Every year, when I get involved in Grammy debates with my cooler friends, I tell them the problem with the awards isn’t that they reward mass-appeal schlock. If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is doing its job right, it should be rewarding popular, undeniable, and somewhat unhip records. The problem is that NARAS can’t even reward the popular stuff right.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Record of the Year category, which, next to the coveted, show-closing Album of the Year prize, should be the marquee award of the night. If NARAS were on its game, it would nominate five high-gloss, career-defining singles that crushed at Top 40, R&B/hip-hop, country or rock radio and then give the big prize to a title that makes everyone say, Yeah, okay, love it or hate it, that record dominated.
Instead, Record of the Year has largely become a head-scratching nonevent, in which NARAS, like a middlebrow missile, homes in on a song that’s neither hip enough to be a critics’ favorite nor undeniable enough to appeal to the casual TV viewership. Just in the last decade, NARAS has given you such Records of the Year as the Dixie Chicks’ most atonal and bile-filled single; two little-heard “event” duets by Ray Charles with Norah Jones, and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss; and a U2 song some like to call a “9/11 anthem,” ignoring the fact that anthems are usually widely known and this song came out a year before the tragedy and missed the Hot 100, not even charting after 9/11. Even some of the better RotY picks have been wrongheaded—I happen to like Coldplay’s “Clocks,” winner in 2004, but over OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”? Way to miss the plot, NARAS. (I wish YouTube had a clip from the ’04 show of presenter and friend-of-OutKast Mary J. Blige, visibly deflating when she opened the envelope and read “Clocks,” like the word was “broccoli.”)
All that said, in the last couple of years the Grammy has gone to songs that, whatever you think of them, were undeniably popular and radio-blanketing: Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” in 2010, and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” in 2011. And this year, NARAS has a chance to do something they haven’t done in nearly two decades and give RotY to the actual No. 1 song of the year; the last such song to clean up both in Billboard and at the Grammys was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in 1994. Will this normally-impossible, should-be-a-no-brainer feat be achieved by that smash Adele single? Let’s start with it.
As part of my forecasting, I tried to put myself in the mindset of two generations of voters, using two particular guys as proxies: Quincy Jones, the most-rewarded nonclassical artist in Grammy history (and a guy who was a little too visibly happy when his fogey buddy Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year in an upset in 2008); and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots, a NARAS member who’s been fairly vocal about the need for the voting body to get younger and reward records at the center of pop culture.
Adele, “Rolling In The Deep” (Paul Epworth, producer; Tom Elmhirst & Mark Rankin, engineers/mixers)
WHAT: The soulful, sonically rich, throwbacky yet uncannily modern track that owned your radio and your earbuds in 2011.
PROS: See above—it’s the No. 1 recording of 2011, by any measure: on the Hot 100, on iTunes, at your local supermarket. And it’s the single that led off and powered the No. 1 album of the year. Rest assured, other Adele songs like “Someone Like You” or deep cut “Set Fire to the Rain” wouldn’t have become Hot 100 dominators if “Rolling in the Deep” hadn’t come first. Also, between the two marquee Grammy single-track categories, Record and Song, the former is a bigger lock for Adele in the sense that “Rolling” is arguably greater as a recording than it is as a composition.
CONS: A lot of people think “Someone,” her starker tearjerker, is the more remarkable song (I am not one of them, but it’s a valid choice). If Adele had somehow wound up with two nominees in this category—plausible but rare—she could’ve canceled herself out; “Someone” isn’t in the running, but those who wish it were might pick something else. Or this might be the category where voters decide to break up the Adele juggernaut. But that’s likelier in Song of the Year.
WHAT WOULD QUINCY DO? Older voters will break away from this Dusty Springfield-esque barnburner only if they decide to pull a U2 and reward a rock track, or, possibly, if the niceness and careerism of Bruno Mars appeals to them.
WHAT WOULD ?UESTLOVE DO? Younger voters have heard and/or spun this at countless of their Cristal-fueled afterparties and will vote the hell out of it unless they’re sick of it.
Bon Iver, “Holocene” (Justin Vernon, producer; Brian Joseph & Justin Vernon, engineers/mixers)
WHAT: Meandering pseudo-ballad about non-magnificence that NARAS has mysteriously decided is the standout track on the beloved hipster-gone-yacht-rock album Bon Iver.
PROS: As my fellow prognosticators have noted, the mere fact that Justin Vernon has wound up in so many high-profile categories means he can’t be counted out in any category where he’s nominated, even for a recording as wispy as this. Also, the fact that Bon Iver isn’t up for Album of the Year, perversely, helps Vernon here, as fans of the sonically dense album may look to reward it somehow.
CONS: It will split the white-dudes-who-are-nominally-rock vote with Mumford & Sons (see below). And even if you like the song, you have to agree it’s just so passive as a recording—even the gooey RotY winner “Clocks” made a more aggressive pitch for your ears.
W.W.Q.D.? Of all of Vernon’s songs, this is the most older-voter-friendly, but they probably aren’t on the Bon Iver bus to begin with.
W.W.?.D.? Lots of potential swing/protest votes among the young’uns, particularly F.O.K.’s (friends of Kanye).
Bruno Mars, “Grenade” (The Smeezingtons, producers; Ari Levine & Manny Marroquin, engineers/mixers)
WHAT: The torchy, odd-metaphor-for-love ballad that was Mars’s third No. 1 smash as an artist (second as a lead), with a memorable piano-dragging video.
PROS: This is the sort of lovelorn midtempo ear candy NARAS generally adores; see past RotY winners “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and—probably the closest doppelganger—”Kiss from a Rose.” Also, as Michaelangelo Matos noted in his Song of the Year writeup, Mars is Grammy bait created in a lab from parts of lesser Grammy bait (maybe that’s where Corrine Bailey Rae wound up…), and so he’s a potential favorite anywhere he’s nominated and Adele seems weak.
CONS: The thing is, Adele isn’t all that weak in this category. This also arguably isn’t even his most beloved ballad—but “Just the Way You Are” (no relation to that other RotY winner from 34 years ago) isn’t nominated.
W.W.Q.D.? If this wins, place the credit/blame squarely on Quincy’s crowd—Mars is exactly the kind of improbably Top 40-friendly act they “get,” and he’s been a trouper at industry awards shows over the last year-plus. Careerism for the win, potentially.
W.W.?.D.? Many younger musicians have Mars and his Smeezingtons crew to thank for cowriting hits for them, but not so many that this bloc will swing votes. If the under-50s decide to throw votes someplace other than Adele, Katy Perry (see below) might serve as a spoiler for Mars.
Mumford & Sons, “The Cave” (Markus Dravs, producer; Francois Chevallier & Ruadhri Cushnan, engineers/mixers)
WHAT: The first bona fide U.S. Top 40 hit—albeit a modest one—for the British acousti-scruffs who got the biggest sales bounce from last year’s Grammys despite not taking home a single award. With apologies to Stephen Colbert, let’s call it The Dylan Bump.
PROS: That’s the big thing in their favor—everyone, from record buyers to fellow artists, loved them at the ’11 show, and clearly NARAS wants them to take home something this year even though their album’s more than two years old and ineligible. There’s a history of dudes with instruments upsetting in this category—cf. Coldplay, U2—and the Mumfords are the most likely beneficiary of that trend. Never mind the bloc that gave you last year’s Album of the Year upset by Arcade Fire.
CONS: Some vote-splitting with Bon Iver is inevitable, and while Mumfords will likely garner more votes than Vernon, the latter has a newer album and greater momentum on his side.
W.W.Q.D.? Likely a big favorite with the older crowd. Quincy’s fellow studio rats are likelier to choose Bruno Mars among the non-Adeles, but the aging rock bloc is likely to get behind the Mumfords in a huge way.
W.W.?.D.? Young voters are contemporaries of these guys, yet are less likely to vote for them.
Katy Perry, “Firework” (Mikkel S. Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen & Sandy Vee, producers; Mikkel S. Eriksen, Phil Tan, Sandy Vee & Miles Walker, engineers/mixers)
WHAT: The only one of Perry’s record-tying five No. 1 hits from Teenage Dream not to involve popmeister Dr. Luke, which makes it…her respectability move, or something?
PROS: The same people who lined up, for political reasons, behind that aforementioned Dixie Chicks rant in the wake of their red-state shunning are, maybe, possibly, interested enough in the It Gets Better movement to want to reward a song that is nominally part of it. Also, female vocalists do well in the RotY category—six of the last 10 winners featured them.
CONS: Katy, have you met Adele? The women who do win this category are generally not of the straight-pop variety; Adele is closer in temperament to 2003 and 2005 winner Norah Jones and (duh) 2008 winner Amy Winehouse. Also, the song’s politics are a reach.
W.W.Q.D.? Oldsters will like the lyrical sentiment but be “meh” on the production.
W.W.?.D.? The one thing working in this song’s favor with young’uns is the production by Stargate, the Norwegian wunderkind duo behind such radio stars as Ne-Yo and Rihanna. But “Firework,” while being their biggest U.S. hit to date, is also their least Stargate-like, completely lacking the modern-day Rod Temperton touch they’ve employed to make other acts sound like vintage Michael Jackson. (Ironic, considering it’s a Katy Perry record.)
FINAL PREDICTION: Adele, but not at all in a walk; she’s probably more solid here than in Song of the Year, however. If there’s an upset, Mumford takes it.