Just over four decades ago, actor Peter Sellers presented the Beatles with a Grammy they'd won for the song "A Hard Day's Night." In a film of this event that was shown during the 1965 Grammy telecast, Sellers referred to the prize as a "Grandma award" -- and his joke rings true to this day. The folks behind the Grammys have tried to modernize the image and reputation of the ceremony in recent years, and they've succeeded to some degree; things aren't as bad as they were back when Christopher Cross was hauling away trophy after trophy. But last night's 49th annual spectacle (and Dixie Chicks love-fest) demonstrates why the Grammys remain the most dubious of the major entertainment-industry honors -- and considering how little credibility the Emmys have, that's really saying something.
Because the majority of those who cast Grammy ballots skew toward the older end of the age scale, they often reward the most veteran, best-known candidates in any race without regard to relevance or the current quality of work. That proved to be the case on Sunday with the very first telecast victors: Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder, who scored in the Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals category. Bennett and Wonder remain credible artists, but they've collected oodles of Grammys between them already, and their song (Wonder's "For Once In My Life") wasn't even a hit, unlike also-rans "Promiscuous," by Nelly Furtado and Timbaland, and "Hips Don't Lie," which teamed Shakira with Wyclef Jean. So why did they wind up on top? Because Grammy voters like them. They really, really like them.
The complete list of 2007 Grammy awardees features example after example of this phenomena. Hence, Denver's Devotchka, whose soundtrack for the film Little Miss Sunshine earned a nomination, never stood a chance. After all, their CD was pitted against the disc tied to the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which was overseen by T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy magnet over the years.
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A related Grammy tenet states: The safer and more familiar a performer, the better his or her chances. Hence, the triumph of generic American Idol champ Carrie Underwood as Best New Artist over quirky Imogen Heap and R&B up-and-comer Chris Brown. (Westword's recent profile of Heap can be found here, while our chat with Brown pops up after clicking this link.) So ironclad is the rule that Denver's other major nominee, the Fray, was shut out twice, losing to Black Eyed Peas and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And if voting for a group as accessible and unobjectionable as this one is seen as too risky, the process is much more conservative than it should be.
Politically, however, Grammy voters lean left, which likely accounts for the Dixie Chicks' Titantic-like sweep of the biggest baubles. Taking the Long Way, their latest album, and "Not Ready to Make Nice," the disc's lead single, are respectable pieces, but they're also self-conscious and heavy-handed. None of that mattered, however, since a vote for the Chicks was a vote against President George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and the establishment yahoos who virtually drummed the group out of the country-music scene because of an offhand comment made by lead singer Natalie Maines.
Then again, maybe we should be grateful the Chicks did so well, since they're neither bland, aged or dead, like so many other recent Grammy awardees. Sorry, Grandma. -- Michael Roberts