Clip: A different music award...
- October 31, 2002
It's the Prestige That Counts
By NEIL STRAUSS, NY TIMES
Members of the Neptunes, who have produced hits for Jay-Z, Britney
Spears, 'N Sync, No Doubt and Nelly, received a check for $3,000 on Oct.
29. Chances are that amount wouldn't be enough to cover the down
payment for the diamond on just one of the ears of the Neptunes member
Pharrell Williams. But nonetheless, Mr. Williams seemed ecstatic to receive
the money, saying that it was a dream come true. This is because it was
presented to N.E.R.D., the rock group started by the Neptunes, and was
part of the Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement, a new award that is
beginning to carry some prestige.
The prize is far from a household word like Grammy, but it is a long-overdue
idea, intended to recognize quality over quantity. Started last year as the
American equivalent of England's prestigious Mercury Music Prize, the
Shortlist Prize is awarded to the best album released in the past year with
sales under half a million. (The Recording Industry Association of America
certifies records as gold once half a million copies are distributed to
"I feel like this is a cavalcade of losers," said DJ Shadow during his set at
the awards ceremony at the Henry Fonda Theater here. Also performing
were N.E.R.D., the rapper Cee-Lo and a supergroup consisting of Iggy Pop,
two members of the Hives, the bassist Mike Watt and, taking a rare turn on
drums, the singer Pete Yorn. "We're like the people who couldn't go gold,"
DJ Shadow continued. "We're the best of the worst, y'all."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Shortlist Prize is the selection
process. A collection of artists and journalists are put together in a room,
where they eat dinner and discuss the music. It is a haphazard, random and
highly subjective process at best, but certainly yields more artistically
interesting results than the Grammy Awards.
Besides the N.E.R.D. CD "In Search of . . . ," in the running this year were
albums by Cee-Lo, the Icelandic singer Bjork, the Swedish rock band the
Hives, the psychedelic rock band the Flaming Lips, and the
electronic-music-oriented acts the Aphex Twin, the Avalanches, the Doves,
DJ Shadow and Zero 7. Among the judges were Iggy Pop, Jill Scott, Mos Def
and the director Spike Jonze.
"It's amazing to me how informed all the list makers were on all the music,"
said Tom Sarig, a founder of the event. "Jill Scott even had notes prepared
on the Hives."
Last year's meeting, participants said, was a tense one, breaking down
along racial lines and fiercely debating between two albums: one by the
rapper Talib Kweli, the other by the Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Ros,
This year's meeting was less antagonistic, though again the debate
narrowed to just two hotly contested albums. One was by the Avalanches,
which panel members, particularly Mos Def, admired for its rich, textured
and highly musical approach to sampling. The other was the N.E.R.D. album,
an impressive genre leap for the hip-hop producers the Neptunes and a
signpost pointing to a way out of the shrinking corner that contemporary
African-American music has painted itself into.
For some musicians, however, being critics was not necessarily an
enjoyable experience. "It wasn't too bad, but I'll never do it again," Iggy
Pop said. "It was like a parlor game where everyone reveals their
personality through music. I kept saying to myself through the whole thing,
`How did I get roped into this?' "
Next year, the Shortlist's founders plan to expand their scope and offer a
similar prize for fiction. "We want the Shortlist to be a trusted source for
cutting-edge recommendations about culture," said Greg Spotts, the other
founder of the organization.
Being yet another unknown institution offering awards, however, has its
drawbacks. When the founders were onstage preparing to announce the
winner, an audience member yelled, "Who cares?"
Taken aback, they asked the crowd, "Then what are you guys here for?"
The answer was resounding: "The music."
Nicknames Creep In
One nice thing about music fans is that they keep the pretensions of the
artists they love in check. Just ask the Beatles, Metallica or Led Zeppelin.
They tried to make albums without proper titles, but fans named them
anyway: "The White Album," "The Black Album" and, for Led Zeppelin, it was
a toss-up between "Led Zeppelin IV" and "Zoso."
Now that we are in the Internet age, this process is even more thorough.
On Tuesday, last year's Shortlist Prize winner, Sigur Ros, released its first
major-label American album. The band, which has a reputation for wanting
to do everything its own artsy way, decided to leave untitled not only the
CD but also all the songs. But fans attempting to play the record on their
computer using Real Player earlier this week received a strange surprise:
names appeared for all of the songs. Real Player has a service in which fans
type in the song titles on their CD's, which are then sent to a central
database so that anyone listening to music can see the track order.
They can see that the first track is titled "Vaka," after the drummer's son;
that the fifth is "Alafoss," after the band's studio; and that the last is "The
Pop Song," because it is probably Sigur Ros's idea of making populist music.
The band's music doesn't follow traditional song structures: it's fantastically
cinematic and spell-binding, best thought of as one step beyond
Radiohead's "Kid A."
But where did these song titles come from? Several representatives of the
band were contacted, and eventually it became clear that fans took the
names from the band's set lists. The names, it seems, are just the band's
working titles, so that they know what to play when performing live. Now,
it seems, the names are the working titles for record buyers also. A
spokesman for MCA said that Real Player had removed these song titles
from its database.
Things could be worse. Fans, seizing on the large cutout cover image that
looks like parentheses, refer to the album in writing as "( )," and a few
refer to it orally as "The Black Cheetos Album." Fortunately for the band,
only the symbol is currently appearing on Web sites.