7 million copies. And Daniel Powter’s song “Bad Day” was the best-selling digital song, selling more than 2 million copies thanks in large part to its prime positioning on “American Idol.” Neither recording received a Grammy nomination.

To be eligible for an award, a recording had to have been released between Oct. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2006. The winners were selected by the academy’s more than 11,000 voting members, who are recording industry professionals with creative or technical credits on at least six albums or songs.

This article was reported by Jeff Leeds in Los Angeles and Lorne Manly in New York.

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