The 2012 Grammy Nominees: Young, but Still Old-Fashioned

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 6 2012 12:22 PM

Grammys 2012: The New Traditional Vanguard

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Jack White, Grammy nominee, performs at Eurockeennes Music Festival

Photo by David Wolff - Patrick/Getty Images

This year’s Grammy nominations, announced last night, represent a changing of the pop-music guard in some respects. The Big Four categories—record  of the year, album of the year, song of the year, and best new artist —are absent any music-industry stalwarts; the relative veterans in those categories are inaugural American Idol Kelly Clarkson (who won Idol in 2002) and Jack White, who debuted with the White Stripes in the late ’90s.

While this may appear surprising —particularly in a year that saw the release of Lionel Richie’s strong-selling Tuskegee, for which the Grammy favorite reworked his past hits with Nashville titans like Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton—a closer look reveals that the Grammys are still operating in a traditionalist vein. The only difference between next February’s ceremony and those that took place during years when Herbie Hancock and Robert Plant won trophies? Younger artists have taken up the banner for classicist ideals of rock and... well, rock.

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Given the omnipresence in 2012 of YouTube-bred hits like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (which got two nominations, including a song of the year nod for its songwriters) and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (shut out), the guitar-bass-drums bias of the Album of the Year and Best New Artist categories are striking. The bluesy Alabama Shakes will take on up-and-coming country singer Hunter Hayes, record-biz-purgatory refugee Frank Ocean, arena-emo band fun., and the neo-Americana act the Lumineers in the best new artist category. Of these five acts, Hayes and fun. are probably the most pop-skewing. The Lumineers’ shouty take on folk music sounds like a hybrid of Mumford & Sons and the Arcade Fire, but focus-grouped with Grammy voters for maximum award-winning effect—while the Shakes’ fiery live presence, led by frontwoman Brittany Howard, is tempered on record. Then there’s Ocean, who nods toward newer trends in R&B with his narcotic, self-lacerating take on soul, but whose sweet falsetto operates squarely in the tradition of forebears like Marvin Gaye.

Similarly, the artists up for album of the year skew young—Jack White, at 37, is the category’s elder statesman—but all of the records fall squarely into established notions of “real” music. (They’re also all men.) White and the Black Keys turned in expert takes on straightforward, blues-tinged rock with their most recent records; Mumford & Sons’ spin on traditionalist American music might be imported from the UK, but it’s hit a sweet spot with the dwindling number of people who actually pony up for music. fun.’s Some Nights might have snagged some sonic tricks from Kanye West’s “Runaway” (courtesy of producer Jeff Bhasker, whose work on the album nabbed him a Producer of the Year nomination), but the album —particularly its first two singles, the omnipresent “We Are Young” and the thundering “Some Nights” —is the most blatant Freddie Mercury homage to land on pop radio since George Michael collaborated with Queen on “Somebody To Love” 20 years ago.  

Many pundits are picking Ocean to sweep the three big categories he’s nominated in—record and album of the year and best new artist. (He’s also up for best urban contemporary album, and he received two nods for his assist on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church In The Wild.”) Acclaim for him has been steadily building since he first hooked up with the Odd Future collective, and the letter that immediately preceded Channel Orange’s release, in which he revealed that he had been artistically inspired by falling in love with a man, only increased his Q rating. But I wouldn’t completely count out a sweep by fun. Instead. They’re nominated in the record, song, and album categories, as well as for best new artist—and  Bhasker’s nomination suggests widespread admiration for Some Nights. And the album’s sonic ambitions were matched by its commercial performance, not just in record sales and Spotify love but with other key revenue sources in the post-diamond-certification era. (“We Are Young” got its first big boost from a Super Bowl ad.) Kelly Clarkson’s motivational “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” is the only track besides “We Are Young” to nab record and song of the year nominations; it’s a dark horse to win at least one of those trophies.

The genre-specific categories present a more varied picture. A number of artists received five or six nominations (including Ocean, fun., Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Miguel) instead of one artist or record running away with a slew of nods. While this shows just how vast the pool of worthy albums has become—in spite of the music industry’s commercial struggles—the triumph of the new traditional vanguard is visible there, too.

Biggest Snubs: The R&B singer Miguel garnered five nominations, including one for song of the year for his sinuous “Adorn,” but his Kaleidoscope Dream was snubbed in album of the year. This just seems wrong : Its big-tent take on R&B is surely appropriate for one of the few categories not hemmed in by narrow notions of musical style. And then there was Fiona Apple, whose The Idler Wheel... only got nominated for best alternative music album—up against Bj√∂rk, Gotye, M83, and Tom Waits—despite being one of the most musically ambitious albums of the year. Is by-the-numbers blues rock really that superior to an album that combines cabaret, avant-jazz, classicist pop songwriting, and heartbreak?

Biggest Mystery: Who is Al Walser, nominated in the Best Dance Recording category among EDM superstars like Avicii and Skrillex? Spin has some answers, and they sort of read like the script to a dance-music Zelig.

Most Inexplicable Nominee: The Rock of Ages soundtrack, nominated in the “best compilation soundtrack for visual media” category, and featuring the likes of Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin bellowing their way through lighter-worthy hits from the ’80s. Surely it’s not too late to move it to best comedy album.

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