There were shocks aplenty at Sunday night's 53rd annual Grammy Awards, perhaps none as out-of-the-blue as Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year for The Suburbs, their meditation on the search for meaning, joy and a way out of the endless rows of same-y homes around big cities.
But the arena-rocking indie band didn't score the night's only big head-scratcher. Little-known jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding grabbed Best New Artist from a bummed Justin Bieber and critical-consensus front-runners Drake and Mumford & Sons; pop/country trio Lady Antebellum snagged Song and Record of the Year; and Eminem, up for 10 awards, took home just two in rap categories, losing out on Album of the Year for the third time.
The Grammys have practically made confounding choices their calling card at this point, but even for veterans such as Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers, some of Sunday night's winners (and losers) raised some deeper questions.
"I was totally surprised by the Arcade Fire win," she said. "I thought Eminem was going to sweep, and he did the opposite of sweep. I'm trying not to think of what that says about the recording industry, but that's what [Sunday night] was a commentary on, not popular taste."
After all, Eminem sold more than 4 million copies of Recovery, while The Suburbs has sold a phenomenal (for an indie label) 484,000 copies but hasn't come anywhere close to having the mainstream impact Slim Shady has had.
Part of the reason Arcade Fire may have landed the coup, Powers said, is that there's a new generation of people working in the music industry who came of age during the indie-rock revolution of the 1980s and 1990s and who are inspired by the band because they represent a look to the future, instead of the Grammys' more familiar tendency to reward older career artists.
"It made me happy, because they're voting for moving the music industry forward, and that's healthy that they're ethically and aesthetically minded," she said. "This is what we want music to be like in the near future — independent, artistically motivated more than motivated by commercial desire. We don't want it to pander."
As for why Eminem was shut out in the big categories, Powers said despite his crossover success with songs like the more vulnerable "Love the Way You Lie" with Rihanna, the Detroit MC is still a bit edgier and harsher than many Grammy voters are comfortable with. That might also explain the success of Lady Antebellum, who are the polar opposite: a totally accessible, pop crossover band with very little to offend anyone (except, apparently, a few bloggers who have begun asking questions about what their band name means and whether it's offensive).
Powers said the loss by Lady Gaga in a number of major categories presents the female flip side to the Eminem problem, in that she is great for ratings, takes risks in her music and is very, very popular but doesn't play well to conservative-minded voters. "She's offensive to people who are upset by her queer rhetoric, and Eminem is offensive to women and parents and people who want more happiness in their music," she said.
While it was a huge victory for independent music, Maura Johnston, a writer for the Popdust music blog, said in some ways, Arcade Fire's victory is a comfortable one for the Grammys. "The billboards I saw the most before the Grammys was the one featuring the Arcade Fire. The way their performance was touted during the whole show you would think they were U2," she said. "They sold a bunch of records, they had that YouTube concert the day the record was released and they have an arena-rock bombast a lot of indie acts don't."
In other words, with a slate of pop acts that either make them uncomfortable (Gaga, Eminem), don't feel quite right for the big prize (Katy Perry) or lack any edge (Lady Antebellum), Arcade Fire won because they have the most resonance and depth. Plus, Johnston said, it didn't help Eminem's chances that early in his career he was cavalier about dissing the Grammys, and perhaps some of those voters are still holding grudges.
"With Lady Gaga, they might not know what to do with her," she said. "I think they worry with pop artists about the flash-in-the-pan syndrome, and they may be wondering, 'Is this person going to last?' Arcade Fire has lasted for three albums and a number of years, and Lady Gaga is great for ratings, but is she going to be around or will she be another Grammy punch line?"
Both said the win by Spalding in the Best New Artist category was another example of voters going with the devil they know. Johnston said there was an audible gasp in the press room when the category's winner was announced, but in retrospect, it isn't all that surprising. "She's a very virtuosic player, the record is extremely palatable, she's a jazz artist who sings, which is the only kind of jazz record that wins the top awards, and it's the kind of record you have on your iPod and leave out so your new girlfriend thinks you're smarter than you are," Powers said. "It's accessible, intelligent music, and I'm glad it gave her a boost ... but I suspect she'll never have more than a boutique following."
As for who will benefit most from their exposure on the show, both agreed that Arcade Fire are likely to be pushed to a whole new level of success that could surpass even their career highlight of playing two sold-out Madison Square Garden shows last summer. "They had two songs on the broadcast, and it was an emotional win," Johnston said. "I think Esperanza will go up by some thousand percent, but she wasn't selling that much to begin with."
In the end, after years of trying to nudge their voting bloc and nominee slate out of the past and further into the now, Powers said despite lots of great performances from today's hitmakers, such as Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber and Gaga, Sunday night's show may have been a slide backward. Even with Arcade Fire's win and show-closing song, the night's biggest winner was Lady Antebellum, whom she described as "talented craftspeople who are a complete throwback to a certain kind of soft-rock/country sound that was popular in the '70s and '80s. But it was also a throwback for the Grammys themselves. The beef with the Grammys is that they always gave awards to Lionel Richie over Bruce Springsteen. However it happened [that Arcade Fire won], it was smart and good fortune for the Recording Academy, but if they had given the big one to Lady Antebellum, the show would have had a very different feel."
The good news, Powers said, is that the show pointed toward the future while also showing that the conventional recording industry is still focusing on bands like Lady Antebellum, "And I'm not sure that's a band that puts us toward the future."
Which Grammy winners and losers were you most surprised by? Let us know in the comments!
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