Handicapping the Grammys
Can Lady Gaga un-boring the Grammy ceremony on Sunday night? Or will her freak factor outweigh her popularity, throwing awards to Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or even the Black Eyed Peas?
On Sunday, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will host its annual show honoring outstanding achievements in the music industry–otherwise known as the Grammy Awards.
Beyoncé leads the pack with 10 nominations, followed by Taylor Swift with eight nominations, The Black Eyed Peas at six, and Lady Gaga at five.
View Our Gallery of Lady Gaga’s Outrageous Fans
As in years past, what you won’t find—at least not in any of the major categories—is a representative sample of music coming from independent labels. Even critically acclaimed artists from the major labels without enormous sales figures appear mainly in lesser categories or in the best new artist category, where groups like MGMT and The Ting Tings are nominated.
The reason for this is that the Grammys are fundamentally unlike film awards shows, where small, critically acclaimed films frequently dominate. Rather, they’re a mutual masturbation society for a dying breed of A&R men, an opportunity to give out year-end bonuses in an industry that can’t afford them and is ineligible for a government bailout.
As one of the biggest commercial success stories of the year and the current standard bearer for rock-and-roll edginess, Gaga enables the suits at the Recording Academy to have their cake and eat it too. She writes songs that serve as the unofficial soundtrack for girls who shop at Candies and H&M even though she herself looks like she came from outer-space. As the Oscars increase the number of best picture nominees to make way for commercial films that will boost ratings, Gaga is the music business’s perfect alternative. She’s Avatar and The Hurt Locker rolled into one.
Because of this, she’ll probably do well Sunday night. “The Grammys have always straddled the line between commercial viability and creative integrity,” says Jerry Blair, a former Sony Music executive whose acts included Sarah McLachlan and Ricky Martin. “The great thing about Lady Gaga is that she’s a great songwriter and a solid performer who saw how to capture people’s attention. The music business is dead, but she’s struck a nerve. She’s commercially viable.”
Similarly, Swift is another big success story in the midst of an industry that is capsizing, so she’s likely to take home a bunch of trophies as well (it also doesn’t hurt that she got ambushed by Kanye West at the VMAs and handled it with grace).
Says a well known talent representative who works with musicians and requested anonymity because he has artists who compete for Grammys: “As a safe generalization, sales and radio play dominate the show in a way that box office doesn’t at the Academy Awards and ratings doesn’t at the Emmys and the Golden Globes, where 30 Rock and Mad Men have been cleaning up. Could the music business equivalent of No Country For Old Men or Brokeback Mountain be so recognized? I don’t know. There’s a whole host of young talent making a difference in music and they’re consistently overlooked.”
There certainly is. In 2005, the Sri Lankan rap artist M.I.A. released her debut album Arular, got nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and made virtually every year end critics list, among them Rolling Stone’s, New York Magazine’s, and Entertainment Weekly’s. Time Magazine called Arular the “most compelling debut album of the year.” Yet M.I.A. was completely shut out at the Grammys, failing to receive even one nomination. It wasn’t until 2009, when her single “Paper Planes,” sold over three million copies that she received a nod from the recording academy, a nomination for Record of the Year.
In 2005, Madonna was photographed around London carrying Goldfrapp’s groundbreaking electronica CD Supernaturen. As many critics later noted, it was fairly clear that the group were a primary inspiration for Madonna's next album Confessions on a Dancefloor. Yet when Grammy time rolled around the next year, it was Madonna who won Best Dance Album, not Goldfrapp.
Other critically acclaimed acts who’ve been overlooked by the recording academy in recent years are The Gossip, Passion Pit, Regina Spektor, Cat Power–the list goes on and on.
Indeed, according to Ethan Brown, who has covered the music business for publications like Vibe and New York (and wrote a biography about the manufacturing of 50 Cent), Gaga’s biggest problem going into the show is that she’s still edgier than what the Recording Academy typically rewards. He points out that even big commercial sellers (like collaborations between Timbaland and Missy Elliott) tend to get shafted when they push the boundaries of what pop music is. Instead, the awards go predominately to three types of artists; one, someone with major commercial success; two, a rock legend making a comeback (think Robert Plant, who received several major awards last year for his collaboration last year with Alison Krauss); or three, an artist who breaks through on the country charts and then tears up the pop charts as well, like past winners Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes, not to mention, this year’s major country-crossover contender, Swift.
“She’s the kind of artist the Recording Academy really likes,” he says of the young, blond girl. “She sells consistently, her touring numbers are off the charts and she’s middle of the road.”
Mostly, he says, she’s disposable, which at the Grammys is practically a plus. “The Grammys are mostly about cheap and stupid stuff that happens to sell. This is a show that once gave its best new artist award to Milli Vanilli.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.