Grammy Analysis: When Cultures Collide

Is Country Music Headed For Grammy Pre-Tel Hell?

LOS ANGELES — Even as country traditional artists swept the country fields of the 46th annual Grammy Awards, an aura of impermanence hovered over the music’s role in this awards show. For one thing, there was a scant country presence on the show. As a result, there weren’t many country artists in residence here.

For another thing, the specter of Janet Jackson hung over the Grammy event, as it did at the Grammy-related parties and other events around town. And that low-hanging miasma reduced everything else to a secondary status. A five-minute delay on what was in years past a live Grammy telecast was imposed on this year’s Grammy show in the wake of the Super Bowl debacle. At show time, the buzz backstage was that Jackson was still contemplating appearing on the show to issue a one-sentence apology. Obviously, she did not. Another backstage rumor — that had been a hot topic in music circles for the last few days — was that Justin Timberlake was allowed to appear on the show only if he agreed to apologize for the Super Bowl episode. Which he did, on-air.

And, at the heart of it, the Janet Jackson thing is nothing more than the Natalie Maines thing — but multiplied by the enormous magnitude of the worldwide television exposure of the Super Bowl. But in both instances, it was a simple matter of one culture colliding with another. Natalie says something a large part of her audience doesn’t want to hear; Jackson forces a cultural issue on an audience that doesn’t want it.

When you think about it, the Dixie Chicks would still have been players on this Grammy stage, if what had happened with them had not happened. Now, they’re non-players, as a result. As is Janet Jackson.

Artist after artist backstage at the Grammy awards here alluded to the Super Bowl business, most commenting that it struck them as much ado about nothing. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs reduced the topic to its most ridiculous when he remarked backstage that he was “very happy” that his children had had the opportunity to glimpse one of Janet Jackson’s breasts in their lifetime. After hearing such remarks for a while, you begin to wonder if you’re hearing the voice of true confidence or if you’re listening to the voices of timid children whistling through a graveyard.

The Grammy telecast certainly held meager rewards for country music artists and fans, with only Martina McBride performing as a country artist — and coming through admirably with her “Concrete Angel.” Alison Krauss accompanied Sarah McLachlan on fiddle and vocals on a McLachlan song. Vince Gill took part in a Beatles tribute, and Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris were part of a Warren Zevon tribute. Faith Hill and Keith Urban served as presenters. But overall, country seems to be devolving into Grammy’s neglected stepchild, with a scarcely perceptible footprint on this show. With 13,000 voters and 105 musical categories (of which eight are country and bluegrass), the Academy’s emphasis obviously lies elsewhere these days.

All of the country awards (except best female country vocal performance) were presented in the “pre-tel” – as the Academy refers to the presentations held before the actual awards telecast. Both Gill and Skaggs addressed the matter of the pre-tel, but only indirectly. Gill gently scolded artists who don’t show up to accept their awards on the pre-tel, saying, “I can’t imagine being honored like this and not being here.” Gill also said he preferred being among his fellow artists there, outside of “the big show.” Skaggs, for his part, thanked the Academy for “returning honor and dignity to the pre-tel, which many people had begin to think was insignificant.”

You have to wonder if the strong showing by the traditional country artists reflects a strong endorsement by the Academy voters of trad music or a rejection of country’s newer artists and music. The wins by Cashes and Carters undoubtedly depict a widespread tribute to the stature and regard that Johnny and June Cash enjoy among all Academy voters. But you also have to speculate over how much the respect for musical tradition will disappear with the passing of Johnny and June and with the obvious lack of replacements for them by artists of that same stature.

John Carter Cash himself almost seemed weighed down by the three Cash and Carter Grammys that he was carrying backstage, weighed down by all the history he was carrying in those three Grammys. Dressed all in black like his father, John Carter said that his parents’ bodies were now gone but their spirits live on. And that their music lives on, in the artists carrying it on.

The group Coldplay’s dedication of their Grammy win to Johnny Cash was another telling indicator of the impact that country’s past — but certainly not its present — still holds over artists in other genres.

On another front, it’s wonderful that music that the country elite endorses and likes wins Grammy awards, but what does it say when virtually all of mainstream country music, as produced by major Nashville labels for airplay on major country radio stations, is ignored or rejected by the music industry’s supposedly most prestigious awards organization and ceremony? Does this mean that only the most culturally and politically correct music is what will be emphasized and recognized — to the detriment of everything else? Questions abound; answers do not.

Interestingly, in other cultural clashes, former president Bill Clinton won a Grammy (for best spoken word album for children, with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and actress Sophia Loren), but his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton lost in her category (best spoken word album, for her memoir) to outspoken comedian and social critic Al Franken. Eugene Levy had the best line of the evening. In accepting the award (in the pre-tel) for best song written for a motion picture, television or other visual media for the folksong parody movie A Mighty Wind, Levy protested, “The songs aren’t real!”

Well, these days, what is?