Will the Grammys get in touch with commercial reality at the 43rd annual awards on Feb. 21? And, if they do, will this gang of industry professionals be able to look at itself in the bathroom mirror the morning after?
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the 16,000-member organization that allegedly rewards "artistic excellence" when it votes on the Grammys, has traditionally treated rappers and R&B singers like misbegotten strays in a kennel full of meticulously groomed poodles named Sting and Celine. It wasn't until two years ago that a hip-hop album was even nominated for Album of the Year, but that was a doozy -- Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." Its triumph hinted that the academy was finally willing to broaden its definition of the mainstream to include a woman of color who rapped rather than sang like a Whitney wanna-be. Last year's sweep by Carlos Santana was a no-brainer -- Santana made a classic crossover album that appealed to listeners of all ages -- but this year's show will truly test the academy's efforts to fit Generation Hip-Hop into one of its tuxedos.
The numbers don't lie. More than 197 million R&B records were sold last year, the most of any genre and a 12 percent increase from the previous year. In addition, hip-hop sales climbed 20 percent to 105 million. Most other major genres of music took a big hit in 2000: album sales of classical, jazz, country, Latin and Christian music all declined. Only alternative rock challenged the rap-R&B stranglehold with sales of 131 million, up 8 percent.
If the Grammys follow that pattern, it'll be a big year for multiple nominees such as Destiny's Child, D'Angelo, Macy Gray, Dr. Dre and Eminem. But that's a big "if." None of this year's nominations in the big four categories -- song, record and album of the year, and best-new artist -- has the broad appeal of Santana or even a Lauryn Hill. The album-of-the-year category in particular dramatizes the deep divisions within Grammy country: the futuristic rock of Radiohead ("Kid A"), the ultra-hip pop of Beck ("Midnite Vultures"), the solid craftsmanship of two veteran performers with critically lauded but modest-selling comeback albums (Paul Simon's "You're the One" and Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature") and the explicit but multiplatinum hip-hop of Eminem ("The Marshall Mathers LP").
Eminem's nomination in particular leaves the academy in a bind: Though "The Marshall Mathers LP" was easily the biggest rap record of the year, selling more than 7 million copies, and Eminem was praised by critics and fellow rappers alike for his nimble delivery and outlandish imagination, the record was marred by its profane lyrics, which liberally bash gays and women. If Eminem wins album of the year, the Grammys can say they're in tune with the marketplace, but at what price? If they reward one of the other albums, they'll be accused of playing it safe (anointing respected old pros like Steely Dan and Paul Simon for albums that don't rank with their very best work) or killing their TV ratings with obscurity (it's likely that many viewers will be hearing the names "Radiohead" and "Beck" for the first time).
The Grammys could have solved the problem by nominating D'Angelo's "Voodoo" for album of the year -- a multimillion-selling hit that set a new standard for R&B. It's a work that even older Grammy voters would love for the way it draws on classic soul, funk, jazz and gospel, while charming hip-hop heads with its snaking bass lines and atmospheric arrangements. D'Angelo is nominated in some lesser categories, but his omission from the major awards is another glaring example of why, despite their best intentions, the Grammys seem to come up short every year.
Nonetheless, the Grammys continue to influence record-buyers like no other music awards show. Here's a look at which artists in some of the major categories will be celebrating into the wee hours Wednesday night:
Record of the year: The Grammys blew it last year by bypassing Macy Gray for best new artist. They'll make it up to her by tapping her terrific single "I Try" over entries from Destiny's Child, U2, Madonna and 'N Sync.
Album of the year: Eminem is too controversial to win, and Beck and Radiohead are relatively unknown to the Grammy voters and should cancel each other out (though Radiohead's experimental dreamscape, "Kid A," is clearly the best of the nominated albums). That leaves old pros Paul Simon, who has won 12 Grammys previously, and Steely Dan, who have yet to win a single statue. Expect Simon to win on the strength of the good but not great "You're the One."
Song of the year: Macy Gray's evocative, lyrically deft tunes have started to show up on other artists' albums, from Wynonna to Rod Stewart, and in a category honoring songwritring she should be a lock for "I Try."
New artist: This category is a perennial joke, because nominees often put out albums long before hitting the Grammy radar screen. Shelby Lynne is on her fifth album, and Sisquo was a member of the best-selling R&B group Dru Hill before making his solo debut. Lynne's country-soul sound has plenty of advocates, but Jill Scott matched critical acclaim with healthy sales for her simmering soul debut, "Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1."
Rock album: Bon Jovi? Matchbox Twenty? No Doubt? Was the year in rock really that ugly? At the Drive-In might have something to say about that, but they weren't nominated. Of those albums that made the cut, Rage Against the Machine's "The Battle of Los Angeles" is the clear standout, but the recently splintered group has made plenty of enemies with its sometimes muddled left-of-Castro politics. That leaves the door open for the Foo Fighters' "There is Nothing Left to Lose."
Alternative album: Radiohead and Beck duke it out again. Radiohead's "Kid A" is the stronger work, but Beck ("Midnight Vultures") may have better name recognition among the voters.
R&B album: If D'Angelo's "Voodoo" doesn't walk away with this award over Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, Joe and Sisquo, the Grammy voters ought to set up an after-show dunk tank for themselves in the parking lot.
Rap album: The five nominees (DMX, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nelly) all had major commercial impact, but they represent a narrow sliver of the hip-hop world with their gangsta bravado. Too bad Common's "Like Water for Chocolate" or De La Soul's "Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump" didn't make the cut, or that Outkast's "Stankonia" was released after the Sept. 30 eligibility deadline. In lieu of that, look for "Dr. Dre 2001" to beat out Eminem, because Dre's party raps don't have quite the nasty edge of his blue-eyed protege's.
Country album: Lee Ann Womack ("I Hope You Dance") and Trisha Yearwood ("Real Live Woman") are two of the finest Nashville singers of the last decade, but they're no match for the overhyped sex pot Faith Hill, whose "Breathe" will win on the basis of her steamy videos, if not the quality of her tissue-thin voice or the triteness of her lyrics.
Contemporary blues: The revered Koko Taylor should win her second Grammy for "Royal Blue," though the North Mississippi Allstars did more than any single act to shake up the genre with the fierce trance-boogie of "Shake Hands With Shorty."