This year's cure for the stuffy Grammys is multiple nominee Paula Cole, whose 'Cowboys' song only hints at her convention-bucking ways

Paula Cole is staring at a naked couple.

It’s afternoon in New York’S Metropolitan Museum Of Art, and Cole has made a beeline for the African galleries. “I can’t help it, I’m just drawn to black culture, black music, black art,” says the singer-songwriter, a product of the paler-than-crabmeat town of Rockport, Mass. “I grew up in one of the whitest cultures you could pick, but that’s not where my soul is. In my soul I feel I am more African than I am a white Yankee.”

That’s good, too, because this part of the museum is busting out with, ahem, the peaks and grasslands of the mother continent. Cole’s gazing at a primitive sculpture of a nude man and woman when a bunch of schoolgirls suddenly gather around her. Their squeals bounce off the ceiling:

“Ooh! Look at his sausage!”

“Hey, look at their butts!”

“That’s disgusting!”

Cole beams maternally as the girls giggle on down the hall. “You can just see all the repression we learn,” she says. “If I didn’t have music, I’d probably be a lot more repressed than I am now.”

That transformation is a big part of Cole’s bio: Rock & roll, she says, turned one of these prudish straight-A lasses into the whirling, uninhibited banshee who shed her clothes for the cover of This Fire, last year’s breakthrough album. And the metamorphosis has paid off. Cole, 29, surprised the music biz — and herself — when This Fire generated seven Grammy nominations last month, sweeping top-drawer categories like Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. (That last one requires a bit of a fudge, since Cole released her debut album, Harbinger, back in 1994.)

In conversation, though, you get the sense that Cole’s metamorphosis is a work in progress. If she’s both black and white, then she’s also part prom queen, part macrobiotic earth mother, and part Xena. The liner notes of This Fire pay homage to Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam. But last Christmas Cole made a pilgrim-age into the heart of the military-industrial complex to sing for American soldiers in the Persian Gulf. “It’s so unlike me,” she concedes, “but the more I thought about it, the more I felt compassion for those kids. I felt they could probably use some joy in their lives. They’re young and they miss home.” And while Cole’s recent single, “I Don’t Want to Wait,” may strike you as the mushiest radio sugarplum you’ve heard this year, its author happens to be a devotee of Lil’ Kim, hip-hop’s reigning mistress of raunch. “There’s a very talented human being underneath all that sexual imagery,” says Cole. “I think she’s exploited. I’m sure some of it’s her own decision, and I hope I would never offend her when I say that, but I’m sure every time she shows up at a photo shoot they give her a G-string and a pair of pasties.”

Considering this bundle of contradictions, it makes sense that Paula Cole is the mastermind behind the Ally McBeal of pop singles, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” Beloved and cursed and endlessly fought over, “Cowboys” turned into last year’s tricky multiple-choice quiz for men and women of every ideological persuasion. Was it (A) a wistful ode to stay-at-home female servitude, (B) a dream sequence from a Sam Shepard play, (C) supposed to be ironic, dummy, or (D) all of the above? The answer falls somewhere between C and D. “It is poignant and melancholic, but it’s sarcastic,” Cole says. “It’s meant to be a laugh. America has never been known for its adept sense of sarcasm. The English were far more on it. But I really don’t mind all the different interpretations. It’s good that it can appeal to so many different kinds of people.” Back in the Persian Gulf, sailors aboard the USS George Washington simply gave her a plaque. WHERE ALL THE COWBOYS ARE, it said.