Down the middle

Times Staff Writer

THIS year's top Grammy nominations look like the record collection of a hip grown-up, the kind that impresses at a cocktail party. There's some sophisticated easy listening from a pair of pretty, youthful singer-songwriters; a tribute to classic rock by one of its respectful inheritors; a few career-toppers by acts gracefully hitting middle age; a genre-crossing album that stands up for liberal politics and artistic integrity; and one surprise: The record parents pull out when they want to show they're still down with the kids.

But what about those kids? As listeners, they're barely represented. In fact, the bread-and-butter albums that are keeping the mainstream record industry afloat -- efforts by Rascal Flatts, Nickelback and the "American Idol" crew, and of course the massively popular soundtrack to "High School Musical" -- are taking a back seat to decently selling efforts by artists that have more cachet. This was a bad day for Disney's record labels -- the only bad day they had all year. And of the top noms, only Justin Timberlake has teen appeal, and that former employee of Mickey Mouse is working hard to grow up as fast as he can.

In a year of exciting debuts, even the best new artist list veers toward adult-contemporary tastes -- not exactly new for the proudly bourgeois Grammys, but indicative of the split between America's actual youth and the "next generation" the industry longs to embrace. Front-runner Corinne Bailey Rae is 27 and traffics in stylish soul barely touched by hip-hop. Popular favorite James Blunt is a late bloomer at 34, and his likely song of the year, "You're Beautiful," is wedding-and-funeral fodder, embraced by Oprah. Surprise candidate Imogen Heap makes the kind of moody electronic pop loved by music supervisors for television and film (prominent placement: "Garden State," "The O.C."). Only adorable Chris Brown is a teen embraced by other teens.

The other end of the age spectrum didn't fare all that well, either. The snubbing of "Modern Times" by Saint Bob Dylan for album of the year will send rock traditionalists into apoplexy (and deservedly so: It's far more consistent than the "critic's favorite" nomination, Gnarls Barkley's "St. Elsewhere," and livelier than John Mayer's latest good-boy effort); he squeaked in with nods for best folk album, best rock song and, amusingly, best rock vocal. Bruce Springsteen is now officially a fogy -- his "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" earned only best traditional folk album. The posthumous Johnny Cash didn't make the list, but the soundtrack to his biopic, featuring dashing countercultural scion Joaquin Phoenix, got two. Veterans got nods in their home categories (Tom Petty for rock, Lionel Richie for R&B;, Willie Nelson for country), but those feel like lifetime achievement plaques next to buzzy efforts by Dierks Bentley, Ne-Yo and the Raconteurs.

What all this indicates is the retrenchment of a generation long caught between its dominating boomer elders and the Xbox babies nipping at its feet. Upper management in the music business now belongs to the alternative rock and old-school hip-hop believers whose avatars are multiple nominees the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mary J. Blige, both of whom made their first big splashes in 1991. These folks relate to the liberal politics and indie-style rebelliousness of the Dixie Chicks, and to Gnarls Barkley's arty fusion of hip-hop and rock. (As if to ensure their votes, that dramatic duo crowned its debut with a cover of the Violent Femmes "Gone Daddy Gone," a huge sentimental fave among the aging peers of Kurt Cobain.)

As the industry crashes and mutates around them, Grammy voters are seeking comfort from quality. The top nods this year are undeniably classy, commercially respectable and (except for that Gnarls Barkley pick, which bursts out of the list like the moment at a party when the host gets out the Jagermeister) utterly predictable. That's not entirely a bad thing; we could use a little predictability amid all the industry's craziness. I don't even have to hope this year's winners will be deserving; it's already on the template that they will be.

Powers is The Times' pop music critic.

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