Imagine trying to guide the Mississippi River through a beer bong. That is, in essence, what the 2,000 voters for the Grammy Award nominations, announced Friday, attempted when considering the torrents of music up for their scrutiny.
Stretched across platforms, services, labels, apps and websites, the flow of songs is too heavy for any one filter to handle, let alone to support a qualitative conversation about standouts, breakouts and songs of the year.
Tacitly, we should all be clapping for the skills of the marketers, radio men, booking agents and publicists who funnel the artists through screens, airwaves and stages and into the ears of the voters. You can't vote on what you haven't heard, and those who understand the game of campaigns know how many man-hours and strategy sessions are required to earn a Grammy nod.
Consider this: Save for Taylor Swift, whose Big Machine imprint is independent but has the financial muscle of a major, almost all the nominees in the big categories were channeled through the three remaining label conglomerates, Universal, Sony and Warner Bros. So secure is this triumvirate in maintaining the machine that it's a foregone conclusion that their acts will run the card.
It's not even big news that pop, country, R&B and rock nominees are dense with subsidiaries of the three majors; imprints such as Atlantic, Def Jam, Capitol, RCA, Columbia, Epic, Blue Note are mere stand-ins. In fact, the indies that occupy the rap album category seem like outliers — until you realize that the majors only released a handful of such albums last year.
Little of this is new, but while the landscape around the Grammys has changed, the same shaking-hands-with-themselves power structure and strategy remain, albeit with new technological avenues: release track, push to radio, drop video and get streams, create social media buzz, market your nominees, snag some nods, broadcast the hoopla on network television, hope for solid ratings and one or two breakouts, repeat.
The process seems so weighted against acts that fall outside the system as to seem like collusion. This Music-Industrial Complex, whose revenue provides the biggest paychecks to voting employees in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York, is so effective that it can, for example, lift from obscurity a one-hit-wonder like Hozier, nominated in song of the year, at the expense of Beyoncé's masterful "Drunk in Love." Likewise, in ensuring a nomination for best rock album for U2 regardless of quality, the voters ignored the organic, sweat-filled rise of Future Islands and its should-have-been song of the year "Seasons (Waiting On You)." The incendiary Run the Jewels track "Blockbuster Night Part 1" doesn't get a best rap song nomination, but Nicki Minaj's weak "Anaconda" does?
Just because the big three run this town doesn't mean that they don't employ brilliant artists and producers, the kind whose talent and allure afford them placement in the upper echelons. Money does chase talent (if it's got enough YouTube views). So it's tough to be completely cynical when there is recognition for brilliant writers such as country artist Brandy Clark, nominated for best new artist and best country album (for her excellent "12 Songs") and Australian pop chanteuse Sia, whose "Chandelier" is nominated in both song and record of the year.
If there's a positive takeaway, it's that women continue to run the mainstream conversation like seldom before in pop music. For record of the year, four of the five nods were dropped by women. "Chandelier," Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" and Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," with Charli XCX on the hook, will compete against the lone man: British vocalist Sam Smith, whose "Stay With Me" is sure to soundtrack slow-dances for decades. Locked out of the category? Fellas including Maroon 5, MAGIC!, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Pharrell, all of whom had hit singles this year. None save maybe the latter's "Happy" resonated like "Fancy" or "Shake It Off."
The album of the year award has for a long time been considered the preeminent category, the one that celebrates the art of the long-player versus the bang of the three-minute pop song. Long a category that offers left-field surprises, this year's dark horse outlier is Beck's "Morning Phase," an introspective rock album that earned both praise and sales. It will compete against Beyoncé's "Beyoncé," upstart British folkie Sheeran's "X," Pharrell's big-ticket banger "Girl" and Smith's "In the Lonely Hour."
The awards' biggest songwriting trophy, for song of the year, also tilted away from the guys: The jumpy "All About That Bass" earned surprise recognition alongside "Chandelier," "Shake It Off" and "Stay with Me." "Happy" and Irish soft-rocker Hozier's "Take Me to Church" served as a counterweight — even if "Church" featured this couplet, which may or may not be about eating a horse: "Something meaty for the main course/That's a fine looking high horse/ What you got in the stable?/ We've a lot of starving faithful."
Besides edible flesh, what lies in our future? If the best new artist slate is a harbinger, a little bit of sunshine. Los Angeles sibling quartet Haim, whose "Days Are Gone" landed on many critics' best of 2013 lists, broke out in 2014 across genres and will hopefully earn more eyes if they're slotted to perform during the awards ceremony in February. Sam Smith, whose half-dozen nominations are among the most of anyone, seems to have staying power as does, most certainly, Brandy Clark.
Alongside fellow best new artist nominees Azalea and Bastille, whose nominated rock song "Pompeii" feels like the genre's death-knell, the nominees are well divided among the competing genres. But anyone who's followed this thing already knew that. The skin color, gender, sexuality, twanginess and/or funkiness of the musicians may change, but the system remains frustratingly monochromatic. Meet the new bosses. ...