The Grammys are for the people -- right? The Grammys are really for the industry, a self-fete on a grand scale and an excuse to bring Britney, Christina and Jessica under one roof and focus their combined star power, provided they don't all go down in the Greatest Catfight Ever Televised. As alternative awards ceremonies -- the American Music Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards and so on -- proliferate, the Grammys have tried to compensate with ostentation for what they lack in edge, whether it's a deranged Ol' Dirty Bastard or the outing of spicy Ricky Martin to the world (as a pop sensation, of course).
On the whole though, moments like that are as scarce as Will Smith on urban radio. Instead, the telecast inevitably degenerates into a record-label-sponsored match of My Diva Is Bigger Than Your Diva. And yes, that goes for the boys too -- how else do you describe Sting and his tantric career longevity or (p)opera heartthrob Andrea Bocelli? Like the gladiator matches of Rome, these square-offs aren't so much about who wins as the game itself -- it's all bread and circuses.
And easily sated they are, these frothing fans with tears in their eyes. First there's the, ahem, Soccer Moms -- women in their 20s and 30s who don't spend a lot of time consuming pop music, but when they do, they do so largely by group consensus. These are people who buy Vonda Shepard records not just because they relate to Ally McBeal, but because Shepard, with her bossy alto, speaks to them, polishing up the pain of approaching middle age with a neat drop of blue-eyed soul. You can track their purchasing habits on the Amazon.com bestseller list, which features Adult Contemporary (that's what the folks at Billboard call it) artists who are generally shunned by radio yet still, largely via word of mouth, manage a steady buzz -- Aimee Mann, Tracy Chapman, Bocelli, Shepard, etc. It's practically the Oprah Club for music -- white, softy-liberal, female suburbanites sifting through their angst with song. (Oprah, please don't get any ideas.)
Second, and at fierce odds with the previous group, come the Shrieking Teenage Girls. They abhor their moms' music for being, well, booorrrinnnnggg. They'd much rather see synchronized boys in tight jeans or bop along with non-threatening girl-stars next door. For them, music is like a Happy Meal -- each purchase brings a new toy into their world. The artists this group favors plead earnestness as well, just a far younger, less cynical version of it. Yes, the Backstreeters want it that way, and yes, Christina Aguilera knows what a girl wants. It's all part of the truth of youth, divine in its naiveti.
On this year's telecast, both of these contingents will be well catered to -- Whitney Houston, Santana and Faith Hill for the older set; Martin, Kid Rock and Britney Spears for the young 'ns. There's even Chucho Valdes and Ibrahim Ferrer for those who think the next Latin craze will need a walking stick.
But the nominees -- there's the real rub. Well-appointed in their custom outfits and sporting on-loan jewelry, they'll sit attentively in their seats waiting for their category, then either exult joyously to the podium or grin and swallow the insult. Sure, winning the statuette is an honor, but to a multimillion-selling act like the Backstreet Boys, it would be nothing compared to the opportunity to get irresponsible with their fans for just one night.
See, if you thought it was about the music or about the respect of the recording community, you'd be wrong. How else does one explain the nomination of Lou Bega, a third-rate Vin Diesel knockoff with a paunch, a scratchy voice and a song almost entirely lifted from mambo king Perez Prado? Running down a list of women you've dated over a stolen beat merits a Grammy nomination? OK, then those guys who shouted out all the women they'd slept with in their ad at the back of my high school yearbook better be up for a Pulitzer this year.
Bega's egregious nomination is not the only one -- what about Cher, who mailed it in for her 100-percent synthesized hit "Believe"? And what of this Bocelli character? For all I know, he sings in radio ads for pasta companies in Italy.
"Grammy Nominees 2000," a collection just released on CD, brings together most of the nominees in three popular categories -- record of the year, best new artist and best male pop vocal performance. It's a testament to the Academy's startling lack of originality. Bega, Bocelli and Cher are there, as are Martin, Spears and Aguilera. Kid Rock and TLC are there for the teenage "wish I was a rebel but I've got it too good" types, while their parents can hum along to Santana, Sting and Macy Gray.
See, the Grammy folks have so thoroughly sorted through the demographics of their target groups that the Grammy album and the nomination process at large miss almost any element of surprise. These nominees merely re-create the charts we've been bombarded with all year -- Billboard, Amazon.com, MTV's Total Request Live, radio Top 10s. Watching the festivities will only reinforce the machines that got these artists to their perches in the first place.
The only voice of dissent on the Grammy collection is left-field best new artist nominee Susan Tedeschi. A blues-folk singer from Boston, her song "It Hurt So Bad" is a fresh, sparkling ode to raw anguish with debts to early blues singers as well as pure '50s rock 'n' roll. On an album brimming with insipid, overproduced schlock, her guitar twangs and crystal voice are a welcome reprieve. Sure she won't win, but it's nice to have this moment with her before her dissent is fully commodified and she ends up doing a guest spot as a stand-in for Shepard on "Ally."