The numbers stack up quickly when you start measuring Justin Bieber’s impact on pop music.
His “Believe” was the sixth-highest-selling album of 2012. The music video for his song “Baby” has been viewed more than 825 million times on YouTube. And as of this month he’s the most followed human being on Twitter, with nearly 34 million people hanging on his every tweet.
Yet another number defines Bieber’s relationship with the Grammy Awards, which are to be handed out Sunday evening at Staples Center: Zero. Bieber didn’t earn a single nomination for the music industry’s biggest prize. Not for album of the year. Not for record of the year. Not even for pop solo performance, a category that had room for a cut from Adele’s cash-grab live album.
It isn’t the first time the 18-year-old Canadian singer has been snubbed. Two years ago he lost the new artist Grammy to Esperanza Spalding, the jazz bassist and singer whose unexpected victory triggered a wave of ugly online hostility from Bieber’s fans.
But his being overlooked adheres to a long-established pattern: As Spalding’s win (among many others) demonstrated, Grammy voters are well known for privileging rock, jazz and folk over the perceived frivolity of pop. Even Madonna had to wait until 1999 — a full decade after “Like a Prayer” — to win one for something other than a music video.
Precedent, though, is hardly an excuse for a knee-jerk chauvinism that consistently misunderstands how music functions in the lives of millions of listeners. Four out of the five nominees for this year’s album award — all but Frank Ocean’s R&B; disc “Channel Orange” — offer variations on white guys playing guitars. Did the Recording Academy, which oversees the Grammy Awards, truly fail to find merit in other modes of expression?
OK, take a breath.
What Bieber does — the latest iteration of a teen-pop tradition from before the Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block and the Beatles — may not suit listeners looking for the next Bob Dylan. (Good luck with that!) And his talent isn’t fully formed in the manner of an all-around song-and-dance man such as Justin Timberlake. Headlining Staples Center late last year, Bieber was disappointingly opaque, a master of social media failing to connect in the real world.
But the kid is a brilliant record maker, as savvy and as strategic as anyone haunting the Hot 100. Listen to how he draws out the sweetness in his voice in “Catching Feelings,” a lush ballad from “Believe,” then emphasizes its grain for “Boyfriend,” which rides a stripped-down hip-hop beat. He’s improving too at a pace that might impress Timberlake: Compare the puerile “One Less Lonely Girl,” from 2009, to his current single, “Beauty and a Beat,” in which he holds his own against Max Martin’s brain-pummeling stadium-rave beat.
If we’re to take the name of the Recording Academy at face value, shouldn’t these skills — those of a top-notch recording artist — be precisely the ones the Grammys recognize?
At first glance this year’s nominees seemed to reflect an update of the Grammy mind-set, with relatively youthful acts such as Mumford & Sons and the Alabama Shakes dominating the major categories. (“We Are Young” by the pop-rock band Fun. is up for both record and song of the year.)
That freshening is deceptive, though: From the Black Keys’ souped-up garage blues to the Lumineers’ yelpy folk rock to the nice-guy blandishments of Nashville newbie Hunter Hayes, most of these contenders simply reupholster Grammy-approved styles, making familiar verities ring true again. They’re striving for timelessness at a moment when Bieber seems more interested in embodying his time.
Not that he’s able to resist proving himself by old-school metrics. Last week Bieber released “Believe Acoustic,” a set of unadorned voice-and-guitar performances pretty clearly designed to demonstrate that he can sing in the pre-Auto Tune sense of the word; the album is a victory of hardware over software, never more so than in a beautiful bossa-nova-style take on “Boyfriend.”
“Seeing alot of people out there loving but even more so respecting the #BELIEVEacoustic album,” he tweeted on Jan. 29. “Means alot. It is all about the Music.”
That may be true for Bieber, who’s said he won’t attend the Grammy ceremony (perhaps because he’s set to host “Saturday Night Live” in New York the night before). But in the world beyond his headphones there’s also an out-of-date value system at work, one that denigrates the expertise required to sound like right now.
His absence Sunday will be the Grammys’ loss.