When a talented young artist such as Sam Smith arrives virtually out of the blue and lands at the center of the Grammy stage, it's only natural to compare him to others who have accomplished similar feats.
Adele hit it big and earned huge kudos at the 2012 Grammys. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won big last year, to baffled grumbles. This is the 25th anniversary of lip-syncing wonders Milli Vanilli's victory as new artist. A decade ago the award went to Maroon 5.
All were enthusiastically feted after their victories. Some are now, or will soon be, footnotes. Christopher Cross swept the top categories in 1981. He was as popular as Smith and sold more records. It's unlikely that he'll ever receive a Grammy lifetime achievement award.
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015
Which is to say, if you're outraged that Beck's mundanely beautiful "Morning Phase" topped Beyoncé's exuberant, powerful "Beyoncé" for album of the year at Sunday's Grammys at Staples Center, or that joke-metal band Tenacious D topped Mastodon and Motorhead in metal performance, you haven't been paying attention. The Recording Academy's annual awards have never made sense. Eminem will win rap album for a middling record as he did this year — because he's Eminem and Grammy voters love Eminem.
Those surprised that Beck topped both Smith and Beyoncé also underestimate the random power of the white rock dude bloc of the Recording Academy, which is large, powerful and wrongly believes big-budget Beyoncé-style pop is a lesser art compared with acoustic tones. Grammy voters are older; Beck was the oldest of the album of the year nominees. Like any (hidden, largely mysterious) democracy, winning an award is about who's voting. When you don't know exactly who's voting, all bets are off.
Still, Smith was the big winner, and who can begrudge him his four victories? His run seemed inevitable even before the day began. The 22-year-old from London is perfect Grammy fodder. There's a story behind the voice, one that is tailor made for the times. He's a gay man with a gigantic voice able to emote honestly and with mesmerizing tone. He's easy on the ears. There's no growl, and unless you're homophobic, he's not a threat.
What he lacks in danger — Smith's certainly no rebel — he makes up in an ability to connect. After the ceremony during a news conference, he said that before his success he'd chased fame self-consciously.
"It was very hard, I struggled every day to try and be myself. I had warped ideas about what I had to do to be heard and to be successful. I started losing weight, wearing crazy clothes." He blossomed as an artist, though, "when I started being myself — and eating loads of In-N-Out." You can hear those double-double burgers throughout "In the Lonely Hour."
In "I'm Not the Only One," one of the album's highlights, Smith croons, "When you call me baby, I know I'm not the only one," with a phrasing that makes him sound equal parts helpless and furious.
More concerned with expressing his personal vulnerabilities and his own private truths than making trouble in the clubs, Smith simmers throughout "In the Lonely Hour" with a steady tension that only occasionally offers release. It's in this low heat where Smith sounds best.
Still, maybe that's all rationalization. "In the Lonely Hour" is a solid record, but not a historic one. "Stay With Me" is a fantastic ballad, and Smith nails the performance, but it's not a song that's pushing pop in new directions.
In that way "Morning Phase" and "In the Lonely Hour" are similar. Both are downtempo, borderline glum, similar in tone to one of the slowest Grammy telecasts I've ever seen. Could this have been a year to pause and reflect? Are we reading too much into all this?
Most certainly. Until we better understand who's deciding this stuff, how are we supposed to make sense of its meaning?