Around this time last year, New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones swore off any commentary on Robert Plant and Alison Krause’s sweep of the album and record of the year Grammys for “Raising Sand,” their collection of bluegrass covers. Instead, he turned the floor over to his 11-year-old son:
“You know, I really like Led Zeppelin and I’m sure that Robert Plant made a good record, but I think that there are other records that both kids and adults liked, like maybe Coldplay or Lil Wayne.”
Frere-Jones’ point was that even an 11-year-old could see what cranky music critics had been grumbling over for years: the Grammys’ continuing tendency to ignore young, popular artists in favor of respected veterans in the major categories. All par for course in an awards process he says is defined by “an aging voting block try(ing) to grapple with an industry driven by music of, and by, the young.”
This tendency has produced a number of curious cases of late, in which late-career artists were given the nod over the consensus stars of the year. One can point to Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” beating out Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” in 2001, Herbie Hancock usurping both Kanye West and Amy Winehouse in 2008, Ray Charles posthumously trumping Green Day and Alicia Keys in 2005, or Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” edging out Radiohead’s landmark “OK Computer” in 1998.
But this year, Grammy voters flipped the script entirely, nominating a pop-forward collection of young artists in the major three categories (best record, song and album), with a troika of nominations for dance-pop chanteuse Lady Gaga, teen-starlet Taylor Swift and R&B empress Beyonce. Megaselling yet critically derided electro-rap quartet the Black Eyed Peas managed two noms in the big three, as did pop-rock hitmakers Kings of Leon.
With the exception of a surprise nomination for the Dave Matthews Band (no stranger to pop radio itself) in the best album slot, all nominees in the major categories are under 40, with most under 30. Never in the Grammys’ modern history have the noms skewed so young, or hewn so closely to the pop top-40 charts.
“This year the Grammys do reflect commerce: the best of what sold the most,” opines Sean Daly, music critic at the St. Petersburg Times. “Ten years ago, Gaga and the Peas would have competed in smaller categories. Or they would have been invited to perform, but they would have garnered scant nominations.”
Indeed, while the Grammys have never shied away from populist fare, the plethora of nominations for Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas seem particularly surprising, as both are unabashedly teen-targeted pop acts with almost no connection to the rock, soul or country bedrock that usually constitutes the Grammys’ bread-and-butter.
Perhaps even more surprising, though, is that despite eligible records from such untouchable Grammy luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bob Dylan, Prince, Eric Clapton and John Fogerty, the old guard failed to nab a single nomination in the major categories.
Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is hesitant to read too much into the tea leaves. “I wouldn’t call it a sea change,” he says. “After all, you see those artists all over the (other) nominations.”
Yet he does note that shifting demographics at the RA are changing the shape of the awards.
“We have, over the course of my tenure, continued to make a specific effort in terms of recruitment to keep the membership diverse — and diverse in terms of age, race, location, genre,” he says. “It’s by design, not by default. Part of what you see in the nominations is a reflection of that.”
Of course, the Grammys’ past inclination toward vet artists wasn’t due solely to fealty. Prior to his 2009 wins, Led Zeppelin legend Plant had never received a Grammy, nor had Steely Dan outside of the technical categories at the time of their win. Hancock was never honored for his crossover hit “Headhunters,” nor was Dylan for his string of classics in the ’60s and ’70s.
This tendency to make up for past omissions comes with a price, of course, perhaps best illustrated by Clapton’s 1993 win for his acoustic remake of “Layla.” Here the Grammys atoned for ignoring the recording — arguably the defining rock song of the ’70s — upon its original release, yet they did so at the expense of fellow nominee Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which has since come to be seen as the defining rock song of the ’90s.
Perhaps voters are wary of continuing this self-propagating process, in which retroactively honoring ignored stars only creates a new generation of Grammy-spurned artists. Yet in striving to be more au courant, some worry that the awards could lose the respect of more traditionalist members of the industry, with some critics objecting that the Grammys ought to reflect a more perspicacious view of lasting musical artistry than the fickle winds of the pop charts.
Daly agrees, yet notes that there are other, perhaps more important forces at work. “The integrity of the awards has been dinged a bit,” he says, “but are they more fun to watch? Do they do a better job getting people buying music? Absolutely. If ratings go up, you can expect to see the same thing year after year.”