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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

Grammys Face an Eminem Dilemma

December 03, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

It's not too early for a 2001 Grammy Awards controversy. With nomination ballots having been due Friday and the nominations to be announced on Jan. 3, there's one virtually guaranteed:

If Eminem gets some major-category nominations, people will be outraged.

If Eminem doesn't get major-category nominations, people will be outraged.

The Detroit rapper's "The Marshall Mathers LP" is among the most popular and acclaimed releases of the past year, arguably the essential album of edgy youth culture and a display of consummate record-making (thanks to producer Dr. Dre) and Eminem's inventive wordplay and delivery. But he's also been a lightning rod for criticism and controversy for violent, misogynist and anti-homosexual lyrics, and for personal and legal troubles, including weapons charges, which to some make him and his art indefensible.

So when the blue-ribbon panel charged with selecting the top categories' final five nominees from the 20 highest vote-getters meets later this month, the rhetoric could resemble that flying around Florida.

Although Eminem won Grammys in the last ceremony for best rap album (1999's "The Slim Shady LP") and rap performance, recognition in the overall album, song or record categories would constitute a much stronger endorsement.

"If he wins, there will be outrage," says Thomas O'Neil, author of the book "The Grammys." "A Grammy is not only the embrace of your music peers, but [recognition] that you're one of the industry's heroes. But he's also one of the industry's embarrassments."

Still, a bigger long-range controversy could be brewing. The most likely competition for the big awards is expected to come from the frothy teen-pop world of 'N Sync, 98 Degrees, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera--the very kind of act that has earned the Grammys a reputation for favoring safe, lightweight artists with little staying power over more cutting-edge artists. That, by and large, is one reason the committee system for big-category nominations was introduced in recent years.

"This could be a test of how edgy the 'new' Grammys are," says O'Neill. "If Eminem goes all the way, it can validate the assertion that they are right at the cutting edge. Even if the message is not responsible, he was a standout artist of the year."

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GRAMMY CONTENDERS: One reason we're even having this debate is a dearth of the kind of middle-ground candidates that have often swept the Grammys--like last year's honoring of veteran Carlos Santana for his guest-laden "Supernatural" album or such relatively newer, "hipper" figures of recent years as Alanis Morissette and Lauryn Hill.

This year, there's nothing of that sort picking up serious Grammy buzz. On paper, the Eric Clapton-B.B. King collaboration, "Riding With the King," was closest to recapturing the "Supernatural" appeal with Grammy voters, but insiders report that it never built any real momentum.

"We don't have that alternative, something like Santana who everyone respects, or like Lauryn Hill who is a little counterculture but still mainstream," says O'Neill.

Still, noting the committee system's role in nominating for best album relatively left-field entries such as Paula Cole, Diana Krall and Radiohead in recent years, insiders see a number of possible compromise candidates who could attract considerable support.

Heading the list is a figure once dismissed as pop fluff but now well-established as a worthy artist--Madonna. Her best pop album Grammy and best album nomination for 1998's "Ray of Light" were a breakthrough after being largely ignored through her career. Insiders see great potential for her "Music" album and single to be a serious player this time around.

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NUMBERS GAME: In an unusual move, concert trade publication Pollstar has been running an ad of its own asking music managers to pressure the SFX Inc. concert promotions firm to report ticket sales for use in Pollstar's regular tracking charts. SFX, which in recent years acquired many of the nation's major regional concert promoters and venues, had suspended the common practice of sharing such info.

Gary Bongiovanni, the publication's editor in chief, says that the campaign seems to be having some effect, with some SFX numbers coming in.

"I maintain that it's good for the business overall for everyone to know the marketplace reality," Bongiovanni says. "What SFX doesn't realize is that agents and managers use this information as much as concert promoters do [to plan tours]."

Booking agent Marty Diamond has been requesting that SFX report his acts' shows to Pollstar, resulting in submission of figures for English singer David Gray.

"Shows should be reported, and I was scratching my head as to why they wouldn't be," he says.

SFX Music Group Chairman Jack Boyle responds that it has been company policy to report shows if managers or agents ask. But for now, the Pollstar campaign will not cause a change in overall policy.

"We feel it is not in the best interest of SFX to report in general, and I don't really understand the big hubbub," Boyle says, noting that the information, provided free to Pollstar, is one of the magazine's biggest selling points. "And anyone in the business can find out anything they need to know anyway."

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