So: Lady Antebellum wins five Grammys and sends Eminem home scowling with only two. How did that happen?
Here’s how: Lady Antebellum is the “Nixonland” candidate; part of the not-so-silent majority; this year’s stealth Taylor Swift; the voice of Middle America with a pretty, de-twanged sound that’s all about harking back to a “simpler” time.
How far back? Well, the Nashville country-pop trio’s name evokes nostalgia for a pre-Civil War, “Gone With the Wind” era, with romantic images of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, white-columned plantation houses, and, oh yeah, black slaves laboring in the cotton fields.
I don’t mean to demonize the band. I’m sure they’re nice people. But, really, I hate their name.
So how did they win all those awards, when supposed experts like myself predicted that it was obviously Eminem’s year and that maybe Cee Lo Green’s fantastic (and profane) pop song would get a little somethin’-somethin’ besides?
Easily. The Grammys like to think of themselves as daring and edgy, more Gaga than Antebellum, when it comes to their choice of Ladies. But while media attention was paid to Eminem’s impressive comeback and Cee Lo’s pop hit — referred to on the Grammys as “the song otherwise known as ‘Forget You’ ” — something got lost in the shuffle. East and West Coasters who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to country radio wouldn’t know it, but the album that led in sales for most of 2010 was Lady A’s “Need You Now.” It ultimately sold 3.09 million copies, second only to Eminem’s “Recovery,” which sold 3.42 million.
Lady A is being referred to as a “country-crossover” act in a lot of places. But that’s not nearly as true for them this year as it was in 2010 for Swift, who was that year’s big country-pop Grammy winner. Swift has an omnipresent, mainstream-pop, girl-next-door profile, but Lady A is largely a phenomenon of country radio.
If you stubbornly insist on thinking that “country” means Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard more than Kenny Chesney and Sugarland, then you probably don’t think Nashville slickers like Lady A have any business pretending to be part of the Hank Williams-Patsy Cline legacy.
But millions of people who listen to country radio — the nation’s most popular format — identify themselves as country fans, demographically and otherwise. And they proudly consider airbrushed Nashville pop acts like Lady Antebellum or the far more execrable Rascal Flatts to be “country,” even if they don’t sound that way to people who’d rather be keeping it real by listening to the Avett Brothers, as well as their old Louvin Brothers and Johnny Cash LPs.
Lady Antebellum’s big-win night was in some ways a function of the reactive marketing strategy that Nashville record exec and Garth Brooks promoter Jimmy Bowen delineated back in the early 1990s. Back then he said, “I hope rap keeps getting stronger and more violent, because it is sending me customers!”
That was during the rise of gangsta rap, now long past its prime. But understanding why Lady A won big Sunday night is a lot easier when you take into consideration the outsize characters who were supposed to beat the country trio for song and record of the year. Those competitors include a still-angry white rapper whose megahit about violently obsessive love, “Love the Way You Lie,” features fantasies of tying his girlfriend to the bed and setting the house on fire, and a soul singer who dressed up as a psychedelic Mummer to sing a super-infectious ditty called “F- You.”
Both of those songs would have been more-worthy winners than Lady A’s pining, palliative “Need You Now.” But both of those songs, for all of their popular acceptance, could still be construed as dangerous.
That plays into my “Nixonland” argument, a reference to Rick Perlstein’s fabulous 2008 sociopolitical history. It explains America’s red state-blue state culture war through the prism of Richard Nixon’s channeling of “silent-majority” resentment — which was set off by the cataclysmic social upheavals of the 1960s, and which still reverberates today.
We’re living in a reactive time, with the party of the first African-American president taking it on the chin in midterm elections and a conservative wind blowing through the land in a time of economic uncertainty.
I’m not going so far as to call Lady Antebellum the Grammys’ tea party candidates, because, God knows, the band’s music is much milder than that. Its sound is closer to Air Supply than Toby Keith. But in a field full of seemingly risky choices — as viewed by the conservative Recording Academy — Lady A took advantage of a divided electorate and emerged as the safe, surprise winner.
As for the Obama voters, they got their win in the form of jazz bassist and POTUS friend Esperanza Spalding, who shocked the world by beating out Justin Bieber et al. for Best New Artist. That was a choice reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s 2008 win for “The Joni Letters” as album of the year. Spalding is hardly an unknown, having been prominently featured in all sorts of august media outlets, and she has played everywhere from the White House to the Roots Picnic to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Stockholm.
Spalding has yet to fully mature as an artist, but she’s tremendously talented and classy and possesses both a bountifully photogenic Afro and one of the coolest names in showbiz. As a young star in the making — she’s 26 and was an instructor at the Berklee College of Music at 20 — she made Grammy look good, even as she apparently enraged true Beliebers enough to move them to sabotage her Wikipedia page in hormone-addled cyber-vandalism Sunday night.
Now, if only I can figure out how Arcade Fire managed its (much-deserved) upset for Album of the Year over Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum, I’ll be sure to let you know.