Nobody ever said that awards shows were on the cutting or even the dull edge of entertainment. But this year’s Grammys — to be telecast live from Los Angeles on Feb. 21 — explore new horizons of boredom; they are as safe as a pair of kindergarten scissors. Don Henley, Billy Joel, Bette Midler, and the rest of the major nominees may be nice to have around during a long drive down the turnpike — but you could have been listening to the same voices 10 years ago. They are easy choices.
It’s no surprise that the Grammys found no breakout new talent this time. There isn’t any. There is no Tracy Chapman, no Elvis Costello, no Cyndi Lauper. Nobody can stand out from the pack because the pack is so diverse. Music is a universal language no more — instead, it’s shattered into dozens of narrow audiences: rap, metal, dance, classic rock, white, black, young, old. Splinter groups that often seem to resist any attempt to reach out to a wider audience.
But some promising musicians do at least try to find a tie that binds. Walk into a record store and guess where Neneh Cherry is filed (rap? dance? jazz?), or k.d. lang (country? punk? standards? Canadian?). They don’t fit into a niche, a prefabricated and predictable genre. Both have looked over all sorts of musical styles and traditions, picked out what they like, and paid tribute by synthesizing them into music that is uniquely theirs. In a time of divisiveness and division in music — of racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, and censorship — these two musicians and a few more like them (Living Colour, 3rd Bass) find a way to bring the musical edges of America to a new center. So we celebrate them and award Cherry and lang our first (and maybe annual) UnGrammys (just fairly cheap Entertainment Weekly mugs — but they’re worth about as much as any award is, right?).