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Grammy Got Run Over . . .

On the state of the Recording Academy, and how to save it

By John Brodeur

Oh my gawd, did you guys see the Grammy nominations show last Wednesday? What a spectacle! So many stars, and so much great music! I’m so excited for the Grammys now! The music industry is saved, I tell ya!

But seriously, yuck. What a mess.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, much like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, loves to bend over backwards to kiss its own ass. But the Oscars manage to imbue their proceedings with so much more class, and dignity—for instance, it’s unlikely you’ll see the Oscar noms stretched out into an hour of prime-time television, and certainly not an hour as god-awful as what we saw last Wednesday.

The CBS broadcast of the first-ever Grammy Nominations Concert Live was the Academy’s preemptive salve after making some world-class blunders (I predicted Herbie Hancock would win last year, but I still can’t believe it actually happened) and experiencing plummeting ratings in recent years. It wasn’t such a bad idea, in theory—people generally like music, and there’s reasonable evidence that they’re even still willing to pay for it. But the execution of this thing . . . oy.

First of all, what was the point of having these “prestige” artists—in quotes because it refers to folks like Taylor Swift and the Foo Fighters—perform other artists’ songs? For starters, that meant Mariah Carey’s show-opening Christmas tune was not her own, excellent “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but a half-hearted slog through Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It’s a great song, sure, but if we’re celebrating the miracle of record sales, why not let the woman sing what is widely regarded as one of the only decent modern holiday songs, a tune that has made the Billboard charts no less than seven times since its 1994 release? Just a remarkably baffling choice.

Also baffling: Foo Fighters’ version of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” As the folks at Idolator.com pointed out, why bother if you’re not going to outdo Faster Pussycat’s late-’80s version? And it couldn’t have hurt them to practice the song a few times—here’s a band that supposedly went on hiatus in September, and they played like it. Woof.

The viewers don’t lie: For a show that was, presumably, intended to boost interest in the Grammys, the show did little to even gather interest in itself. It placed fourth in the ratings for its time slot, dropping more than 4 million viewers from the reliable lead-in of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. How do you fuck up Rudolph?!

Grammy president Neil Portnoy should know—he’s been fucking it up for years. People don’t care about music, not in this way. Like I said, there are still plenty of music fans, but they want something they can connect with. The music world in 2008 is about the relationship between the artist and the fan, not about plastic fantastic superstars like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. Carey barely has a relationship with herself, let alone the public. (And did they really get Dion to sing a Janis Ian song? How is that interesting to anyone?) At least the Jonas Brothers seem to have some amount of pull with the kids, though their record sales don’t quite reflect the level of their seeming popularity.

This is all very unfortunate because the Recording Academy seemed to be making a play for relevance with this year’s nominations. That is to say, the rather stodgy Academy we’ve come to know and ignore tried to hip itself up by honoring some new blood alongside some of their go-to picks.

I believe my response to the announcement that M.I.A.’s Pineapple Express-boosted hit “Paper Planes” was nominated for Record of the Year was, verbatim, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” It’s quite possibly the coolest thing to ever happen in the category. Despite critical consensus about its brilliance, her album Kala was ignored by the Academy (and the public at large) last year; but “Planes” was a bona fide hit this summer, and it stands a chance of being the only Grammy-winning song to substitute gunshots for lyrics. Unfortunately, this is a producer’s award, so the Academy will miss out on a chance to hand out post-mortem awards to the members of the Clash, whose “Straight to Hell” is sampled for the song’s eerie music bed. But anyone who gives the song better than longshot odds at a win is fixing to lose their shirt.

Then there’s Coldplay. With seven nominations total, second in number only to Lil Wayne, this looks like it could be their big year for a sweep. They won this category with “Clocks” in 2004, and while “Viva La Vida” isn’t as good of a song, it’s got the whole iTunes ubiquity going for it. (Plus, there was no U2 record to nominate this year.)

But Coldplay are developing a bit of a reputation for blurring the line between homage and plagiarism: Their 2005 single “Talk” bit its entire melody from Kraftwerk, and now guitar hero Joe Satriani has filed a lawsuit charging the band with ripping “Vida” off his own “If I Could Fly.” The songs are unmistakably similar—the YouTube video that plays the two songs over one another is pretty damning—but we’re talking about pop music here. There’s a significant possibility that Chris Martin and company never heard Satriani’s song (has anyone?), and the melody is just simple enough to have been “imagined” by two different artists existing on two different musical planes. Still, odds are the lawsuit, whether or not Satriani is victorious, will hurt their chances for a 1-2-3 punch.

That leaves Adele, a dark horse in the major categories as her record hasn’t really broken in the States (a Best New Artist win is probable), and Leona Lewis’ gigantic “Bleeding Love,” which would be the safest bet here: The Academy is looking for a new diva, and Lewis could be her. Plus, this track sold like crazy, and they’re out to prove that music can still be sold, right? That explains the eight noms for Lil Wayne, who’s Tha Carter III turned over a milli in its first week, and should be expected to do a bang-up job the rap categories—though it will likely be snubbed in the Album of the Year race. (The Academy hates rap music, after all.)

But then there’s the phenomenon known as Raising Sand, the hit collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. It’s Grammy bait, as they say—in fact, its lead single already collected a statue last February. The album has a serious shot in any category its nominated in: Grammy loves “teamwork” (we all know the Herbie Hancock record won last year for its guest appearances); Grammy loves Krauss (she’s the biggest female winner in Grammy history); Grammy loves when artists try something “new” (though for Plant to sing something blues-based isn’t exactly new); and Grammy wants to atone for never giving anything to Zeppelin in their day. So expect a lot from this one on Feb. 8, including an Album of the Year win. (It would be nice to see Radiohead’s In Rainbows take it, but since the album’s Internet release last October was a subversion of the “system,” I doubt the voters will be so kind.)

A few other observations: Coldplay could sneak in for Song of the Year, but I’d put my chips on Estelle’s buoyant Kanye West collaboration “American Boy,” which could serve as a backhanded way to give West the major award he’s wanted so badly (and should have won with Late Registration in 2006). Death Cab for Cutie scored an unlikely Best Rock Song nom for “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the longest song nominated in that category’s 16-year history. (Springsteen will win here because he always does—he’s got three wins in this category already.) And Al Green nabbed a handful of R&B-field nominations for his ?uestlove-produced throwback Lay It Down, and if there really is a God, he’ll make sure the Reverend wins all three—if for no other reason than to beat out the nominated track by Wayne Brady.

Still, the Academy showed their true colors in a lot of the picks—for instance, witness the Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance category, where such grizzled vets as Eddie Vedder and John Mayer will face off against bright new faces like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney. What’s the point in choosing, even?

It all doesn’t matter if nobody’s watching, and the Academy desperately needs a good year. So how to fix the Grammy show? How about making the telecast about music people actually pay attention to: Put all the popular/populist stuff (rock, rap, pop, country, alternative) on television, and relegate all the opera and jazz stuff to the pre-telecast ceremony. Nothing makes the channel surfers hit the tide quicker than a 10-minute gospel medley, regardless of whether Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin is singing it.

In short, give the people what they want—and maybe let them have a say, too. Shouldn’t the people who buy the records have some input as to who wins? What would be so bad about introducing a People’s Choice Grammy? I’ll bet you John Mayer wouldn’t win that.

Also, never do that nominations show again. That sucked.

The 51st Annual Grammy Awards air Feb. 8, 2009, on CBS.


ROUGH MIX

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1 @yahoo.com or metroland@metroland.net.



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