At the 52nd Grammy Awards on Jan. 31, it’ll be kids’ night — at least by the staid standards of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
In past years, the Grammys have mixed it up with veteran acts facing off against relative newcomers for the big prizes, or vintage stars mingling with up-andcomers in cross-generational live performances. Who can forget the Jonas Brothers trying to get funky (or something like that) with Stevie Wonder on last year’s telecast?
As with the JoBros-Stevie train wreck, the old-timers usually get the better of the newcomers. Consider the most prestigious category: album of the year. Just in the last decade, the surprise winners have included Herbie Hancock for “River: The Joni Letters” in 2008, Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company” in 2005 and Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” in 2001. All of these great artists won for the wrong album; they should’ve been recognized decades sooner. Instead, they beat younger, more worthy competition with mediocre releases. When Hancock triumphed over the favored Kanye West and Amy Winehouse in 2008, awards presenter Quincy Jones said it all: “Unbelievable!”
But there’s no chance of a venerable insider usurping the pop upstarts this year because the major categories are dominated by relatively young artists who are either beginning their careers or in their commercial prime.
Two of this year’s album-of-the-year nominees (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift) are on their first or second albums, and the remaining three are coming off big commercial successes (Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, Dave Matthews Band). That these artists were nominated for the big prize in the same year as acclaimed but commercially flat new releases by Bob Dylan and U2 speaks volumes about the shifting mindset of the music-industry professionals in the National Academy of Recordings Arts and Sciences who vote on the awards.
Black Eyed Peas’ rapper-songwriter- producer will.i.am is no Dylan as a creative talent, but the two mega singles he oversaw in 2009, “I Got a Feeling” and “Boom Boom Pow,” sold more than 9 million digital downloads. Dylan can’t compete with those numbers, but in past years he might’ve been nominated simply because he happens to be Bob Dylan. Not so in 2010.
This year’s nominees suggest there’s more at work here than “artistic excellence,” which is what the academy claims to personify. For decades, the Grammys have been as much a television show as a music-industry fete, and ratings certainly play a role in how each year’s telecast is put together. Like the music industry itself, the numbers for the Grammy telecast have been slumping. Last year’s telecast drew19 million viewers, a10 percent increase from the previous year, but still way down overall — the Grammys attracted 30 million or more viewers until1994, and have been struggling to reach 20 million the last four years. Among the coveted18-to-49 demographic, the Grammys scored a 7.4 rating last year, a 14 percent boost from 2008 but still the third-lowest performance since1992.
So it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that the Grammys are loading up on young performers this year to attract the viewers the academy needs to put on a viable television show. All five best-album nominees are scheduled to rock the Staples Center in Los Angeles on the broadcast, and the hope is that millions of young viewers will tune in to watch Fergie strut, Lady Gaga warble and Dave Matthews jam.
And yet the mind-boggling number of nominations accorded Beyonce (10) and Swift (8) makes it sound as if the Grammys are taking this let’s-get-hip impulse too far. Ratings and behind-the-scenes political power plays are the only reasons to fathom how Beyonce’s “I Am ... Sasha Fierce” got the nod ahead of superior albums by Maxwell (“BLACKsummers’night”) and Kanye West (“808’s and Heartbreak”) in the best-album category.
The academy may have had its fill of West’s boorish awards-show behavior, but he’s still making great music, and “808’s” is one of those rare albums — deeply personal, artistically daring and commercially successful — that doesn’t come around that often.
As for Swift, she’s still pretty callow as a songwriter, the country-pop answer to Avril Lavigne or Nick Jonas. I don’t doubt that she has a solid career ahead of her, but the Grammy avalanche is too much too soon.
On the other hand, be careful what you wish for. Do we really want the Grammys to return to the days when they were handing out career awards to veteran performers while ignoring contemporary acts? This year’s nominations contained far fewer examples of such crusty nostalgia, but a few doozies still slipped past. Even Hall and Oates have to be wondering how they got nominated for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals for a live rendition of their1976 hit “Sara Smile.” Can the academy be serious when it tells us there weren’t five better pop vocal performances in 2008-09 than this quaint remake? As Quincy Jones would say, “Unbelievable!”