Are The Grammys Out Of Touch With Popular Music?

Nominations like Tonic's Best Rock Album nod have raised many eyebrows.

When the Grammy nominees were announced in early January, few were more surprised than guitarist Jeff Russo, whose band Tonic earned two nominations.

"As a matter of fact, when we were told, all of us thought it was a joke," Russo recalled. "We did not expect them at all."

Neither did anyone else. Sure, Tonic's Best Rock Album-nominated Head on Straight garnered decent reviews, but it sold poorly and had no radio support. And "Take Me As I Am" was a standout song, but not nearly as significant as other Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal nominees from Coldplay, U2, and Chad Kroeger and Josie Scott.

Tonic have grown obscure since the days of "If You Could Only See," but they're still better known than Eartha Moore, who will compete against Aaliyah, Ashanti, Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

"Who?" asked Liz Hernandez, the news corespondent for Los Angeles hip-hop and R&B juggernaut KWPR-FM.

"I've never heard of her," admitted Peter DeGraaff, the music director for Orlando, Florida, top 40 powerhouse WXXL-FM.

Moore does have a following in the contemporary Christian scene, but that's not the point.

The point, according to music industry insiders who follow the Grammys, is the Recording Academy is out of sync with what's happening in popular music, perhaps now more than any other year.

Nominees for the big four — Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist — offer no surprises, but things certainly get peculiar in the genre categories.

Petey Pablo and Mystikal are competing for Best Rap Album with Eminem, Nelly and Ludacris, while the more critically acclaimed and commercially successful Jay-Z, Nas and Ja Rule are not. The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, God's Son and The Last Temptation were released after the October 1 deadline, but the 2001 releases Unplugged, Stillmatic and Pain Is Love all qualify.

Soundtrack of our Lives and Clinic are vying for Best Alternative Music Album with Beck, Coldplay and Elvis Costello, but the bands more significant to the so-called rock comeback of 2002, like the Hives and the Vines, are not. (The Strokes and the White Stripes were released too early in 2001 to qualify.)

Canadian Remy Shand made only a small commercial and radio splash in 2002 but managed to earn three Grammy nominations: Best R&B Album, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song. Raphael Saadiq, whose sales figures are comparable to Shand's, is nominated in two of those categories and three others.

Then there's Bowling for Soup up against No Doubt, 'NSYNC, Dave Matthews Band and Bon Jovi in the Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal category (see "Who The Hell Is The Grammy-Nominated Band Bowling For Soup?") and blues singer Susan Tedechi in the Best Female Rock Vocal Performance category with Avril Lavigne, Sheryl Crow and others.

And it only gets stranger. India.Arie and Stevie Wonder's "The Christmas Song" is up for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals, even though it originated as a commercial and was released on promotional Arie CDs available only at Target stores.

The Best Female Rap Solo Performance category includes Missy Elliott's little heard "Scream a.k.a. Itchin," Lauryn Hill's even less heard "Mystery of Iniquity" and Charli Baltimore's "Diary ...," which was only at radio a few days before her label pulled it because of poor response.

The Best Short Form Music Video category includes "Knoc" by Knoc-Turn'Al featuring Missy Elliott and Dr. Dre, and "My Culture" by 1 Giant Leap featuring Robbie Williams and Maxi Jazz — hardly MTV staples — but not the White Stripes' commended "Fell in Love With a Girl."

Perhaps the most outrageous category is the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. Perpetual hit makers the Neptunes are not nominated — because apparently no one thought to submit them (see "The Only Thing The Neptunes Can't Produce Is A Grammy") — but Dr. Dre, on a slow year, and Arif Mardin are.

"I was surprised," Mardin said. "I only did one project to qualify, and I'm looking at the other nominated people and they've done three or four projects. I feel a little embarrassed."

So should the Recording Academy, according to WXXL's DeGraaff. As he scanned through the nominations, he had trouble finding songs that actually aired on his top 40 station, especially in the pop categories. "Bowling for Soup? How did that get here?" he asked. "Their idea of what pop music is seems way off."

"I would like to see who votes for these," added KWPR's Hernandez.

Except in craft categories, like Producer of the Year, which are determined by special committees, Grammy nominations are determined by the 18,000-member National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, made up of music professionals and record label executives.

The reason many of the Grammy nominations are off, according to Paul Fischer, a recording industry professor at Middle Tennessee State University, is that most of the academy is focused on the business of music.

"My sense is that the Grammys are more about who the industry thinks is important than who is making the best or most compelling music," he explained. "At this time, with their business priorities completely misaligned, we should expect the nominees to be more than casually incomprehensible. The more the industry focuses on short-term numbers and strategies about new technologies, the more out of sync they will be with the evolution of music and the marketplace."

Of course, not everyone is against the academy.

"I think it's a great thing that these awards are obviously not a popularity contest," Tonic's Russo said. "It's just about the music."

For more Grammy news, check out the MTV News Grammy Archive.