Riffing on the Grammy

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For the last two Grammy Awards telecasts, there's been a five-minute tape delay and a finger on a button to prevent any "improper" action or language from getting on the air — thanks to Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the Federal Communications Commission's increased vigilance (and fines) for transgressions.

This year, will that finger be twitching for inflammatory political speech?

That's on the mind of some Grammy watchers, because Kanye West — who stirred controversy and some editing on the part of NBC-TV executives with his "George Bush does not care about black people" remark during a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon in August — is seen as the odds-on favorite to be a dominant presence when the Grammys for 2005 are handed out Feb. 8 at Los Angeles' Staples Center. His recent second album, "Late Registration," figures to spawn nominations in numerous categories, including album of the year.

West has not backed down on his criticism of governmental handling of the hurricane crisis and of related issues of poverty conditions. If he chooses to repeat those sentiments at the Grammy show, officials say he won't be stopped.

"It's live," says Ron Roeker, spokesman for the Grammy-sponsoring Recording Academy. "We would never dictate what people say."

But will West's outspokenness affect his chances with Grammy voters?

Not likely, say veteran insiders and observers. In fact, with the Sept. 30 eligibility deadline having just passed and the first round of voting for nominations running Oct. 19 through Nov. 9, West's nonpolitical statements of the past, when he has expressed a sense of entitlement for such awards, will likely weigh more.

"If anything, it's possible his sense that his Grammy victories are preordained would hurt," says Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy. "That is something Kanye detractors gripe about."

But West is hardly the only likely Grammy figure who has gone public with his politics. Among those considered potential competition for best album are U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and Bruce Springsteen's "Devils & Dust." U2 singer Bono, of course, has been a consistent, outspoken commentator and critic of various political policies. And Springsteen last year emerged as a vocal opponent of President Bush's reelection campaign.

Moreover, though Green Day's "American Idiot" album was nominated last year for best album, the politically active neo-punk group is expected to make a return visit to the show via nominations for its song "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Even Barbra Streisand, a notoriously vocal liberal, could well be there thanks to her new "Guilty Pleasures" reunion collaboration with Barry Gibb.

Several Grammy insiders noted that with the war in Iraq and the recent situations surrounding the Gulf Coast hurricanes, pop culture has become as politically charged as it has been in some time.

But Tamara Conniff, executive editor of Billboard magazine, looks to the artists to, for the most part, transcend political specifics.

"People have respected the institution that is the Grammys and seem more prone to use their own concerts and other venues to make those proclamations," she says. "The message gets out that the Grammys is really about music."

•  How do you solve a problem like Mariah?

One of the other most intriguing questions on the eve of Grammy nomination voting has to do with the remarkable commercial comeback of Mariah Carey, whose "The Emancipation of Mimi" ranks among the year's few real blockbusters and who has been the top singles artist of recent months.

A decade ago, this would have made her a slam-dunk in top album and song Grammy contests. But since the Recording Academy moved to let select committees choose the final five nominations in many categories from the top 20 vote-getters, the question arises of whether Carey is a "credible" enough artist to get a nod.

"She's the story of the year," says former Vibe, Spin and Rolling Stone editor Alan Light, noting the redemptive angle of Carey's return from personal problems and seeming commercial irrelevance. "But can you really see enough people considering it the album of the year? Within other category awards, she'll be major."

Meanwhile, several other areas provide intrigue this year, especially given some of the patterns that have emerged in recent Grammy rosters:

•  The left fielder: Radiohead's 1998 album nomination for "OK Computer" was among the first out-of-the-mainstream entries to benefit from the committee process, with such other acts as the White Stripes getting similar nods since. This year may go without one of those. Some Grammy voters contacted by Pop Eye thought that if voting had taken place five or six months ago, Nebraska indie darling Bright Eyes' "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" would have stood a chance in this regard but that the buzz has died down.

•  The old folks: Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature" won album of the year in 2001. Paul Simon got a nomination in that category for his "You're the One" that same year. This year two longtime stars are being lauded for albums a notch above their other recent work: Neil Young with the new "Prairie Wind" and Paul McCartney with "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard." While both are personal, appealing works, Young is considered more likely to get Grammy recognition in that his album is a musical autobiography coming in the wake of his father's death and his own health scare from a stroke.

That also puts Young in another Grammy tradition, the Mortality Tale, which last year brought posthumous nominations for Ray Charles (the big winner), Warren Zevon, George Harrison and Johnny Cash. And don't count out the Rolling Stones among the old-folk candidates, with "A Bigger Bang" considered by many the band's strongest in ages.

•  The "new" artist: Rule changes have made this more a breakthrough award than literally for new artists, most evident in Shelby Lynne's 2000 win a full decade into a major-label career and a nomination last year for veteran power-pop band Fountains of Wayne. If there's one of those this year, it could be Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie, which has five albums under its belt but only in August released its first for a major label, "Plans." If the band gets a nomination, it could be vying for new artist with neo-soulster John Legend, New Jersey pop-punk band My Chemical Romance and reggaeton sensation Daddy Yankee.

•  A few other names to watch for in the major categories this year: Sheryl Crow is a Grammy favorite, and her new "Wildflower" album has a maturity that insiders believe will appeal to voters. Gretchen Wilson, with her just-released "All Jacked Up," is considered the most likely country artist to get top-award nominations, though Keith Urban (who impressed in a Grammy show performance last year) could also make noise.

Coldplay's "X&Y" drew a lot of negative backlash, but the band could still be a Grammy presence. The White Stripes, with the new horizons of its "Get Behind Me Satan," will have a lot of support. And Gwen Stefani's "Love. Angel. Music. Baby" can't be overlooked on the strength of four hit songs spanning several genres.

Grammy nominations will be announced at a New York news conference Dec. 8.

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