February 08, 2006, 7:57 a.m.
The Alternative Grammys
Underappreciated good stuff.
Award shows are almost invariably about three things: p.r., p.r., and p.r. The leaders of an industry get together not to honor greatness or artistry but instead to recognize those who most fully exemplify the things that make money.
Thus it is with the Grammy awards, the recording industry’s big annual event, which will be shown on CBS tonight. What makes money today in the recording industry is apparently two things: intellectual simplicity and overt passion. Thus the nominations for major awards tend toward works with simple, driving beats, lyrics that express an uncomplicated point of view, and wailing or shrieking vocals loosely derived from the gospel-music tradition. (The drawling inflections of rap seem to derive from country music more than anything else, which itself has gospel roots.)
Given the huge number of categories — more than 100 — there are always some nominees whose music does something out of the mainstream and worth doing (such as Adrian Belew, Death Cab for Cutie, and George Jones), but the bulk of the attention goes to the moneymaking superstars. This is an industry, after all, not a charity.
But there is a positive artistic story here as well, though we won’t see much evidence of it at the Grammys. Modern digital technology is making music production less expensive, and modern telecommunications technology is making it ever-easier for independent artists to reach consumers eager for music that is more challenging, enlightening, and, yes, pleasurable than the commercial products the Grammys and other awards programs honor.
As a result, there are countless artists making very good music these days, and although they will not win Grammys any time soon, numerous releases in just the past year demonstrate that a significant number of artists are venturing outside the boundaries to create music that is simultaneously interesting, pleasing, educative, and challenging.
It's Not Unusual to be Unusual
Raw-Word, by Gypsy Carns, The Blues Preacher, an album of classic-style gospel blues consisting only of voice, dobro (a type of acoustic guitar), and kick drum and cymbal. Carns’s sound is highly reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson and the Rev. Gary Davis, which is high praise indeed. In fact, thanks to the better recording quality, Carns’s work is more immediately enjoyable than some of what his great predecessors did.
S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and editor of The Reform Club.