Steely Dan, the reclusive studio wizards who left the music scene for 20 years, won the best album award Wednesday at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards, but the duo’s long-awaited victory was overshadowed by Eminem, the firebrand rapper whose performance and nominations fed a yearlong furor over his lyrics.
Eminem won three Grammys in rap categories, but his “Marshall Mathers LP” was snubbed in the marquee best album category despite piling up huge critical and commercial success--a snub likely prompted by the roiling national debate about his lyrics and whether they represent envelope-pushing street art or loutish bigotry.
Ironically, if the famously conservative voters in the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences turned their backs on Eminem for controversial themes, they in turn embraced Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature,” an album that has songs presenting the first-person worldview of a pedophile and a comic account of a man lusting after his teenage cousin.
Irish rockers U2 had a surprisingly strong showing for the buoyant but wry “Beautiful Day,” which won record and song of the year--the latter category is the Grammy honoring songwriting--along with best rock performance by a group or duo. Lead singer Bono, sometimes chided for taking himself too seriously, playfully mocked that from the stage and also served notice that U2 is not ready to cede its lofty perch in the rock world.
“It’s a very unusual emotion I’m feeling right now. I think it’s called humility; I’m completely not used to it,” Bono said. “The whole year has been quite humbling. Going back to scratch, reapplying for the job. What job? The best band in the world job. There are a lot of people here tonight up for that job.”
U2 joined Steely Dan, Eminem and country singer Faith Hill as triple winners on the night, which saw a first in the gala’s history--there was no artist who was nominated for both record of the year and album of the year, illustrating the lack of a single dominating star in the spotlight a la Carlos Santana in 2000 or Lauryn Hill in 1999.
The high-drama point of the night came near the close of the three-hour global broadcast from Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles when Eminem performed “Stan,” the most critically acclaimed song from “Mathers.” He was joined by pop icon Elton John, a champion of the gay community whose endorsement of the rapper bewildered many in that community who see Eminem as anti-gay.
The sparse performance was peppered with several vulgar words and drew a standing ovation when, at the close, Eminem and John embraced and then clasped hands. John told The Times earlier this month that the rapper’s invitation to join him was “an olive branch” to gays. Predictions that some in the audience would boo did not materialize, just as the protest showing outside the arena was meager.
Accepting the award for best rap performance early in the show, Eminem addressed his critics in passing.
“What should I say first? I guess first of all I want to thank everybody who could look past the controversy and whatever and see the album for what it was--and also for what it isn’t,” Eminem said.
The best new artist award went to Shelby Lynne, a 32-year-old singer-songwriter whose album “I Am Shelby Lynne” mixes country twang with soulful stylings and follows a long struggle in Nashville to find a place for her music. As a youngster, the Alabama singer watched her father murder her mother and then turn the gun on himself--providing a harrowing and touching back story to her acceptance speech.
“Thirteen years and six albums to get here. . . . I would like to thank my parents for always stressing: Be an individual,” Lynne said. “And I stand here and represent nothing but music.”
Patience also served Steely Dan--the team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker--who have long been Grammy best album bridesmaids but never the bride for their jazz-minded, high-craft rock. The duo was nominated but lost in 1977 for “Aja” and four years later for “Gaucho.” Fagen had two solo albums receive nods in the category as well, “The Nightfly” in 1982 and “Kamakiriad” in 1993, only to be passed over again.
“These things tend to be cumulative awards for the course of a career,” Becker said backstage. “Just because we’ve been around so long, they had to give us something.”
Becker also admitted to being stunned by the honor, having expected Eminem to win in the face of the vast difference between the two acts in sales and radio play--Eminem had the second-best-selling album of 2000 and easily outsold all of the other best album nominees (Beck, Radiohead, Paul Simon, Steely Dan) combined.
Rap icon Dr. Dre, who produced key tracks on the “Mathers” album and enjoyed comeback success with his own “Dr. Dre-2001" album, became the first hard-core rapper to win the producer of the year Grammy. He also won for best rap performance by a duo or group for his partnering with Eminem on “Forgot About Dre.”
Eminem’s name and music were recurring themes all night, onstage and off.
Hours before the show, members of Radiohead told a local radio station they would “feel like George Bush” if their disc beat out the more deserving “Mathers.” Outside the gala, a grumpy Fred Durst of rap-rock band Limp Bizkit told a red carpet interviewer that he was already weary of the topic. And, backstage, electronic music star Moby blasted the Detroit rhymer for his content.
“I’m 33 and can see through it, but I can’t imagine that an 8-year-old in Idaho sees it as just a joke . . . and I find it deeply disturbing that people are lending him as much support as they do,” Moby said. “You cannot say there’s no correlation between people’s actions and what is seen and heard in popular culture. You can’t put out homophobic and misogynist and racist stuff and say it’s all a joke. It’s not.”
About 60 protesters, mostly from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, demonstrated quietly across the street from where guests’ limousines rolled up to Staples Center. The contingent easily was outnumbered by the press covering them.
“We’re here so that we don’t miss an opportunity to talk about bigotry and the escalation of bigotry to violence against women or gay men,” said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. “Eminem is not Lenny Bruce or Allen Ginsberg or Tupac Shakur, who was rallying against injustice and the war on drugs. This is old-fashioned bigotry.”
The eligibility period for the awards was Oct. 1, 1999, through Sept. 30, 2000. The academy has 12,000 voting members.
Times contributor Steve Hochman and Times staff writers Joe Mathews, Rachel Uslan and Dave Pierson contributed to this report.
Behind the Music: Pop critic Robert Hilburn’s analysis, a review of the show by Paul Brownfield and all the backstage color are featured in the Grammy coverage. A12-A14