Chris Rizik: The 2012 Grammy Awards were a step backward for soul music

The collective gasp you heard halfway through the Grammy Awards broadcast on Sunday night was from the soul music community, aghast over what they had just witnessed. People were already getting a little ticky on Facebook and Twitter as performance after performance came forward on Sunday night with very little nod to soul, gospel or even jazz music.  Classic rock fans were in nirvana (no pun intended) as great bands like the Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, a reunited Beach Boys and even the Beatles (through two performances by Paul McCartney) dominated the stage with fine performances.  And the Grammys got it 100% right as Adele’s brilliant 21 received every award possible.

The collective gasp you heard halfway through the Grammy Awards broadcast on Sunday night was from the soul music community, aghast over what they had just witnessed. People were already getting a little ticky on Facebook and Twitter as performance after performance came forward on Sunday night with very little nod to soul, gospel or even jazz music.  Classic rock fans were in nirvana (no pun intended) as great bands like the Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, a reunited Beach Boys and even the Beatles (through two performances by Paul McCartney) dominated the stage with fine performances.  And the Grammys got it 100% right as Adele’s brilliant 21 received every award possible. Adele displays what is best in popular music and in 2011 she brilliantly culled elements of rock, country, folk and even some R&B into a cohesive whole that we'll be talking about for years. But on a night when soul music legend Diana Ross was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, the current, vibrant form of her genre was completely ignored, with soul only receiving peripheral, historical half-nods in mini-tributes to Whitney Houston and Etta James.

Then, at that midway point of the show, insult was added to the perceived injury as the award for Best R&B Album was presented.  The category had an unusually strong group of nominees this year:  Ledisi is a singular voice, and while nominated in prior years she hasn’t yet won a much deserved Grammy.  Kelly Price swept the SoulTracks awards in December for good reason: Her self-titled album was simply glorious.  Former teen star El DeBarge received a welcome Second Chance in the past year with the redemptive album of the same name. And R. Kelly threw his longtime critics (including me) a curve by showing he had the talent to make memorable music even on someone else’s turf. Oh yes, and there was also Chris Brown, whose nomination in the category was like the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others.” While a fine dancer, as a vocal artist he is not in the same league as Ledisi, Price or DeBarge, nor was his album in any way properly categorized with the others. But soul fans let the odd nomination grouping roll right off us, because, of course, there was no way Brown would win…until he did. The response in Twitterland was swift and furious.  And while everyone has his or her own tastes, thousands of postings wondered aloud under what critical criteria could this result happen, except a simple adoption of the Soundscan sales numbers.

That Brown was nominated in the same category as Ledisi and Price - and that he won - appeared to support the “conspiracy theory” of some music fans who frequently complain that the Grammys just don’t understand the breadth of black music.  And it didn’t help that on this same night Diana Ross received only fleeting recognition for her Lifetime award while Brown and Rihanna performed not once but multiple times.

Since the Milli Vanilli fiasco, an embarrassed Grammy committee has been careful to choose the Best New Artist each year based on real artistic merit, regardless of popularity. That’s how the talented Esperanza Spalding won last year and folkster Bon Iver took the award this year. But in the R&B album category, year after year the awards simply play out like the Billboard charts – as if the voters never even listened to the nominated albums. And, when combined with the choice of performances for the evening, it would not be surprising if rock or country music fans left the Grammys with the impression that the state of black music today is epitomized by Chris Brown, Rihanna and the perplexing, insulting Nicki Minaj. 

I’m not sure whether it is worse to be ignored or misrepresented, but the many talented artists we cover on SoulTracks would be justified in feeling both slaps from the Grammy Awards this year.  On the sacred evening when the music industry celebrates its diversity, talent and character, and on a stage full of great rock and country performers whose styles were heavily influenced by jazz, the black church and rhythm & blues, it was frustrating to see the status of those varied styles in 2012 demonstrated in a minimalized, one-dimensional manner that doesn’t move much beyond hip-hop. But, sadly, that’s exactly what we received on Sunday. And once it all sank in, that collective gasp after the Best R&B award slowly turned to disappointment -- disappointment that on the same night that a beautiful woman with a once-in-a-generation voice was honored, the influential, seminal forms of American music that were the basis of her training now appear to have to prove themselves to the music establishment all over again.

By Chris Rizik (February 13, 2012)

 
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