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By Dave Chamberlain

JANUARY 25, 1999:  In a grand example of synchronicity, the Grammy nominations were announced at the same time in both Chicago and Los Angeles, the former taking place in the offices of the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the latter at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

While the Los Angeles press conference featured the likes of Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Zombie, Chicago's nominee announcers were a tad lower in profile. Kurt Elling (nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Performance with "This Time It's Love"), Jeff Tweedy (photo, whose Wilco collaboration with Billy Bragg, "Mermaid Avenue," caught a nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album), Otis Rush (nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album with "Any Place I'm Going") and Paul Wertico may be big time here, but compared to Magic, Zombie and Wyclef? Where's Michael?

In a press conference that lasted all of twenty minutes, various artists and Board Governors walked up to the podium and flatly read the names of select nominees. While giving some focus to the local nominees, time was allotted to read aloud the heavies, the classics, the real artists. Fantastic, integral-to-society artists like Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Brandy and Monica. You know, the greats. The sure-fire winners.

In a surprising reach toward actual quality music, the leader of the nominee pack wasn't Celine or Madonna or Garth, but instead Lauryn Hill, who culled ten nominations. But keeping a foot thoroughly entrenched in the crapper, Hill is followed by Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain with six nominations each, and Madonna with five.

The winners won't be announced until the sure-to-be-epic-length 41st Grammy Awards on February 24, and judging by the length of the final nominee list (fifty-five pages, twenty-seven categories), we won't get a chance to see - except in a spitfire fast, "these people also won" segment - winners from anything other than the categories that appeal to the lowest common denominators.

That's too bad, because the potential for one of television's (and music's) greatest moments rests on page ten, category seventeen, Best Metal Performance. There's Judas Priest, Metallica (sufficiently lame to be the smart money, if you're the betting sort), Rage Against the Machine, Rammstein (?!), and lastly, Nashville Pussy. If there is a divine being, it will allow us to see a typical presenter, say, Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, announce in stilted, cue-card fashion: "And the winner for Best Metal Performance is... ahem. Um. 'Fried Chicken and Coffee' by - um, well - Nashville - um - Pussy. From - ahem - 'Let Them Eat Pussy.'"

To the Academy's credit, once past the big-time categories like Album, Record and Artist of the Year, credible artists who actually add something to the art of music are relatively well represented. Unfortunately, one is forced away from the Rock and Pop categories to find that quality. The five nominees for Best Rap Performance (Busta Rhymes, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, Wycleaf Jean and Will Smith) represent a good middle section from high-profile hip-hoppers. Same for Best Rap Album (Big Punisher, Jermaine Dupri, Jay-Z, Mase and A Tribe Called Quest).

Worth noting, however, is the problematic Beastie Boys. In the music world, despite the fact that they are white, the Beastie Boys are a hip-hop act, hands down. Thus, their nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for "Intergalactic" makes sense. All logic goes askew when one spies the record from which that song hails, "Hello Nasty," on the nomination list for Best Alternative Record.

This is difficult to reconcile. If a hip-hop record is both rap and alternative, then that means everything that isn't pop is alternative. And no doubt the remaining nominees in the Best Alternative category (Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Radiohead and The Smashing Pumpkins - all of whom have the record sales to qualify as pop and none of whom are the least bit alternative, unless alternative is defined as really popular music that sounds like everything else), would be crushed by the competition if lined up against everything in the nominee list that isn't rock or pop. Or are the Beastie Boys allowed to jump categories because their brand of hip-hop is bought (en masse) by suburban white kids, while OutKast and Pras remain decidedly urban?

The post-press-conference scene eerily unfolds like that of a post-game report in the locker room of the winning team. Local reporters hop to ask questions of Chicago's local nominees, the answers to which are forced to mirror the inane level of the questions. "How do you feel about being nominated" one reporter asks Jeff Tweedy. What the hell is supposed to say? "Well, Greg, I guess it feels great, though, to me, winning a Grammy is about as important as Kenyan politics." Instead, he answers with what the reporter wants to hear, wants to write. What else can he say? After all, on February 24, he gets to hang with Celine.

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