Thanks largely to a few flukes, the Grammy Awards had an awfully good 2012.
Last February's televised extravaganza was a major success for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). It was the highest-rated Grammys since the 1980s heyday of Michael Jackson, boosted by two women who need no surnames: Whitney and Adele.
The former, Ms. Houston, met a sad fate the very weekend of the awards, leading to a posthumous Grammy-night tribute that spurred millions of viewers to tune in. The latter, Ms. Atkins, walked off with six trophies for a poignant collection of songs that garnered rare agreement between critics, industryites and the public.
This week, the Recording Academy rolled out its new slate of nominees, and as Grammy rosters go, it's a respectable slate, albeit exceedingly male. In particular, in the marquee Album of the Year category, all five competitors are guys or groups of guys:
- Frank Ocean, the post-hip-hop R&B vocalist with shades of Marvin Gaye, for channel ORANGE, currently dominating critics' year-end polls; he's the only non-rocker in the category.
- fun., the New York band whose Some Nights spawned two huge pop-crossover hits: the post-emo "We Are Young" and the Queen-manqué title track.
- The Black Keys, whose El Camino dropped in December 2011, too late for last year's Grammy calendar; a song by them is playing in a bar near you right now.
- Mumford & Sons, whose sophomore disc Babel racked up the second-biggest sales debut by any album this year (after Taylor Swift).
- Jack White, finally solo after a decade in The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, for his Blunderbuss.
Okay, a total dude-fest — but not bad, right? A little hip, a little pop, meeting the critics halfway, no outright howlers.
Well, we should probably enjoy this moment, because it's the last time we're likely to feel charitable toward the Grammys for a while. Now those pesky voters get involved.
How NARAS's rank-and-file vote is the one piece of the Grammy puzzle that the Academy godfathers can't do much to improve. This must frustrate them, because since the mid-1990s they've fixed a lot of what used to rankle about the awards throughout their 55-year history.
Over the last decade, the Grammy telecast, unexpectedly, has become the most reliably entertaining awards show on TV. That's admittedly a fairly low bar, as the Oscars struggle with their hosting problem; and the MTV Video Music Awards continue their slow evolution from coolest televised party to total drag, celebrating videos no one can see on TV. Somehow, perhaps by default, the Grammy telecast has become a compelling annual variety show, with live performances that generally put the Superbowl halftime show to shame, interrupted by only around a dozen trophies.
The problem is who walks away with them. Since the mid-1990s, nominating committees of experts have sifted through the eligible recordings to arrive at a decent slate of nominees (a system that is possibly corrupt and certainly not foolproof). Once the vote is thrown to the thousands of NARAS members, however, they often home in like a middlebrow-seeking missile on the dullest music on offer.
In 2007, given a choice between widely acclaimed and mainstream-friendly albums by Amy Winehouse and Kanye West, Grammy voters bestowed Album of the Year on a culturally irrelevant collection of Joni Mitchell covers by long-past-his-prime jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In 2003, with the Record of the Year category sporting the two best pop singles of that year (indeed, two of the best of the decade), OutKast's "Hey Ya!" and Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," NARAS gave the little gramophone to Coldplay's "Clocks."
Even when NARAS voters reward good music, they may do it for the wrong reasons. Arcade Fire's upset win in Album of the Year for 2010's The Suburbs looks like a triumph for independent music, until you consider that it was the only rock album in the category that year. Presented with Lady Gaga's best album (The Fame Monster) and a culturally dominant comeback by Eminem (Recovery), Grammy voters opted instead for the nice folks with instruments.
Looking ahead to what NARAS voters will do with this group of nominees, therefore, is an exercise in setting one's expectations low.
With the telecast more than two months away, it's a bit soon to make predictions category by category. Still, we can run down a few themes for the big prizes, considering both Grammy history and the tendencies of the average NARAS voter.
Forget a sweep. Every year, I warn friends to pay no attention to headlines about Grammy nomination totals — it's a meaningless metric. For one thing, there are examples across Grammy history of heavily nominated acts going into the big night and winning little; for 2001, R&B singer India.Arie (remember her?) arrived at Grammy night with an eye-catching seven nominations and left with no statues.
My ignore-the-numbers advice is less apt this year, since six acts scored six nods apiece: fun., Ocean, the Black Keys (including one nod for singer/producer Dan Auerbach), and the Mumfords, plus Kanye West and Jay-Z. In short, there will be no Adele this year.
Only one of these acts, fun., scored nods in all four marquee categories: Album, Song and Record of the Year, plus Best New Artist. This is a rare feat that has prompted speculation that fun. are not only the dark horse, but could pull off a top-of-the-ticket sweep. The only act ever to achieve that feat was Christopher Cross, in 1980.
It's highly improbable for fun. to pull that off, not least because they don't have the kind of deep industry backing that a well-liked former session man like Cross had. Moreover, as veteran chart-and-award expert Paul Grein reports, of the eight other acts to score this foursome of nods in Grammy history, more than half only took home Best New Artist — the "attagirl" consolation prize of high-achieving Grammy debutantes. The five artists who went one-for-four were all solo women: Bobbie Gentry, Cyndi Lauper, Tracy Chapman, Mariah Carey and Paula Cole. The all-male trio fun. doesn't have much in common with these ladies, but given this year's competition in the Album, Song and Record categories, Best New Artist may be their best shot.
Pure pop continues to face an uphill battle. The Grammy nominating committee has thrown plenty of strong, straight-up pop songs into the marquee Record and Song of the Year races this year (the former category rewards a recording, the latter songwriters). Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" is up for Song. So is Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger," which is also up for Record. Gotye's mega-smash ballad "Somebody That I Used to Know," widely expected to be named Billboard's top song of 2012 next week, is up for Record. And 21-year-old British star Ed Sheeran — who straddles pop balladry and singer-songwriter folk — makes an unlikely appearance in Song with his acoustic ballad "The A-Team."
In a just world, given their cultural dominance and all-around excellence, Jepsen's summer smash would take the Song statue, and Record would go to either Clarkson's sharp chart-topper or the undeniable Gotye record. But much like a Best Picture Oscar nominee with no Best Director nod to match, you can tell by these nominees who's doomed.
Jepsen's omission in the Record category is nonsensical; as superb a composition as "Call Me Maybe" is, it's an even greater recording, the most flawlessly constructed pop confection so far this decade. Jepsen's absence in the Best New Artist category is also a bad sign for her chances in Song. Gotye's support is equally wobbly — no Song or New Artist nominations, although his Making Mirrors does make the list for Best Alternative Music Album, a strange place for what is essentially an eclectic pop album. And Sheeran appears in no other Grammy category but Song.
Clarkson is in the stronger (ha) position, with nominations in both marquee song categories. She could well take one of the prizes, but NARAS tends to prefer ladies in the big categories to be singing torch songs ("Rolling in the Deep," "Need You Now"), not uptempo jams like Clarkson's. They also have a habit in the big song categories of seeking out something with guitars on it, pop culture be damned — these are the folks who, for 2008, passed over pop smashes by Leona Lewis and M.I.A. and went instead with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's "Please Read the Letter." This year, don't be surprised if voters go with, say, the Black Keys' "Lonely Boy" or fun.'s "We Are Young" (the latter, to be fair, a huge pop hit), if only to avoid that dirty pure pop.
Mumfords don't necessarily have it in the bag. In 2011, English folk-rockers Mumford & Sons made their debut at the Grammys — as a performer, joining Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers in a tribute to acoustic music.
Never has such a small showcase had such a big effect. The week after, the Mumfords' year-old Sigh No More album, which didn't take home a single award, shot into Billboard's Top 10 and stayed there for weeks, peaking at No. 2 and eventually going double-platinum. It was arguably the biggest Grammy sales boost ever for a non-winning performer. (Only Latin superstar Ricky Martin, after a triumphant 1999 showcase that preceded his English-language debut, could be said to have done better at the show via a performance — and even he did take home a Grammy that night, for Latin Pop Album, even though that win was largely forgotten.)
By the time of last year's nominations, the Mumfords' Sigh No More was too old to qualify; and while its single "The Cave" managed to score some nominations, it fell in the Record and Song categories to the Adele juggernaut and lost in the rock categories to the likes of Foo Fighters, a Grammy favorite with newer material out.
It's mystifying that this band, for whom the term "Grammy bait" was invented, have no gramophones on their mantel. This year, however, Mumford & Sons have their highest-ever Grammy profile: six nods, including Album of the Year for Babel. That nomination was a foregone conclusion, as the band's label released the album in late September, literally days before the Grammy cutoff date. They were rewarded with one of the largest sales weeks of the year.
So: game over, right? Grammy-bait act drops Grammy-bait album, sells a pile, and Grammy voters line up to punch their ticket? It probably doesn't even matter that critics' responses to the album have been less than rapturous, ranging from respectful to scornful.
But I wouldn't start engraving the Mumfords' statuette just yet. Again, Grammy voters had several opportunities to reward them last winter, and they chose to give Dave Grohl more tchotchkes instead. Also, keep in mind that Album of the Year is drowning in guitars.
To make it across the tape in this category, the Mumfords will have to get past Jack White and the Black Keys, two acts more overdue for an Album of the Year win than the Mumfords are. White took home Best Alternative Music Album three times with the White Stripes — typically acts that dominate a genre album category are primed to take home a big prize later. The Black Keys are even heavier favorites; one of singer Dan Auerbach's six nominations is for Producer of the Year, thanks to his work on New Orleans legend Dr. John's latest album this year. That depth of NARAS appreciation, coupled with the band dropping its biggest-selling and most acclaimed album seven discs into its career, means it could be the Keys — not the Mumfords — who wind up as the biggest winners and the dark horse in several categories.
Of course, we could see a White-Keys blues-rock split vote, which would clear the field for a Mumfords win. Or all three of those rock-radio-friendly acts (plus fun.) could cancel each other out, clearing the field for ...
Frank Ocean: How he could win. The press is certainly in love with Ocean, a sometime member of the rap collective Odd Future who has charted his own path since 2011. Starting with a well-received mixtape, expanding into songwriting with credits on Beyoncé's last album, and turning in vocal performances on Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, Ocean finally established himself in 2012 with channel ORANGE, his formal album debut.
What really garnered him headlines, however, was his revelation in a letter shared with fans just before the album that he'd fallen in love with a man. This admission of a same-sex relationship, so rare in the worlds of R&B and hip-hop, not only didn't alienate listeners, it may well have galvanized them into buying Ocean's album. Despite the lack of a big radio hit, channel ORANGE debuted at No. 2 in July.
It's exactly the kind of story the Grammys love — artistry coupled with good liberal politics (plus sales). That's what gave the Dixie Chicks a sweep of the major categories for 2006 with their Taking the Long Way album and "Not Ready to Make Nice" single — neither one the group's best work, but politically relevant, following their shunning by right-wing pundits and country radio in 2003 after Natalie Maines's dis of President Bush.
Ocean remains the lowest-seller of the five acts in the Album of the Year category. But if the four rockers cancel each other out, and the Recording Academy's sense of mission kicks in a la the Chicks a half-decade ago, Ocean could be the man walking up to the podium at the very end of February's telecast.