Originally Published: February 11, 2006 4 a.m.
Was his insolent claim that "George Bush doesn't care about black people'' the reason Kanye West didn't win the prestigious "Album of the Year'' and "Record of the Year'' awards he deserved at the Grammys the other night? That's just part of the story, I think, and we'll get back to it after we first survey the Big Picture.
I've always thought the Grammy Awards offered a better, more finely detailed portrait of the American zeitgeist than either the Oscars or the Emmys. The sheer profusion of recorded music that comes out in any given year thousands upon thousands of CDs and EPs and singles and downloads and ring tones gives the analyst far more data points to plot than the relative paucity of movies or television shows ever could.
So what did we discover Wednesday night? For one thing, we learned that "American Idol'' rules the known world. "Idol'' beat the Grammys head-to-head in the ratings, which means that viewers chose to watch fumbling amateurs over such legends as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Sly Stone (who, by the way, looked as if he'd been exhumed for the evening). The first "Idol'' winner, Kelly Clarkson, is now a Grammy winner as well. She got to perform, as did fellow "Idol'' winner Fantasia. "Idol'' judge Randy Jackson thumped away on bass during a tribute to the cadaverous Sly.
What this "Idol'' hegemony says about America whether it speaks of our great national optimism or heralds the final collapse of civilization depends on whether you've sipped the Kool-Aid.
We also learned that our society gives nothing away to China in venerating esteemed elders, with perhaps a few exceptions. When Madonna came out to open the show, my 15-year-old son turned and asked, "Who's that lady?'' a sad inadvertent echo of her 1987 movie, "Who's That Girl?''
But McCartney outrocked rockers young enough to be his grandchildren with a rowdy version of "Helter Skelter,'' and Springsteen's solo performance of the anti-war ballad "Devils & Dust'' was riveting. "Bring 'em home,'' he said at the end, turning a generic statement about war into a specific one about Iraq.
Now back to Kanye West, the hyper-talented rapper and producer whose album "Late Registration'' received eight Grammy nominations and praise from most music critics as far and away the best of the year. West ended up taking home three Grammys, but not the coveted "Album of the Year'' award.The same thing happened last year with West's acclaimed debut album, "The College Dropout.''
You will recall that last year, during a Hurricane Katrina telethon, West departed from the script and blurted out his now-famous line about Bush and black people. Even after seeing those images of poor, black survivors in New Orleans, it was startling to hear West say publicly what many others were thinking. Still, I don't think that was the only reason his album got snubbed.
When it's time to hand out Grammys, the Recording Academy, in its role as spokesman for the American subconscious, has always been reluctant to fully embrace hip-hop music and culture. As far as the subgenre of gangsta rap is concerned, that hesitance is understandable. The record industry is happy to sell the stuff by the truckload, but does anyone really want to give an official seal of approval to music that celebrates nihilistic violence? The current master of the form, 50 Cent, had nominations for three Grammys and got shut out. That whole scene is just a little too scary.
But West's vibe is preppie, not gangsta. His music is as cerebral as it is visceral, and the dangers it flirts with are intellectual and political. One song on "Late Registration'' is about the trade in so-called "conflict'' diamonds, which has fueled wars in developing countries such as Sierra Leone. Another song, called "Crack Music,'' basically says that whites invented crack cocaine and watched as the drug devastated black communities, but now blacks are turning the tables by selling gangsta music to rap-dependent white consumers.
"This dark diction has become America's addiction,'' the song goes. "Those who ain't even black use it. We gon' keep baggin' up this here crack music.''
West is cocky to the point of arrogance. At the Grammys, in his one televised trip to the podium for "Best Rap Album,'' he said the award was a surprise then ostentatiously unfolded a prepared speech with "THANK YOU LIST'' printed on the back in letters big enough for everyone to read.
So you can understand the Recording Academy's skittishness. A young black man who's smart, talented, political and uppity too? Now that's really scary.