Column: Grammys should focus on talent, not profit

By Matt Carney

Oklahoma Daily, U. Oklahoma via UWIRE

If you’re of the belief that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is living up to its website overview’s claim to “honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position,” then I strongly recommend a brief scan of this year’s Grammy nominations.

Yes, those treasured golden gramophones are getting doled out Sunday night, sure to return to the usual clutches of the undeserving and profit-minded: once-talented megastars (Eminem, Kings of Leon), teen sensations (Katy Perry, the cast of “Glee”, Justin Bieber), dinosaurs of rock (Robert Plant, Neil Young) and John Mayer (seriously, John Mayer is like the evil Lord Sauron of the Grammys— it’s like they’re trying to return to their master).

The academy is resistant to modernity, bent upon spectacle and a general menace to any “product” unlikely to rise above the bottom line. In a time when buzz bands are discovered, emerge and flare out online in mere months, the academy just sits back and judges “excellence” by the profits that roll in when they ought to be in search of an original band or sound.

Here are a few brief examples of their ineptitude before we dive into my predictions for this year’s winners.

Resistant to modernity

Had Kanye West chosen to unveil his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” two months later, Big Boi’s progressive production “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” would’ve claimed the honor of Best Rap Album of 2010 in my book. It would’ve achieved the same feat in any of the three years preceding 2010 as well, during which Jive Records (owned by Sony Music Entertainment) refused to promote the record on the grounds that it wasn’t radio-friendly.

The collaboration with OutKast band mate André 3000 and Raekwon, “Royal Flush,” was torpedoed as an ‘Internet single’ and the whole project was delayed for years, denying people the joy of listening to “Shutterbugg” (which charted at No. 20 in this country) and the smooth Gucci Mane collaboration’s “Shine Blockas.”

Bent upon spectacle

It only took eight years and a sold-out Madison Square Garden show before the academy invited Arcade Fire, who have been performing the hell out of “Wake Up” in tiny clubs since 2003, to play the Grammys this year alongside Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and others.

They’re the biggest spectacle in popular music right now, regardless of their relation to the mainstream. Their music is certainly substantive, though the same can’t be said for Katy Perry, whose catalogue of music glistens and shines like a lollipop wrapper that, when removed and tasted, proves to be a confection so rotten with clichés that you can’t help but reach for the nearest bristled object to scrape it off your tongue. Strip her of her makeup, elaborate stage setups and choreography and she’ll resemble any college girl who rolled out of bed, as comedian Russell Brand recently proved by tweeting an unflattering wake-up shot of her.

Menace to art

“I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” Jeff Tweedy sang on “Reservations,” from on Wilco’s 2002 aching opus “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Other lyrical masterstrokes on “Foxtrot” are similes that belong with the best in modern American literature (“let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers”) and wonderful wordplay (“I’m not gonna get caught callin’ the pot, kettle black”).

Tweedy struggled with depression and drugs recording “Foxtrot” but his greatest conflict was with Reprise Records (owned by Warner Music Group), which refused to release the record on grounds that it was just too bizarre, eventually signing the rights over to the band to ward off the enormous amount of negative press they received for it.

Tweedy signed with the smaller Nonesuch Records and subsequently achieved universal acclaim, as well as a Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. What would’ve happened if Reprise had just sat on “Foxtrot?”

All right, so there’s my gripe about the recording industry. Now we may continue to their annual self-laudatory wank-fest, the Grammy Awards. Let it be known that our opinion on “Who Should Win” part is (obviously) limited to those nominated.

Record of the Year nominees
“Nothin’ On You” – B.o.B. featuring Bruno Marsthe
“Love The Way You Lie” – Eminem featuring Rihanna
“F*** You” – Cee Lo Green
“Empire State of Mind” – Jay-Z and Alicia Keys
“Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum

Going to win: Lady Antebellum

Should win: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys

Sorry Cee Lo, but your totally awesome kiss-off is too much of a novelty and too much fun to win. Nobody believes angry Eminem anymore and “Nothin’ On You” lacks Lady Antebellum’s mid-song confession to breakdown to triumphant end-of-song reunion structure. Jigga’s too-long ode to New York is powered by an original beat and Alicia Keys’ best chorus in years. It’s the best of a bad category.

Album of the Year nominees:
“The Suburbs” – Arcade Fire
“Recovery” – Eminem
“Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum
“The Fame Monster” – Lady Gaga
“Teenage Dream” – Katy Perry

Going to win: Arcade Fire

Should win: Arcade Fire

Nobody’s worked harder in the last couple of years than Arcade Fire, who will earn their meaningless trophy by the sweat of their formerly indie brows. Upstart Lady Gaga’s been huge, but her aesthetic’s best expressed through video, Katy Perry isn’t even the best album of that title this year (see Beach House’s “Teen Dream”), Lady Antebellum are super-repetitive and, like I said earlier, Eminem’s schtick is as worn out as Neil Young’s face.

Song of the Year nominees:
“Beg Steal Or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
“F*** You” – Cee Lo Green
“The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin (Miranda Lambert)
“Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey and Eminem (with Rihanna)
“Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott

Going to win: Cee Lo

Should win: Cee Lo

The record and song of the year gets awarded to the same song about half the time, but “F*** You” is far too likeable to get snubbed by both honors. Sassy Oklahoma native Miranda Lambert is a clear-cut dark horse though, damaging her “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” cred with a tender if boring country ballad.

Best New Artist nominees:
Justin Bieber
Florence + The Machine
Mumford & Sons
Esperanza Spalding

Going to win: Justin Bieber

Should win: Florence + The Machine

The best new artist category is a regular display of how the senile the music industry is. Usually the nominees have been around for close to half a decade and this year’s batch is no different. Nothing’s unexpectedly generated more money and attention in the last two years than Bieber Fever, so I guess that trumps the much older and more talented Esperanza Spalding and Florence Welch.

Best Pop Vocal Album nominees:
“My World 2.0” – Justin Bieber
“I Dreamed A Dream” – Susan Boyle
“The Fame Monster” – Lady Gaga
“Battle Studies” – John Mayer
“Teenage Dream” – Katy Perry

Going to win: John Mayer

Should win: No one.

This is a loathsome category. Somehow the award went to The Black Eyed Peas last year, so it’s literally impossible to pick or redeem. I give the advantage to the Dark Lord Sauron since he won the 2006 award for “Continuum”.

Best Dance Recording nominees:
“Rocket” – Goldfrapp
“In For The Kill” – La Roux
“Dance In The Dark” – Lady Gaga
“Only Girl (In The World)” – Rihanna
“Dancing On My Own” – Robyn

Going to win: Lady Gaga

Should win: Robyn

The 80s are back in fashion in modern dance music, so it only makes sense that the award goes to the most retro-sounding song. Unfortunately, “In For The Kill” is nearly two years old and “Rocket” literally sounds like it was recorded in 1986. In a perfect world, Robyn would be rewarded for crafting a terrific record (“Body Talk”) with a top-notch single in “Dancing On My Own”, the kind of thing that makes straight men say “I can’t help but dance, I just love this song.” I would know, because I am one.

Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals nominees:
“Ready To Start” – Arcade Fire
“I Put A Spell On You” – Jeff Beck and Joss Stone
“Tighten Up” – The Black Keys
“Radioactive” – Kings of Leon
“Resistance” – Muse

Going to win: Arcade Fire

Should win: Arcade Fire

In case you missed me gushing about them earlier, Arcade Fire are the hardest-working band around these days. The only problem is that they were nominated for a song into which their secret weapon, Régine Chassagne, factors less prominently. I’d have gone with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” which beautifully stomps and circles “The Suburbs” to its wistful, nostalgic close.

Best Alternative Music Album nominees:
The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
Infinite Arms – Band of Horses
Brothers – The Black Keys
Broken Bells – Broken Bells
Contra – Vampire Weekend

Going to win: Arcade Fire

Should win: Vampire Weekend

Band of Horses’ third record was the year’s biggest disappointment, Broken Bells is a snooze and The Black Keys benefited from a blitz of promotion and praise from classic-adoring “Rolling Stone”. That leaves kalimba-plinking “Contra” against my album of the year pick; it’s a no-brainer. Short, catchy, original and lovely, “Contra” is the best in this category.

Best Rap Album nominees:
“The Adventures of Bobby Ray” – B.o.B.
“Thank Me Later” – Drake
“Recovery” – Eminem
“The Blueprint 3” – Jay-Z
“How I Got Over” – The Roots

Going to win: Drake

Should win: The Roots (but seriously, Big Boi)

The severe lack of Big Boi completely invalidates this category (“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” wasn’t released on time to be counted in this year’s race). Therefore, The Roots deserve it for allowing the awesome trio of lady singers from Norman Music Festival 3 headliners Dirty Projectors to open “How I Got Over” with their beautiful harmonic cooing. But seriously, it ought to be Big Boi.

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