Grammy Awards: A grab bag lacking anyclear focus


Grammy Award seasons seem to swing between years that are set up for one artist to run the table, the rarer occasion of two similarly popular and critically adored acts dueling for top honors, occasions when a particular genre or musical trend dramatically emerges as ascendant, and grab-bag years without a clearly discernable theme heading in.

Last year's ceremony was handicapped to be the coronation of Adele, and the trend held true once the envelopes started opening. The 2013 Grammys, which will be broadcast on CBS Sunday night, may be more of the grab-bag variety.

Although the number of awards actually bestowed on the televised broadcast has shrunk in recent years, as the evening has turned into more of an all-star musical revue punctuated by the occasional trophy distribution, award diehards will have a new opportunity to get their fix this year. For the first time, the pre-broadcast ceremony, in which the bulk of the 81 category awards are given out, will be streamed live on the web beginning at 4 p.m.

In the main program, there will be a tribute to the late Levon Helm including Elton John, Mumford & Sons, Mavis Staples and others, plus performances by many of the nominees.

Unexpected pairings are likely to be a highlight.

To the numbers. Five artists top the nomination list with six nods each -- rappers Jay Z and Kayne West, emergent new-school R&B artist Frank Ocean, rockers fun., and British Americana act Mumford & Sons. (Ocean and fun. are also in the Best New Artist bin.)

Most press reports will tell you that The Black Keys and Miguel rank second with five nominees each, but no one seems to have noticed that legendary jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea snagged five as well. (Three of those went to his latest collaboration with vibraphonist Gary Burton; the first show of the tour in support of that album proved a very memorable night at Ozawa Hall last August.)

From there, the ladies start weighing in: recently minted perennial favorite Kelly Clarkson follows up her appearance at President Barack Obama's
inauguration with four nominations, Taylor Swift snagged a perhaps-disappointing three, and, about a trillion YouTube views and earworms later, newcomer Carly Rae Jepsen rode "Call Me Maybe" to two Grammy nods.

After traditionalists noticed the increasing dearth of rock acts competing in the major categories some recent years, the Grammys performed a bit of course correction this year with the Album of the Year category, featuring efforts by The Black Keys, fun., Jack White, and Mumford & Sons (who are at least a band, if not rockers) before squeezing in Ocean.

It's not a trend that extends too far. The biggest glamour category of the event, Record of the Year, features more of a mix: The Black Keys' "Lonely Boy," Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," "We Are Young" by fun., "Somebody That I Used To Know" by Gotye featuring Kimbra, Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You," and Ms. Swift's latest breakup effort "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." (After the ubiquity of that leadoff single, Swift's 2012 album "Red" seemed to represent a slight cool-off in Swift's cultural presence -- which might have peaked earlier in the year with the debut of her polka-dot bikini at Hyannisport, though legions of locals could nominate her appearance with James Taylor at Tanglewood -- perhaps accounting for her absence in the Album of the Year and Record of the Year categories.)

Song of the Year, which goes to the songwriter (rather than the performance), features the same songs from fun. and Clarkson, but makes room for "Call Me Maybe" (penned by Jepsen with Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsey), Ed Sheeran's "The A Team," and Miguel's "Adorn."

Joining Ocean and fun. in the tumble for best new artist is Alabama Shakes, Hunter Hayes and The Lumineers.

A late-emerging wrinkle in the award broadcast is a directive from CBS to everyone to cover up. Apparently a direct manifestation of the chilling effect caused by overly aggressive FCC fines, a memo leaked to the press advises nominees, performers, presenters, and anyone in the audience who may appear on television to keep it clean. "Thong type costumes are problematic. Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack," the memo reads in part.

It pivots from tragically hilarious to Orwellian, however, with the instruction that no accessory may reference an organization or cause "visibly spelled out." So, a red AIDS ribbon passes snuff, for instance, but if Chris Martin has "Fair Trade Now" spelled out in magic marker on his knuckles, he'd be in violation.

To be fair, I suppose, the evening is about generating revenue and distributing bankable honorifics, not artistic expression. I suppose it's lucky "Thong Song" isn't nominated this year.


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