In a year when the White Stripes got their due, Chris Willman says the Grammys nominations aren't half bad -- but is half bad as good as it gets?

By Chris Willman
December 06, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
The White Stripes: Ewan Spencer

Do the Grammys matter?

Remember the Ice Cube song that says ”It Was a Good Day” when the cops didn’t pull him over without cause and nobody in his neighborhood got shot? Maybe that’s how we should look at the Grammy Awards: If there aren’t a plethora of completely embarrassing nominations, and if not all the most acclaimed albums of the year get overlooked, it was a good year.

By that glass-half-full standard, this year’s Grammy nods aren’t half terrible. Any critic looking for good reasons to be outraged probably didn’t find many. The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn wrote a column in advance of the announcements, decrying what he figured would be a near shutout for his (and most rock writers’) album of the year, the White Stripes’ ”Elephant.” So when the Stripes were duly nominated for album of the year after all, Hilburn wrote a follow-up column that started off: ”Whew.”

But are the Grammys really even worth gasping about, be it a sigh of regret OR relief?

When a particularly worthy piece of acting or direction ”gets robbed” of an Oscar, it’s possible to work up some righteous indignation because, ridiculous as the motion picture academy’s choices often are, there’s a sense that these are the choices of record, based on the weight they’ve carried since the 1930s. The Grammys don’t carry the same historical heft.

I got my biggest chuckle of the week when I went on a message board and saw someone upset by Rufus Wainwright’s lack of nominations complaining that ”the Grammys ceased to be credible many moons ago.” The person writing that had to be under 30, since, before the early or mid-’90s, the awards had even less credibility. It’s only been in the last decade that some voting and membership reform took place to help the Grammys escape their deserved image as a middle-of-the-road popularity contest.

The reform may have been too little, too late, though — emphasis on the late. If the Beatles, the Kinks, and Marvin Gaye were still recording, the Grammys would probably be giving them the accolades they were mostly denied in the 1960s and ’70s. But those kinds of giants no longer walk the earth. Most popular music, even what we think of as the good stuff, has largely returned to a precounterculture ephemerality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But when I’m bouncing along to Kelis’ ”Milkshake” in my car, its award-worthiness isn’t really paramount in my mind.

The Recording Academy is also an organization that gets bogged down in ridiculous and arbitrary regulations. The rules can be incredibly loose, such as with the Best New Artist category, which Shelby Lynne won in 2001 — for her SIXTH album. This year, we have Fountains of Wayne nominated as ”new” artists after their third major-label release and Sean Paul after his second. (Wouldn’t any right-minded awards organization have renamed the category by now to ”breakthrough” to halt all the brickbats?)

If only things were so lax in other categories. Many observers predicted Johnny Cash’s ”Hurt” would be up for record of the year — but apparently it wasn’t even on the preliminary ballot, because it was determined ineligible after a song from the same album won in a minor category last year. It’s pretty hard to capture the pop zeitgest when you have rules that nitpicky.

Sure, it’s swell that worthy work from the White Stripes, Warren Zevon, OutKast, Fountains of Wayne, Eminem, Lucinda Williams, and others got rewarded with multiple nominations — because good stuff receiving recognition always beats the alternative. But would I have been crying if they were shut out? Not any more than I am to see nominations for utter crap from Madonna, Rod Stewart, Christina Aguilera, and Godsmack. If we were being grown up about it, maybe we’d admit what newfangled competitions like the MTV Awards always acknowledge — that this is all really the pretext for what Ed Sullivan would have called a really good shew.

Here’s an idea: Let’s take all the attention-getting musical performances that would take place on a Grammy telecast and transplant them onto something that matters, like the Teacher of the Year awards. Or do the nation’s top educators get bogged down in eligibility dates, genre distinctions, and apples-versus-oranges debates, too?

What do you think of this year’s Grammy nominations?