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Going for Grammy gold

Music awards aren’t about money, academy president insists

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Contrary to what some people think, the four Grammy Award nominations given to extreme rapper Eminem have nothing to do with his album sales, according to Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

"The Grammys have never been about money," Greene said during a phone interview from his office in Santa Monica, Calif. "Yes, it did sell more than 8 million copies, but that's never been an issue with the Grammys. There are albums that have sold more than that and have never come close to us.

"The issue is the fact that Eminem's album ('The Marshall Mathers LP') is an important album because it features everything that most people don't like and still became very popular. It shouldn't have sold well, but it did. On the technical standpoint, the production by (fellow rapper) Dr. Dre is very good, and the lyrics and rhymes, no matter how offensive they are, are creative and sharp."

The world will get to see if Eminem pulls it off and wins the Album of Year Award when the Grammys are broadcast Wednesday, Feb. 21, on CBS, beginning at 7 p.m. Locally, KUTV-Channel 2 will air the show live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Eminem — also known as Slim Shady, and born Marshall Mathers — is up against old-school musicmakers Paul Simon and Steely Dan, for the Album of the Year Grammy. Beck and Radiohead are in the running as well.

Greene has been assaulted with questions and concerns about this year's Grammy Awards since the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced the 960 nominees in 100 musical categories.

Most of the criticism has come from such special-interest groups as the National Organization of Women and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which charge that Eminem's lyrics are obscene, hateful and condone homophobia and spousal abuse.

Greene said he understands their concerns.

"I can see the controversy," he said. "If I was a member of GLAAD or NOW, I would be upset. And the NARAS is working with those organizations in symposiums all this week to talk about issues of homophobia and misogyny. We are hoping to create a positive from the negative."

Although Eminem's lyrics and songs are disturbing, Greene said that's always been the nature of pop music.

"In the traditional sense, popular music has always taken issue with the status quo," Greene said. "It has always had issues with the far right — examples being Pete Seeger and the Weavers, the civil rights anthems and the exploitations of the war in Southeast Asia.

"Music has always addressed issues and drawn controversy. But this is the first year, at least that I can remember, where the criticism is coming from the more liberal of the groups."

All of the NARAS members are concerned about how Eminem is viewed, said Greene.

"But it's still no different than other artists who have been criticized in the past," he said. For example, Rap group 2 Live Crew was taken to task in 1990 for its 1989 album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," which was deemed obscene in Florida.

"There's also the idea that people feel less trepidation about attacking Eminem because he's Caucasian," Greene said. "He's a blond white punk who is singing about homophobia and misogyny. Unfortunately, there are some who feel he is out of place because he's white. Maybe that's overstating the issue, but it's possible."

Regardless of whether Eminem is white, black, orange or purple, he's still a very successful rapper. "He's doing exactly what he set out to do," Greene said. "He wanted to be controversial. He wanted to stir up things and he's laughing all the way to the bank."

But Greene added that there are two sides to the story. "There are still a lot of people who would argue that Em's performances are theater. He's like Lenny Bruce, who, at the end of each of his performances, would ask his audience if there was anyone he didn't (tick) off."

While the Eminem controversy is a major aspect of this year's awards show, Greene was also faced with other issues. "This year we have 100 categories. Last year it was 98. When I was first named president of the Academy in 1988, we only had 60-odd categories."

Then he added with a laugh, "I had threatened to retire when we hit the triple digits, but they won't let me."

The other concern is who will perform.

"We have 960 nominees to choose from and only 14 performance slots to fill," Greene said. "And we have to remember that we're not servicing a lot of the up-and-coming artists like we had in the past.

"With the exception of Ricky Martin a couple of years ago, we aren't breaking new talent. Back 20 years ago, there weren't many options for people to see music on TV. Now you turn on the TV in any given time and there are more than 15 channels that only show music videos."

As a result, Greene said, the academy has to be choosy. "We have a committee whose only job is to see that the performances that will be broadcast can be done successfully. We have to figure out how we can keep the Grammys important by giving the audience an entertaining, diverse, informative, multigenre show."

The Grammy broadcast, said Greene, is the only televised music awards show where the performers can't lip-sync.

"That helps us a little," he said about the choosing performing artists. "There are a lot of people who you would think should be on the show, but won't because they're terrified of holding a live microphone."

E-MAIL: scott@desnews.com