A few misguided choices aside, Chris Willman says the Recording Academy is coming ever closer to naming critical faves
Alicia Keys
Credit: Alicia Keys: Paul Bergen/Redferns/Retna

Why the Grammys got things mostly right

The Recording Academy has been a beleaguered organization of late, what with all the news stories about Dick Clark’s lawsuit and accusations of sexual harassment against president Michael Greene. The last thing they needed right now is any controversy over the Grammy nominations themselves.

Well, there won’t be any. This year’s Grammy nods offer a little bit of something for everybody. Into neo-soul? India.Arie got seven nominations, Alicia Keys six. How about classic rock? U2 topped the tallies with eight chances at a win this year. Jumping on the Americana train? Alison Krauss got five, Lucinda Williams four; the ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack was responsible for four mentions, too — five, if you count T Bone Burnett’s nod for producer of the year, and six if you think of it as a phenomenon and count a nomination for the album’s live sequel, ”Down from the Mountain.” There were mad props for hip-hop, too, with the critically acclaimed OutKast up for five statuettes. And no one will get to say the best-reviewed album of the year, Bob Dylan’s ”Love and Theft,” was robbed, with its three citations.

You might even have left the morning press conference thinking the critics picked the Grammys this year — which is just the way the Academy likes it, after suffering through decades of journalistic abuse while artists like Toto, Quincy Jones, and Tony Bennett walked away with all the gold.

Sure, there are still plenty of embarrassments to go around: Look at the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance nominees, who include such cutting-edge groundbreakers as James Taylor, Brian McKnight, Michael Jackson, and Elton John. That category, and others like it, was conveniently left out of the morning press conference, in favor of the divisons with hipper names. Still, the awards have rebounded a long way from the Milli Vanilli scandal, even if they’re never quite going to match the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll stroke for Strokes.

Is there any price to be paid for this fairly recent streak of Grammy semi-credibility? Well, just a tiny one, now that you mention it. In key categories, the nominations are now shepherded by ”blue ribbon” committees that separate the wheat from the chaff — that is, make sure some critical favorites make it in alongside the megasellers. That helps make the Grammys look a lot smarter than they used to, but it also makes the process more elite. In other words, the lesser-selling or cult acts who get nominated may not be enjoying the support of their peers so much as the desperate need for approval of a small group of people locked in a room wondering what will make the Grammys not look ridiculous.

I’ve always wondered if the general public realizes how few people vote for some of the awards that get so much attention. In film, the Golden Globes are the next-biggest thing to the Oscars, and they’ve historically been voted on by barely over a hundred members of the Hollywood Foreign Press, an organization not traditionally known for its surfeit of film scholars or rocket scientists. The brand-new AFI Awards are similarly being selected by panels of about a hundred people. At least the AFI’s voters are hand-picked, reputable film buffs, but it still can hardly be said to represent any kind of consensus when the voting bloc is that tiny. The same now goes for the Grammy nominations, even though the general membership gets a crack at the final awards.

I’m not suggesting it’s better to return to the old ways. The Grammy electorate, much more than the Oscar electorate, has proven itself untrustworthy over time, and putting the nominating process into the hands of some folks who at least make a stab at pretending to listen to a lot of the year’s music makes sense.

As a critic, I guess I shouldn’t look for too many reasons to carp at a time when the Grammy nominations at least partly reflect a critical consensus. Or at least in a year when bluegrass great Ralph Stanley got as many nominations (two, to be exact) as that somnambulistic Eric Clapton album. Who am I to look a gift Grammy in the mouth?

See this year’s Grammy nominations here

What did you think of the Grammy nominations?