February 25, 1996 | LLOYD SACHS
Of all the award categories devised by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, none is a less reliable gauge of talent than the Grammy for best new artist. Faster than you can say “one-hit wonder,” a host of winners have become no-hit stumblers.
Are you out there, Bobbie Gentry, Men at Work, Debby Boone and Mark Cohn? (See Timeline on Page 3.)
But even if this year’s best new artist nominees enjoy only a brief stay in the commercial sun – which seems unlikely, particularly for rockers Alanis Morissette and Joan Osborne – the women who dominate the category still will have contributed to one of Grammy’s most compelling statements.
In an unprecedented development, the monster-selling Hootie & the Blowfish provide the only male competition for Morissette, Osborne, teenage R&B star Brandy and quadruple-platinum-selling country singer Shania Twain in the new artist category. And that’s hardly the only area in which women are roaring, as reflected in CBS’ all-female promos for its 8 p.m. Wednesday broadcast of the 38th annual Grammy Awards. Hosted in Los Angeles by Ellen DeGeneres, the show airs locally on WBBM-Channel 2.
In the past, the strides of women in popular music were variously charted by Aretha Franklin getting crowned queen of soul again, Bette Midler getting sentimental recognition for another comeback or Bonnie Raitt finally getting recognized, period.
This year, there were female advances across the board. A field-topping six nominations went to Morissette, she of the fiercely assertive relationship songs, and to perennially popular pop diva Mariah Carey. Osborne, whose rough-and-tumble reveries have been overshadowed by her “Yeah, yeah, God is great” hit, “One of Us,” garnered five nominations.
Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill,” Carey’s “Daydream” and Osborne’s “Relish” all are up for album of the year – each of them guaranteed to leave Michael Jackson’s dud “HIStory Past, Present and Future Book I” and Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” in the dust.
And in the record of the year competition, rapper Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and soul singer Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” are dwarfed by Carey’s “One Sweet Day” (teaming her with Boyz II Men), “One of Us” and the R&B smash “Waterfalls” by poor little bankrupt female sensations TLC.
What makes the female presence so remarkable this year is not just the numbers. The lion’s share of energy and excitement comes from the women, while a feeling of “So what?” arises from the male nominees.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” is, for sure, a surefire work of art, and Seal remains one of soul music’s most alluring stars. You gotta love grizzled best rock album nominee Neil Young for still slashing and burning on “Mirror Ball.”
And Pearl Jam, his collaborators on the album, deserve recognition for their own strong effort, “Vitalogy,” nominated for best rock album as well as album of the year.
But Michael Jackson’s nomination has less to do with artistic excellence than the industry’s need to coddle one of its largest investments. A year past their Grammy eligiblity in all categories except best new artist, the workmanlike Hootie & the Blowfish already have faded in our rearview mirrors.
Over in the best pop album competition, the aging Eagles can be heard yelping over the beating they and their endlessly promoted comeback album, “Hell Freezes Over,” are taking from a quartet of women: Carey, Annie Lennox, Madonna and Joni Mitchell.
(Should Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” win for best rock album, she will have reversed those generic odds in outslugging Young, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and Chris Isaak.)
And while Nirvana’s posthumous “Unplugged in New York” may win for best alternative performance, the real rooting interest here lies in a pair of bold, genuinely “alternative” visions by women: rawboned Brit PJ Harvey‘s tidal wave lament “To Bring You My Love” and avant-popster Bjork’s “Post.” In the best of worlds, Harvey and Bjork would be recognized for their brilliance with best album nominations. (Harvey also is up for best rock vocal by a female for “Down by the Water.”)
It will take more than the millennium to raise the Grammys to that level of responsiveness. But the voting process did have its consciousness raised by rules changes following last year’s outcry over high-profile nominations going to substandard efforts by Tony Bennett and the 3 Tenors.
Striving for greater relevance and respectability – and to keep miffed record companies in the fold – NARAS created a special 25-member screening board to choose five nominations from the top 20 vote-getters in each category. While there’s still no guarantee that artistic distinction won’t be defined by the likes of Frank Sinatra’s “Duets II,” hope springs when an organization as militantly self-defensive as NARAS changes its methods.
Higher artistic standards certainly are evident in the jazz nominations. Hell may have to freeze over before Grammy recognizes small labels – nearly all the nominations go to record companies with promotional clout. But the albums that are up for best jazz instrumental performance, individual or group, all are works of distinction (see accompanying list).
And when once-automatic nominees such as Mel Torme and Joe Williams fail to crack the best jazz vocal category, you know the choices are based less on popularity and sentimentality than merit. Here, too, women dominated four to one, with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln and Dianne Reeves surrounding male newcomer Kurt Elling.
Year of the woman? Barbra Streisand may have copped that catchphrase for the Oscars. But the term will never find a better fit than when “HERstory Part I” unfolds on Wednesday.