Grammy can't seem to win. When I first joined the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the organization that gives away the Grammy, the biggest complaint was that Grammy was not relevant; that they rewarded songs and artists that weren't necessarily popular. But that was their job; making sure that the public and the industry knew that commercial success did NOT dictate quality and bringing some lesser known, but talented, artists to the foreground through the awards and annual ceremony.
Well, with the December 3, 2009 nominations Grammy has proven the pendulum has, in fact, swung back in the opposite direction; with the nomination list for the projects released in 2009 reading more like the American Music Awards or Billboard Awards, two award shows where the awards are sales based.
Sales-based award shows, like the AMAs and others, were a direct response to Grammy being about the music, about the artists, about the artistry. Now, either there are no artists left in the industry that don't sell millions, or Grammy members no longer have the time to listen.
A perfect example of how Grammy has gone wrong is in the Dance Record category. That particular category, Best Dance Recording, is why I'm a voting member of NARAS. Dance music pioneer Jellybean Benitez (the man behind the first two Madonna albums) and others put together coalitions of Dance Music Artists (I was one at the time, had a few albums, commercial singles to some success and also wrote for Billboard covering Dance Music at the time) who rallied NARAS for inclusion of the genre; But real Dance music, music from the clubs of Chicago or NYC, the lounges of Los Angeles. Artists like Ultra Naté, Crystal Waters, CeCe Penniston and producers like Benitez, Shep Pettibone, DJs across the country, they were not being acknowledged for the music they were making and had no chance in the Pop category. So, finally a Best Dance Music category was setup.
One of my singles, "I Am" made first round nominations one year, meaning it was submitted for voting, met the qualifications and was sent out on the first round ballot. An artist like myself would have never been on a Grammy list before of any kind, but there I was. But like everything, the best laid plans of mice and men oft gang aglee. The category soon became a spot to recognize the remixers of major artists instead of true artists from the genre. Whitney Houston, Madonna, Mariah Carey's remixes of their singles began to dominate and nothing has changed. This year the best Dance category includes, yes, Madonna (Celebration), Lady GaGa (Poker Face), The Black Eyed Peas (Boom Boom Pow) and Britney Spears (Womanizer). David Guetta is the only nominee actually from the genre.
There's not one independent artist, not one artist on an independent label, the life's blood of the Dance industry. A random sampling of the Billboard Club Play Chart for the Week of December 12, 2009 show songs by Plumb, Jus Jack, Morgan Page, Esmee Denters; the iTunes Dance Chart is dominated by Guetta, favorite Cascada, superstar Tíesto, Armand Van Buren and Daft Punk. Outside of Guetta, Grammy seems to have gotten the beat of the Dance Music world wrong, again.
And that Pop Star attitude over musical merit permeates each and every category. Maybe it's to gather people to the telecast, nominating Pop stars in every category. Maybe it's that NARAS members don't have the time to listen, or the will to find, anything outside of what is promoted and popular right in front of them.
"Song of the Year" is a prime example. This award is a songwriter award, not an award to the singer. It's an award to say that this writer wrote the best, most profound, most interesting, catchiest...somehow, this writer just got it right and is recognized. The nominees? "Poker Face" by Lady GaGa, "Pretty Wings" by Maxwell, "Single Ladies" by Beyonce, "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon and "You Belong With Me" by Taylor Swift.
Past winners include U2 for "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own;" Amy Winehouse for "Rehab;" Bruce Springsteen, Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager; Ewan MacColl for Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face;" or Carole King for "You've Got a Friend." In fact, in a review of winners of Song of the Year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammy_Award_for_Song_of_the_Year) reveals a history of songs that are woven in to the American musical lexicon. I'm not sure "Poker Face" will be as revered in 25 years, but who knows.
In fact, there's not one category this year with a surprise. Remember Tracy Chapman? Her first album that yielded "Fast Car" and so many other singles (relevant in this time today, fyi) was highly honored by Grammy before it was a huge commercial success. In fact, it was Grammy in the past that often made artists like Chapman more mainstream, exposure through winning the award, performing on the show.
Grammy has always walked a tightrope between what is commercial and what is artistically satisfying and if ever the two can meet. But the 2010 Awards and nominees, as seen at www.grammy.com show that commercialism, corporatism and lobbyists (in music they're called publicists) have a very strong hold on the awards and the organization itself. There can be no doubt that NARAS does a lot of good work in the "real" world, bringing music programs to schools, supporting out of work musicians and helping with health care, the MusiCares foundation and so much more. But all of that sprang out a need, a want and a desire to expose the very best of the industry whether or not it was selling 10 million copies or backed by major label executives.
This year, the nominations could be for any other awards show on the strip, from People's Choice to MTV's VMAs. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady GaGa (who is fierce, by the way and is a Dance artist gone Pop, not vice-versa), Black Eyed Peas, Madonna, Brittney, Dylan, Prince..all names from previous years with a few exceptions, populate the 2010 Grammy Nominations as they have every other. Are they, in fact, the best? With those budgets one would hope so.
Congratulations to all the nominees, and to those of you out there selling 100,000 records or less, or those artists out there taking major chances and creating music outside what radio is blaring every 11 seconds, maybe next year.
Outside of talk radio, TV, film and print, Karel is a voting member of the NARAS and was a Dance Music columnist for Billboard Magazine for four years.