Associated Press/Chris Pizzello
The morning shows are still nattering on about what is alleged to have been the big scandal coming out of the Grammy Awards Sunday night: tweener singing sensation Justin Bieber's loss in the best new artist category.
The winner, in what is incessantly called an upset, was Esperanza Spalding, a young jazz bassist and singer. She's not a pop star, but isn't obscure, either-among other things she has been a featured performer at the White House and at the 2009 Nobel Prize ceremony.
Spalding's win has supposedly sent some Bieber fans into a frenzy, and the cable shows have agreeably turned it into an ongoing story.
What no one's saying is that the opposite is actually true. A win by Bieber would truly have been the upset.
Why? Because, to put it bluntly, the Grammys are a lecherous old bastard. If there's a cute gal in the mix, you can bet your Kim Carnes "Bette Davis Eyes" picture disc that she's going home with the trophy.
And nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in the best new artist race each year. This is one of the big four Grammys. The others are album of the year, record (i.e., single track) of the year, and song of the year—which is the songwriting award.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gives so many awards out (about 110) that lesser wins are the equivalent of Cracker Jack prizes—just about everybody gets one.
But in the big categories, the Grammys love themselves a comely young lass. The evidence?
Consider: In the last 41 years, a female solo artist has won Best New Artist 24 times, the vast majority of them attractive and pliable young stars well-tutored in industry games. Several more were bands fronted by a woman singer.
Exactly four were solo male artists.
Four of the last five best new artist Grammys went to a woman. Fourteen of the last 18 went to a woman, counting the band Evanescence, fronted by Amy Lee.
When it comes to the ladies, the Grammies are refreshingly indiscriminate. They recognize future major pop stars like Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera. They recognize flashes in the pan: Debby Boone, Paula Cole. They recognize talent—Carly Simon, Tracey Chapman, Rickie Lee Jones. One in a while, they even recognize an actual extraordinary artist, from the sturdy (Bette Midler) to the frail (Amy Winehouse).
But let's face it, a lot are cookie cutters, middling talents, industry tools: Carrie Underwood, LeAnn Rimes, Jody Watley, Toni Braxton, Sheryl Crow, and on and on.
The Winehouse win was extremely unusual, though, in that NARAS voters are a little scared of tough and uncompromising women. You'll note that there aren't too many timeless female stars there. No Diana Ross or Ronnie Spector; no Patti Smith or Chrissie Hyde. No Madonna (!; she wasn't even nominated), and no Liz Phair, Courtney Love, or PJ Harvey.
The Grammy voters don't like variations on the theme; they just like the theme: Young gals who aren't going to cause any trouble. (Most years three women are among the nominees, and it's not unusual for there to be four. Once in a while, counting bands that have female lead singers, all five have female faces.)
So the big surprise would have been if Bieber had won. Leaving aside John Legend, who's arguably a pretty boy, the male winners tend not to be pinups. Last year's best new artist winner was the Zac Brown Band, an amiable county outfit whose portly leader is extravagantly hirsute and doesn't appear in public without a fetching wool cap pulled down over his head.
It should have been obvious that the Grammy voters weren't going to be giving any statuettes to cute young competition like Justin Beiber.
Now, the real surprise at the Grammys was the album of the year win to The Suburbs by the Arcade Fire. This was truly a landmark—a critically acclaimed album by a young rock band. The Grammys are quite good with black artists. Many signal albums, from Fulfillingness' First Finale to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, from Thriller to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, have won in this category.
For white rock? Not so much. Traditional rock bands rarely win record of the year. In the 50-plus-year history of the award, it has happened but six times, counting the Arcade Fire's win this week.
Even the stodgy academy couldn't refuse Sgt. Pepper a Grammy, almost 45 years ago. That stood as a very unusual award—while we think of Sgt. Pepper today as being rather late in the band's career, the Beatles had only been around a few years at the time.
It would be ten years before a major record by a major band won again: Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, in 1978. About a decade after that came a record of the year win for U2's The Joshua Tree, in 1988.
The other winners? One was the imaginatively entitled IV by the faceless sessions musicians d.b.a Toto (remember them?) in 1983. And for some unaccountable reason, U2 won again, in 2006, for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
With the hoopla over the Arcade Fire and Spalding, overlooked is how the other two big awards the other night were just business as usual for the Grammys: Song and record of the year went to the country-pop group Lady Antebellum, a group whose only distinguishing feature is the manifold ways in which its name is distasteful.
At the show the band played its part well, acting appropriately stricken with wonder at its wins. Do you have to ask whether the group has a female lead singer?