If you’re like most people, there must be some music you don’t know, don’t like, and maybe even think you despise. Rap? Noise! Heavy metal? Loud and dumb! Welcome to the ’90s, when music, or at least its audience, lies broken into feuding fragments. And now that the biggest music awards of the year — the Grammys — are here, how many of our tangled musical strands are they likely to reflect? Almost none — not if you think the three biggest Grammys ought to mean what they say. These top awards sound as if they transcend musical categories: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year. But this year, mostly one kind of artist has been nominated: Forgive me, but it’s the old white fart.
Don Henley was a star in the ’70s; Mike Rutherford (of Mike + the Mechanics) started 20 years ago with Genesis; Billy Joel is a war-horse; Bette Midler is a Hollywood matron. Only Fine Young Cannibals stand out as young, fresh, and passably adventurous.
These nominations don’t represent the divided life of music today. There’s black music and there’s white music. There’s rap. There’s metal. There’s classic rock (the Rolling Stones, Henley, the Who). There’s alternative rock (the Cure); dance music (Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul); country, Latin music, even remnants of punk. And there’s the great catchall category, ”pop,” stretching from Linda Ronstadt all the way to the teen idols New Kids on the Block.
The sharpest division in music — as in America — is race. How many black people care to hear the Rolling Stones? How many white people swoon over such love idols as Luther Vandross? Call it segregation, call it commercial reality, call it black pride — but the music industry still charts black pop hits separately.
Maybe the lines are easing: Some artists on the black pop charts are white (George Michael, 3rd Bass), just as some artists on the larger pop charts are black (Janet Jackson, Tone-Lo c). But — as racial tension outside music continues to grow — other things are getting worse.
Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses sang about ”niggers” in a song called ”One in a Million” from the album G N’ R Lies — which, incredibly, was nominated for this year’s Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy. Or was that best racist performance? Professor Griff of Public Enemy, in a now-notorious interview, hurled slurs at Jews. And yes, Public Enemy too was nominated for a Grammy (Best Rap Performance), though that was for their inspiring ”Fight the Power” from Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing, a song that deserves only praise.
If Public Enemy wins, expect an uproar: They’ve been pilloried in the press. If Guns N’ Roses wins, expect nothing comparable. They’ve gotten off easy, even though Axl Rose has railed against ”faggots” and immigrants (opening for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles, he announced before 70,000 people that foreigners are welcome here — as long as they learn to live like Americans).
The tension and drama of race blow like a stiff wind through rap, which for years had functioned as black activist music. But that activism is just as musical as it is political.
Last year rap exploded. Tone-Loc (with ”Wild Thing,” the second largest-selling single ever, in any category) brought us nonthreatening rap, rap for the pop charts. Boogie Down Productions gave us what could be the album of the year, in any genre: Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop. It had an intense black message, an outrageous mix of strength and good humor, and a guaranteed musical surprise each minute (at one point even the sound of a ’40s-style swing band). De La Soul merged a game show with a modernist collage. A new wave of young black singers — Bobby Brown is the most famous — blended rap with their dance tunes and ballads, helping make rap legitimate even with a more conservative black audience. And Ice-T and N.W.A. documented the savagery of crime and drugs.
N.W.A. also — though hardly on purpose — highlighted a growing trend toward musical censorship. Not just because warning stickers were pasted on their albums, or because some stores wouldn’t let kids under 18 buy them. Civic officials in several states asked local promoters to cancel concerts by the group, even though violence never had been reported when they’d performed.
What these authorities didn’t like was an N.W.A. song called ”– Tha Police.” An FBI spokesman, Milt Ahlerich, even contacted N.W.A.’s label, tiny Priority Records, arguing, on behalf of ”the entire law enforcement community,” that the song encouraged attacks on police. There’s one thing, though, that he and other critics of the group never acknowledged: The song’s real target was assaults by police, against young blacks.
On the white side of the very real racial fence, hard rock and heavy metal erupted, inciting explosive disrespect for any kind of dreary 9-to-5 life. The hard rock phenomenon of the year might have been Skid Row, who swore a lot. Warrant, Poison, Def Leppard, and seemingly half a million other bands sang about sex, which in hard rock and metal symbolism means liberation. Kid stuff, maybe (though lots of metal isn’t). Some of it was certainly sexist; to would-be censors it also sounded obscene. But rock & roll has always been about sex — and even the dumbest metal bands may long for a more authentic freedom than they and their fans yet know how to define.
Other musical monsters from beyond have been creeping up the pop charts, too. That’s what the rise of ”alternative” rock is about: The Cure, death-pale British prophets of gloom, now cast their often-hypnotic spell in 50,000-seat stadiums. Other former cult bands — R.E.M., Love and Rockets — also play to giant crowds. They might be metal’s flip side: They never sound as if they’re having fun; they clearly tell us that, for them and their growing audience, something in the world has gone badly wrong.
Meanwhile, in the dance world of Paula Abdul, everything’s fine, except when your guy doesn’t love you. New Kids on the Block have a similar tale to tell; so do many country singers. Which doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate: Pop music speaks differently to different parts of a world that, for all its troubles, hasn’t fallen into ruin, at least not yet.
But — this year, anyway — the Grammys aren’t listening. The nominations say that 1989 was a year of old farts, and that’s not entirely wrong: The Stones, the Who, Paul McCartney, even Ringo Starr toured, great rock & roll names, all of them. Average age: 47.
Not that there’s anything bad about longevity. The Grammy-nominated song by Mike + the Mechanics, ”The Living Years,” says something only mature adults are likely to understand: that all of us need to make our peace with our parents. And move over, Bon Jovi: The Rolling Stones really kicked butt on their tour. Old-fart rock at least shows that rock & roll is finally legitimate — at long last, nobody’s going to tell Mick Jagger to grow up and get a real job.
But last year’s Grammys smelled a lot fresher. Tracy Chapman — with six nominations — was a breakthrough. Metallica, a corrosive heavy metal band, were not just nominated (as they were again this year) but actually performed on the Grammy telecast. As the 1989 Grammys don’t seem to recognize, the times might really be changing.
Diversity doesn’t have to bewilder us. It can be exhilarating: Smart and adventurous music is turning up in all genres. Look at our UnGrammy cover artists, Neneh Cherry and k.d. lang (both nominated, but not for the highest honors). Or Tracy Chapman, or Living Colour (who did get a welcome nomination for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group). In years to come, look to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and 24-7 Spyz, maybe the spiciest of many younger bands who slice and dice white and black musical genres with bilingual fluency.
So forget the Grammys: This year, the real heart of music beats elsewhere.