One step behind

February 11, 2007


As the Recording Academy gears up to celebrate half a century of handing out golden gramophones -- tonight's Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles is the 49th annual -- it's worth looking at how the Grammy Awards actually work.

What was originally the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences was formed in 1957 by the music industry's old guard as a reaction to that scourge called rock 'n' roll. The Grammys were established to denigrate this new "talentless noise" by honoring "good music" from artists such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Doris Day.

"We shall judge a record on the basis of sheer artistry, and artistry alone," reads the Grammy credo. "Sales and mass popularity are the yardsticks of the record business. They are not the yardsticks of this academy."

If you believe that, there's a bridge for sale in Brooklyn. One look at the list of Grammy winners through the years offers plenty of evidence that the awards often go to the artists who've made the most money for the people who give out the awards, although there are myriad other hidden agendas, few of which have anything to do with "artistry and artistry alone."

The 20,000 members of what is now called simply the Recording Academy include plenty of artists, but there are even more old-school music industry professionals, ranging from record company executives obsessed with their stock portfolios to recording engineers who spend most of their time down in the trenches, taping commercial jingles. A cutting-edge group it is not.

When the Grammys were first presented in 1958, top honors went to Domenico Modugno ("Volare") and Alvin & the Chipmunks; young hooligans such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly had all recorded music that is now considered classic, but they weren't even nominated. And so it went through the '60s: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones made some of the most influential sounds ever during that decade, but they never won a Grammy, and in 1965, the Beatles' "Help!" was bested for Album of the Year by the Anita Kerr Group's "We Dig Mancini."

The Recording Academy started to get a little hipper in the late'70s, and it spent much of the '80s and '90s playing a constant game of catch-up, heaping awards on artists such as Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana long after their creative primes to make up for the slights of years past. This year's multiple nominees Mary J. Blige, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and producer Rick Rubin arguably fall into this make-good category.

As a result, a look at the top Grammy winners for any given year often presents a picture oddly out of step with the sounds proven by time to have been the freshest and most innovative. Witness 1976, a year that saw the last great creative flourish of disco, the rise of punk rock and classic album releases by David Bowie, Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Marley, to name a few. The Grammys would have us remember the Bicentennial via that year's big award winner: the Starland Vocal Band, who gave us the, um, unforgettable single, "Afternoon Delight."

Aside from chronically being behind in the times in a broader sense, the Grammys are literally behind the times every year because they do not count any fourth quarter releases. The Recording Academy defines the year 2006 as Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006, discounting the many high-profile releases the music industry traditionally saves for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Academy has long defended this practice as a necessity for accurately polling its members to determine the nominees, then tallying their votes to determine the winners. This may have been a sad truth in the era of paper ballots. But we are now living in a time where people can buy car insurance, check in with their doctor and in some states even vote instantly online. There's simply no reason for this time lag anymore.

For all of these problems, however, the Grammys remain the closest thing popular music has to the Oscars because there is a regulated voting system, something that can't be said for other music prizes like the MTV Video Music Awards and Dick Clark's American Music Awards. That's why, every year, music lovers tune into the telecast hoping for something better. And all too often, they wind up throwing things at their TV sets in frustration once more.


Announcements have come in pieces as to who's presenting awards and performing at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, 7 tonight on WBBM-Channel 2. Here's the roll call of who'll be on stage:


The hotly anticipated reunion

After weeks of speculation, the Police confirmed that the band will reunite to open the Grammys singing the hit single that broke them in America 30 years ago, "Roxanne." The group -- Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland -- has not performed live since its 2003 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the Grammy appearance is widely expected to kick off a year's worth of reunion shows throughout the world -- likely the announcement they're making at a Monday morning press conference in Los Angeles.

The clever pairings, triplings

What would Grammy be without oddball collaboration performances?

  • Shakira and Wyclef Jean will team up for a song.
  • So will Earth, Wind & Fire, Mary J. Blige and Ludacris.
  • Chris Brown, Lionel Richie and Smokey Robinson will perform during a tribute segment to male R&B artists.
  • Rascal Flatts will join Carrie Underwood for a tribute to country-influenced rock.
  • There's also a trio of John Mayer, John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae.


    The big names

    The event also will feature performances from James Blunt, T.I., Beyonce, the Dixie Chicks, Gnarls Barkley, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Ludacris, Justin Timberlake and Carrie Underwood.

    The presenters

    Among those presenting awards are Burt Bacharach, Natalie Cole, Reba McEntire, Chicago rapper Common, Alyson Hannigan, Cobie Smulders, Mandy Moore, Quentin Tarantino, Luke Wilson, Natasha Bedingfield, Tony Bennett, comedian Lewis Black, actor Nicolas Cage, jazz legend Ornette Coleman, LeAnn Rimes, Seal, actor David Spade, the Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger, Joan Baez, Melissa Etheridge, Jennifer Judson, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder and Chris Rock.