It’s a little weird that the Grammys are short for the archaic word “gramophone,” until you consider the alternative, “phonograph,” which would yield the embarrassing though more accurate title “The Phonies.”
In general, the Phonies have typically gone out to artists who don’t really have much subtext to their music, beyond those universal truths such as “love” and, uh, “love.” Grammy voters’ idea of a political song was “We Are the World,” 1985’s Record of the Year. That’s not to say that Christopher Cross’ take on “Sailing” (a 1980 winner) wasn’t a valid analysis of hegemony in the “sea” of neo-socialism, just as MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” (1990) obviously was a linguistic nod to the post-structuralists. It’s just that bands such as Nirvana, guys like Bob Dylan, and acts such as Public Enemy were completely overlooked by the Grammys during their peak.
That said, this year some surprisingly relevant stuff is goin’ down at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the folks who bring you the Grammys. This year’s heavy emphasis on chicks dubbed “conscious” (India.Arie, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott) is a step in an interesting direction for the awards. Sure, that parade of painted hussies who brought us the remake of “Lady Marmalade” is nominated, but so are Lucinda Williams and PJ Harvey. Fear not, the male vocal award is still full o’ shit: Michael Jackson for a song no one has heard, Elton John for a song no one wants to hear again (yet surprisingly not a nod to a dead person or cartoon character), and even the über-relevant James Taylor.
Among the other “you go girl!” honorees is Oakland singer and rapper Mystic, who collaborated with another East Bay artist, Planet Asia. They are nominated for “Best Rap Collaboration” for the song “W,” a shout out to California living. Planet Asia has been a respected part of the West Coast underground for several years, and his signing to the major label Interscope probably accounts for the academy’s notice of this collaboration. And the talented and deep Mystic has paid her dues for more than eleven years as one of the few artists who can successfully combine singing with rap. “W” is actually one of the weaker songs on Mystic’s debut album Cuts for Luck, Scars for Freedom, which is generally supremely personal and aware, exploring themes such as hope, drug abuse, and feminism.
“I think there was a noticeable shift this year in terms of younger artists being chosen,” Mystic says. “There were also a lot of women nominated. To me it’s a reflection about the times that we’re in — about healing music and positive music.”
This year’s higher quality of female nominations comes at a time when the Grammys needs to buff up its image with the chicks. NARAS President and CEO Michael Greene recently settled a sexual harassment claim for $650,000. The woman who sued him was originally hired to work in the NARAS human relations department, where she was responsible for monitoring the organization’s sexual harassment claims — of which Greene himself already had received six.
The Grammy organization as a whole also has come under considerable fire. It bills itself as a nonprofit that “supports music and arts education.” But the foundation has some questionable “overhead” expenses, which the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer in ’99 for scrutinizing. For instance, in 1998 the NARAS charity MusiCares spent only about 10 percent of its income providing medical and financial help for needy musicians — the rest went to other “expenses.” The latest charitable project from NARAS is a retirement home for folks from the music industry. Now at least they can house all of the Grammys’ superannuated voters under one roof.
It might seem surprising that someone as genuine as Mystic doesn’t think the Grammys are wack, and is legitimately excited about the honor. But who among us wouldn’t be, if it really came down to getting free food and a shot at hogging the armrest from Sting.
“It’s such a strange thing for somebody like me to be nominated,” says Mystic, who points out that not only was she honored for her debut album, but that it only sold around 70,000 copies, way under the platinum status of most other prominent nominees. No doubt about it, Mystic is being groomed to join the other “neo-soul” chanteuses who’ll be going to this year’s Grammys. She’s plenty bankable for her musical skills, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s a complete knockout. There is no way in hell that she and Planet Asia are going to beat Eve and Gwen Stefani for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” but at least they can dress up good and chat up Kid Rock.
Yet truly, none of this stuff seems to matter to the down-to-earth Mystic, who says she only wants to make enough money to start an arts center and maybe a school for young people in Oakland. She probably just shouldn’t count on NARAS for any grants.