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Herbie Hancock (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)
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With his Grammy Award for album of the year Sunday, Herbie Hancock joins a long list of venerated musicians who have won music’s biggest prize decades after releasing their best work.


Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” joins Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company” (which won in 2005), Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” (2001) and Tony Bennett’s “MTV Unplugged” (1995) in a dubious category: Right Artist, Wrong Year.


These awards honored career achievement more than they did artistic excellence or impact on the year in music. “River” is certainly a competent piece of work, but it’s far from Hancock’s best. There were at least a dozen hard-core jazz albums released last year that received far greater accolades from music buffs. From his classic solo album “Maiden Voyage” (1965) to his innovative meld of jazz, electro-funk and hip-hop on “Rockit” (1983), Hancock has done better work in the past. He’s won Grammys for some of his achievements, but never for album of the year; indeed, “River” was the first album by a jazz artist to win the top honor in five decades.


But “River” had several things in its favor. It was just enough (but not too much) jazz, so it shaded its pop overtures in a veneer of sophistication and class (the same reason that people like Sting and Norah Jones keep winning Grammys). It paired two artistic heavyweights in Hancock and Joni Mitchell, whose songs provided a template for the pianist’s arrangements. And it was up against a couple of favorites who really didn’t do much to ingratiate themselves to the staid National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the 18,000-member organization that annually votes on the Grammys.


The academy hates controversies, except when they can bring higher ratings to its nationally televised awards ceremony. And album-of-the-year front-runners Amy Winehouse and Kanye West did their part with dramatic performances on the telecast and juicy, tabloid-baiting back stories in the months leading up to it. There was Winehouse, the outlaw soul singer with a drug problem and an attitude. She got sprung from rehab just in time to perform on the Grammys, though she had to do it via satellite in London because of visa problems (imagine that). And then there was West, who has blasted the Grammys in past years for denying him album of the year, only to turn into a relatively sympathetic figure in recent months because of the tragic death of his mother and closest adviser, Donda West.


Love them or hate them, West and Winehouse brought a lot of sizzle to a show that normally drags, with academy big shots giving speeches and hopelessly mismatched performers gamely performing duets (Kid Rock and Keely Smith, anyone?). Winehouse was much improved over the fidgety, out-of-it performer who toured America last year before her health bottomed out. West dazzled with an over-the-top robot-rap set complemented by the helmeted French duo Daft Punk, then a stirring tribute to his mother.


But West’s reputation as a petulant egotist - deserved or not - hasn’t made him any friends at the academy and turned off many potential fans to the accomplishment of his music. Winehouse, too, has been elevated to celebrity status not by her music but by her wayward behavior off the stage and outside the recording studio.


So in giving its top honor to Hancock, the academy once again made the safe choice. It gave it to the nice guy steeped in respectable music, as a victory lap for a career well done. Award presenter Quincy Jones was stunned. Hancock’s jaw dropped. Nobody, least of all the winner, saw this one coming.


The award had immediate impact. “River” shot to No. 2 on the amazon.com popularity list the next morning (behind Winehouse). But is it really the album by which we will remember the year in music? Was it truly the embodiment of “artistic excellence” in 2007? That’s not even remotely true.


If the Grammys were looking for a revered artist to honor for a late-career triumph, they would’ve been better off choosing Mavis Staples’ “We’ll Never Turn Back.” Unfortunately, Staples’ album wasn’t even nominated - a huge oversight. It isn’t the first time the Grammys got it wrong.

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