Grammy’s Got to Think Hard

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Is the Grammy nominating committee shameless enough to include ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached” in the album of the year field? Is it daring enough to nominate Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP”’ in the same category?

The questions aren’t mutually exclusive, and a wrong answer to either could do much to undercut the growing credibility of an organization that was criticized for decades for favoring conservative, mainstream artists over bolder, cutting-edge ones.

The ‘N Sync and Eminem issues are at the center of the 43rd annual record industry competition--nominations will be announced Wednesday--because “No Strings Attached” and “The Marshall Mathers LP” were the year’s highest-profile releases. They have sold 9.5 million and 7.7 million copies, respectively.

The nomination committee would be shameless if it backed ‘N Sync simply because of its success. The boy band’s album is of minimal importance--music that makes young girls’ hearts flutter but offers none of the imagination, innovation or artful craft that the Grammys are supposed to honor.


Eminem would be a bold choice because many of the 12,000 voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which sponsors the Grammys, will feel uneasy endorsing an X-rated collection filled with violent, often hateful imagery.

Some detractors have branded parts of “The Marshall Mathers LP” homophobic and misogynistic. And the criticism isn’t coming just from overanxious politicians and parents. This is an album that has even divided the music community and media.

Sympathetic critics, however, see the album as a defining work that explores darker elements of society, much like the music of the cutting-edge artists that Grammy voters ignored during their most confrontational years.

Here’s a look at what to expect in three of the most high-profile categories--including the fate of ‘N Sync and Eminem.


Best Album

History shows that Grammy voters are comfortable with mainstream hit-makers, so the place to start in predicting Grammy nominees is the best-seller list.

‘N Sync’s sales are the only reason the quintet has any chance for a nomination. And there is a chance--their rivals the Backstreet Boys were nominated in this category last year.

But the odds of a lightweight slipping through the nomination process again this year are slight. Do you think the academy wants to go through the ridicule that greeted the Backstreet Boys choice?


The nomination process was changed in 1995 to prevent just such embarrassments--though it doesn’t always do so, as the Backstreet Boys nominations show.

Before the change, the academy’s total membership chose the nominees. The 12,000 members still vote, but the 20 top vote-getters in key categories are then forwarded to a screening committee, which determines the five nominees.

Under the old system, academy members dazzled by ‘N Sync’s sales might have voted the group in. But even if the album makes the initial cut, its lack of imagination and passion should lead to a quick dismissal in the committee.

The Eminem question is more complex.


The committee could hedge its bet by nominating his tame, PG-rated “The Real Slim Shady” single in the best record category and ignore the X-rated “Marshall Mathers” in the album category.

If the committee lives up to its mandate of recognizing artistic excellence, however, it will at least place Eminem’s album on the ballot so the total membership can make its determination.

In isolating other potential nominees, it’s helpful to divide the contenders by genre, because the committee seems to strive for a balanced slate in its final choices.

Cutting Edge. This is the kind of challenging artist that the Grammy committee system has helped spotlight. The committee nominated two cutting-edge albums in 1996, Beck’s “Odelay” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” and another in 1997, Radiohead’s “OK Computer.”


And there are strong candidates in this year’s field--starting with Beck and Radiohead.

Beck’s “Midnite Vultures,” a delightfully playful mix of funk, soul and rock sensibilities, was among the most acclaimed albums of 1999, but it was released too late to be eligible in last year’s Grammy voting. (The eligibility period for this year’s Grammys, which will be presented Feb. 21 at Staples Center, is Oct. 1, 1999, to Sept. 30, 2000.)

If the time lag hurts Beck, timing improves the chances of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” which has only been in stores for a few months. Critics were divided over this collection, which departed dramatically from the traditional pop-rock structures of “OK Computer,” but respect for the band is immense.

Another possibility is Rage Against the Machine’s “The Battle of Los Angeles.” Like “Midnite Vultures,” this is a 1999 album that was released after that year’s eligibility deadline. It is a striking work from one of the great American rock bands of the ‘90s--and this may be the academy’s last chance to honor it, since the group’s status is in question after the recent exit of singer Zack de la Rocha. Eminem also fits in this category. So look for at least two nominees to come from this group.


Mainstream Pop-Rock. Who ever thought Madonna would be a conservative Grammy choice? Long dismissed as simply a clever pop strategist, Madonna went 15 years before getting her first Grammy in a major category. But the perception of her changed after 1998’s stylish, thoughtful “Ray of Light,” which won three Grammys, including best pop album. Her new “Music” isn’t as impressive, but it was still respected in the industry. A longshot is Matchbox Twenty, which could benefit from leader Rob Thomas’ association last year with Santana.

Respected Pop-Rock Veterans. Voters get two classic veterans for one vote in “Riding With the King,” the B.B. King-Eric Clapton collaboration. But Paul Simon, who has won six times in best record or album categories, delivered a more satisfying album in “You’re the One.” Longshots: Don Henley’s “Inside Job,” an uneven collection by a respected artist, and “Two Against Nature” by Steely Dan, a respected band that is overdue for a Grammy.

Country: It’s difficult for hard-core country acts to build enough momentum among the total academy membership for a best album nomination, but the chances improve sharply if you can cross into the pop world. Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks were nominated in this category in 1998 and 1999, respectively. That makes Faith Hill’s mediocre “Breathe” a threat. The smartest choice would be Shelby Lynne.

R&B;: Destiny’s Child’s “The Writing’s on the Wall” would be a strong candidate here because the female R&B; outfit shows some of the independence of TLC, which was nominated twice in this category in the last six years. But the album was released before the eligibility period. That leaves D’Angelo, whose commanding “Voodoo” was one of the year’s most acclaimed works, as the likeliest choice if the committee wants R&B; represented.


My ideal lineup would be Eminem, Beck, Rage Against the Machine, D’Angelo and Simon. But there’s not enough “balance” there--and the Grammys always break your heart. Look for Eminem, Beck or Radiohead, Madonna and some curveballs.

Best Record

A sweep is possible here by acts with a single name: Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” Madonna’s “Music,” Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” and Nelly’s “Country Grammar.” There’s also 14-time Grammy-winner Sting’s “Desert Rose.”

The problem with that scenario is that it leaves out too many strong contenders, starting with Macy Gray’s “I Try,” a soul-music gem that could be the eventual winner.


There should also be support for U2’s uplifting “Beautiful Day,” Faith Hill’s ultra-sentimental “Breathe” and Destiny’s Child’s catchy, self-affirming “Say My Name.”

And you’ve got to leave room for the committee to give at least a token nod to the teen-pop craze by nominating ‘N Sync (“Bye Bye Bye”), Britney Spears (“Oops! . . . I Did it Again”) or Chistina Aguilera (“What a Girl Wants”).

When the envelope is opened, expect the names to come from a list headed by Eminem, Macy Gray, Destiny’s Child, Faith Hill and U2, but don’t be surprised if a couple of novelties slip in.

New Artist


The rules in this category are so flexible that artists who have been making albums for a decade or more can still be eligible if they haven’t been nominated before--and that’s nice this year because it is a way to salute Shelby Lynne, who made her recording debut in 1988.

After years of fighting a losing battle to express herself musically in conservative Nashville, Lynne returned home to Alabama three years ago to record the album that she always wanted to make. In many ways, “I Am Shelby Lynne,” a deeply personal work about troubled relationships and self-esteem, does introduce a new artist.

She’ll be vying for a nomination against some other veterans, including fast-rising singer-songwriter David Gray and the socially conscious Ben Harper, as well as best-selling R&B;/hip-hop newcomers Sisqo, Nelly and Jill Scott. On the rock front, there’s Travis, a British band in the idealistic U2 tradition, and the more plodding U.S. outfit Papa Roach.

Deserving longshots: At the Drive-In, Dido, Brad Paisley and Jurassic 5.


Look for Nelly, Sisqo, Lynne and Scott to head the pack.


Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at