Grammys cover gloom with glitz

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The Independent Online
THERE HASN'T been much to celebrate in the American music industry recently, what with corporate restructuring, mass lay-offs and the looming threat of competition from the Internet. So there was only ever one way to stop last night's 41st Grammy awards ceremony, the industry's annual exercise in self-congratulation, from sinking into introspective gloom and doom: giving it a Hollywood-style makeover.

More than ever, there was a whiff of Oscar fever about the proceedings, with fashion designers falling over themselves to dress the stars, journalists hyping the event weeks in advance, organisers inventing yet more prizes in an event already groaning under the weight of more than 90 different categories, and record companies dreaming up ever cannier spin-offs including, for the first time, a "1999 Grammy Nominees" album being put out by CBS, the same media conglomerate that owns the television broadcast rights to the event.

After two straight years in New York, the Grammys even moved into one of the two Los Angeles home of the Oscars, the Shrine Auditorium. As with the Oscars, television advertisers forked out premium rates - up to half a million dollars for a 30-second slot - to capitalise on the expected vast audience figures.

As for the music, much of the advance excitement focused on Lauryn Hill, the hip hop singer and former member of the Fugees who led the pack with 10 nominations, including best new artist and album of the year for her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. In an awards ceremony usually dominated by middle-of-the-road, mainstream fare, Ms Hill's presence was being widely seen as a much-needed breath of fresh air. Her competitors in the best album category were Madonna for Ray of Light, Shania Twain for Come On Over, Sheryl Crow for The Globe Sessions, and Garbage - the US band fronted by Scottish singer Shirley Manson - for Version 2.0. Sheryl Crow was up for six awards and Madonna for five, suggesting it would be a good night for women artists all round.

Beyond the headline artists, however, the evening promised little in the way of innovation or true celebration of the new. Just the list of British artists up for awards - among them Eric Clapton, Sting, Elvis Costello and Boy George - looked awfully tired, a roster of past greats who in most cases are no longer producing their best work.

With other nominees including The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Buddy Guy, Etta James and B B King, one had to wonder if this was a contemporary music awards ceremony or some kind of Sixties and Seventies nostalgia trip.

One of the most widely praised albums of the year, Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road made only the nomination list in the Contemporary Folk category. Far more prominence was given to Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On, her ubiquitous anthem from the movie Titanic, which was up for three awards even though the film came out in 1997, not 1998.

Such conservatism reflects an industry that is growing ever more corporate and correspondingly less daring. In the past few weeks, a slew of well- known labels, including A&M, Geffen, Mercury, Island and Motown, have been swallowed up by the Universal Music Group, owned by the Canadian conglomerate Seagram.

More than 200 artists are expected to lose their contracts, and sacked executives fear that truly innovative new artists will be squeezed out by commercial pressures.