The Grammys! They’re happening Sunday! As part of our team coverage in the week leading up to music’s big celebration, Popdust’s Maura Johnston will chat with noted pop-watcher Chris Molanphy about the artists and entities who might be a little more on edge than their black-tie-wearing compatriots—whether it’s because they have a lot to gain from a killer performance or a surprise win, or a bit to lose from not measuring up to expectations. To close out the week, a discussion of what the Grammys might mean for pop music.
Maura Johnston: So then. What does Sunday mean for pop? The Grammys definitely went more in that direction this year.
CM: I'm trying to think of when the Grammys were as pop-oriented as they are now. I think we'd have to say the early-to-mid-'80s, thanks in large part to the binding force that was Michael Jackson.
CM: Michael's big Grammy night came in '84—Thriller came out in December of '82, making it eligible for the '83 Grammys covered by the '84 show.
CM: But here's the thing—and this is what your CNN piece implies—this time, the Grammys' move toward pop feels more like a conscious choice they made. The mid-'80s were the last time monoculture-style pop was effortlessly at the center of the zeitgeist.
CM: Over the next two decades, you had two pop "boomlets": New Kids at the turn of the '90s, and BSB-NSync-Britney at the turn of the '00s. At both times, NARAS was much choosier in terms of acknowledging any of that stuff; in the early '90s, they were giving AotY to stuff like Quincy's Back on the Block and Natalie Cole's Unforgettable, and in 2000 (covering 1999 music), they gave everything to Santana.
CM: This year, the NARAS nominating committee have almost forced the voting members to contend with pop. They resisted the temptation to put anything oldsterish or Starbucks-ish in the Album of the Year category. (I guess Arcade Fire is Starbucks-ish, but still.)
CM: It's a more centrist, pop-leaning lineup than they've had in years.
MJ: The Song of the Year category is a contrast in that respect, though. It's very roots-heavy; songs by Ray LaMontagne and Miranda Lambert, who aren't up for record of the year, knock out two hip-hop tracks, although "Love The Way You Lie" stays.
MJ: "Love The Way You Lie" being the lone survivor is a bit weird because it's the most verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-end of the three hip-hop songs in Song of the Year category, although I guess there's something to be said for its drama.
CM: Honestly? if this is how NARAS is going to handle those two categories going forward—Record and Song, I mean—I'm fine with that. I mean, sure, I'm still offended a little by the oldster argument that rap songs aren't "compositions" per se.
CM: But if, in a larger sense, they want to say, "Song is a traditionalist category, Record is a category that acknwoledges a song as a pop artifact," I'm ok with that. Better that than the old mode, where Record and Song would go to something like Natalie Cole's resurrecting-my-Dad track, or a couple of years ago, when not only did the Plant-Krauss album took the Album of the Year prize (natch), their little-heard single "Please Read the Letter" took Record.
CM: I mean, one way or another, the Grammys have got to get comfortable with pop. Not because this current boomlet of pure pop is never going to go away. I'm sure in two to four years from now the pendulum will shift again, but songs as studio-created/laptop-based artifacts are where all of popular music, regardless of genre, is going.
MJ: I think the Producer of the Year category will serve maybe as a harbinger of how comfortable the voting body is with the current pop zeitgeist.
CM: Yes. Whether your prediction (RedOne) or mine (Smeezingtons/Luke) comes true in that category, that's a big vote by NARAS for centrist pop... unless they dis us both and go with Rob Cavallo.
MJ: Or Danger Mouse!
CM: Weirdly, he's the T-Bone Burnett of the category this year, which I never thought I'd say about him!
CM: I think you were right in your piece that the pendulum shift started with Swift at last year's Grammys. She's a digital-age pop act (from country, but still...) NARAS can get behind.
MJ: And Gaga, for her part, has "artistry" on her side, and last year's Elton John co-sign, which I guess could call up parallels to Eminem.
CM: Do you have a prediction for Record or Song? Do the two categories go in lockstep, or do they split? They're kind of the Best Director and Best Picture of the Grammys—often linked, but not always.
MJ: I think they split. Eminem wins record, and 'Fuck You' or 'Need You Now' wins song.
CM: That's plausible.
CM: If they go in lockstep, it's "Need You Now." I don't see a scenario where, even if Eminem is having a great night, he takes both of those. Particularly Song.
CM: The left-field pick I'd throw in there is "House That Built Me." Lambert is on such a roll, and she could pull a plurality of the Nashville vote. But more likely, I (like you) think it's "Love the Way You Lie" for Record and one of the country songs for Song. I'd love for Cee Lo to take the latter, but I don't see that happening.
CM: I think a big chunk of the NARAS voters will see that as a very entertaining novelty record.
CM: Weirdly, I think it's easier to get the Motion Picture Academy to give an Oscar to a song called "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" than it is to get the self-serious NARAS voter to give a Grammy to something called "Fuck You." It should be noted that Grammy committees pick the nominees, totally separately from the larger NARAS body that votes—so even if the committees could recognize that "Fuck You" was an excellent composition, I have a hard time believing that the wider NARAS membership will vote for "Fuck You."
CM: Again, I would LOVE to be wrong there.
MJ: Speaking of snubs, Ke$ha is pretty bummed that she wasn't nominated for anything.
CM: I must say, out of all the acts I have publicly come out in favor of over the past couple of months, I get more "What are you THINKING?!" comments about my enjoyment of Ke$ha. And these are from friends who aren't necessarily anti-current-music!
CM: For 10 years now, the name "Britney Spears" is the one rock-leaning or critical voices have reached for instantaneously as the avatar of disposable music. But I half-wonder if (finally) Ke$ha isn't taking Brit's place in the pantheon of Everything That Is Wrong With Modern Music.
MJ: I think that is very possible. She captures a segment of the zeitgeist in a way. I was kind of turned off by her at first.
CM: Yeah, for people who consider themselves "tasteful"—including NARAS—Ke$ha is the bridge too far. Iit's like NARAS said, "well, we wanna get younger and more with-it, but not that young, not THAT with-it."
MJ: But Katy Perry is tasteful!?!
CM: Well, her secnd album was the "respectability" move for her, right? Cream-shooting boobs notwithstanding.
CM: To be really fair—and I'm trying to think like a NARAS voter here—with Perry's 2010 output at least, the lyrical content was relatively modest and un-titillating, while the packaging ("Cali Gurls" video, Perry's barely-there outfits) was more extreme. That makes her no "worse" by their lights than Gaga.
CM: Whereas with Ke$ha, it's in the songs themselves: brushing teeth with bottle of Jack; walking around pantsless.
MJ: Katy is pantsless too, although I guess not lyrically.
CM: This is why I continue to worry about Cee Lo's chances with "Fuck You." It's the lyric. I don't think certain Grammy voters will be able to get past that, even though an estimated 99% of Grammy voters, even those Quincy's age, probably drop F-bombs in conversation on an hourly basis.
MJ: Well, but there aren't kids around in those spaces! Usually, anyway.