The bigwigs and celebrity superstars will gather Wednesday, as they always do, intending to praise those who in the last year made important contributions to the art of recorded music. Yet that voting body — the more than 8,000 artists, producers, songwriters and creative executives who take part in the Grammys' two-stage nominating process (a qualifying round and final round) — will end up mostly praising those who were better than the rest at selling their recorded music.
That's because a percentage of the voters, who include musicians in oft-recorded symphony orchestras, may not exactly be up to speed on popular culture. Inevitably, some make choices based on name (should that be brand?) recognition, ignoring more explosive talents operating below the Entertainment Tonight radar during the eligibility year that runs October to October.
The Recording Academy has had trouble in this regard for years: Its members were famously slow to acknowledge the Beatles, and several embarrassing years late embracing hip-hop (the first hip-hop Grammy, awarded to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, arrived in 1988, fully nine years after the Sugarhill Gang's smash "Rapper’s Delight.")
The Academy attempted to address these irregularities in the '90s, by adding "screening" committees made up of experts in specific genres. The select groups have one mission: To nominate the work in each field that accurately reflects the state of the art. While the committees have helped align Grammy nominations with reality to some degree, the final winners are still decided by the large pool.
This favors a name like Mariah Carey, who comes into the sweepstakes holding eight nominations (including "Album of the Year") for The Emancipation of Mimi, an imagination-free exercise in hit-song boilerplate. Carey is this year's embodiment of another favorite Grammy theme — the comeback. The pop-R&B diva has endured a rough stretch of commercial disappointment in recent years, capped most overtly by her horrid 2001 feature film Glitter. The 5-million-selling Mimi has been appraised by critics as a competant return to form. However, in reviews, even favorable ones, it has not been characterized as any kind of groundbreaking statement, or even a consistently joyful listening experience.
Yet here it is, up for "Album of the Year." This should be alarming. Paul Simon's ambitious Graceland was an "Album of the Year." Stevie Wonder's massive Songs in the Key of Life was an "Album of the Year." Mimi? Talk about moving the goalposts: By including it among the top five finalists, the industry is basically saying that anyone who hires the approved producers and assembles suitably glossy tracks in a generally tuneful fashion deserves a shot at the high shelf, alongside the Stevie Wonders.
Mimi as a potential "Album of the Year" says many things, among them that there are now at least two music industries. One is devoted to the Business Music, the high-volume titles that require millions of promotional dollars to cultivate that aura of hotness. ("And the award for best marketing campaign resurrecting a damaged celebrity goes to... Mariah Carey!")
Below that, on a tier disturbingly less reflected in the nominations, is the Music Music, populated by artists who thrive by word of mouth and hard touring and old-fashioned audience-comes-first thinking.
These parallel tracks have their own delivery systems and their own constituencies. Only one has an awards show. That leads to all sorts of distortion and twisted doublethink. The Grammy-nominated title may not be beloved by or even known to those consumers of Music Music, just as some obscure indie-rock band that made a big splash remains safely out of the view of Grammy voters.
Sometimes it seems the awards go to the records that are most effectively marketed. You saw it last year, when the posthumous Ray Charles Genius Loves Company duet album, already a sizeable hit, was voted "Album of the Year." All respect is due the late trailblazer, but that award smells like a sympathy vote. Not many music obsessives, or even Grammy voters, could now stand up and argue for that record as the year's defining work. Meanwhile, recordings that offered provocative ideas about sound and structure — Radiohead's Hail to the Thief or Green Day's acerbic American Idiot, to name two — were passed over.
Artists Ultimately Hurt
Everybody suffers in this paradigm, but none more than the new artist who was unknown a year or two before and suddenly finds herself crowned the "Shining Hope." The industry needs a fresh face, like John Legend's, to create a Grammy-night storyline; the stack of nominations pulls him deep into the Business Music matrix whether he wants to be there or not. But from a long-term perspective, the best thing for Legend as an artist might be to take his decent but less-than-awe-inspiring blend of hip-hop beats and old soul singing out of the spotlight long enough for more refinement. Maybe even some introspection. The stack of nominations and, perhaps, awards may serve only to launch his career into an arc of high flight and quick burnout, setting him up to follow the Alicia Keys (or was it Alanis Morissette?) trajectory right into subsequent irrelevance.
Awards shows are a way for those who are involved in an artform to hold up a few documents and say to the world: We recognize this as the best of what we do, this is the work that has awed and astounded us.
The nominations for this year's Grammy Awards do that sometimes, particularly in the specialized categories. But more often, the choices glorify the merely competent, the safe and sellable — rarely acknowledging the contributions of those in the less glitzy realms of Music Music, where creative record-making thrives. That's just wrong. Even if the Grammys are, as some critics suggest, just a marketing vehicle, the mission of the awards is to celebrate peak achievement. Not to help prop up or justify the craven lowest-common-denominator thinking of the increasingly desperate Business Music sector.
Or, to put it another way: Can anyone who believes in music take the Grammys seriously if The Emancipation of Mimi turns out to be the best that "music's big night" has to offer?