Grammy experts bet on a big night for Taylor Swift
Pop & Hiss will live-blog the Grammys on Sunday, beginning with the pre-show telecast at 1 p.m. Pacific.
There's more familiarity than surprises in the main categories at this year's Grammy Awards. The 15 nominees for the top three categories -- album, record and song -- are spread among just seven artists.
Though the Grammy Awards were never exactly left-of-center in its top fields, this year has a decidedly pop bent. Young country-crossover superstar Taylor Swift, veteran R&B diva Beyonce and the dance-friendly art project that is Lady Gaga combined for a total of 23 nominations, and all three showed up in the Grammys' top three categories.
The Envelope polled a panel of experts, including Times pop critic Ann Powers, Entertainment Weekly's senior writer Whitney Pastorek, Spin's associate editor David Marchese, The Envelope's awards guru Tom O'Neil and music writer/former Idolator.com editor Maura Johnston, among others, to get a gauge how and why Grammy voters will make their picks.
The full grid is here, and below are some of the findings.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Swift has won seemingly every major award in 2009, and The Envelope's pundits are predicting her "Fearless" to take the top prize. It's rare to see the Grammys give the top honor to such a young artist (who's only on her second album), but few artists have had the kind of breakout, crossover success as Swift.
As The Times' Powers wrote, "Taylor Swift 'saved' the music industry this year. Beyonce will get the middle-ground vote; Gaga's rocket-rise happened too late to push her ahead of her rivals here. Nobody thinks of the Peas as album artists, and who put that Dave Matthews Band album in here, anyway? It's fine, but no ground-breaker."
Johnston included an equation as to why Swift would win, noting that without an industry stalwart, a la Herbie Hancocok or Ray Charlies, in the running, the country darling should coast. "Artistry + monster sales - plausible threat from low-selling record by member of music's old guard = Taylor's biggest win of the night."
The Times' August Brown isn't counting out Dave Matthews. He writes, "Dave Matthews is the dark horse here for his joyful yet elegiac career-redefiner 'Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King,' but this night is likely to be all about cementing Swift as the next superstar-for-life."
Ultimately, five voters chose Swift, one went with Beyonce and Spin's Marchese placed his bet on Lady Gaga, reasoning that "Gaga defined the year."
RECORD OF THE YEAR
Can Swift sweep the big three categories? Envelope pundits liked her diary anthem "You Belong With Me" here, with Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" as the runner-up. Receiving little love, however, was Beyonce's "Halo."
In the Swift camp is EW's Pastorek. She reasons, "Between her sales numbers and her colossal popularity among exactly the segment of the population the Grammys need so desperately to reach -- i.e. music-buying consumers under the age of 30 -- Taylor Swift will be irresistible to savvy and lazy voters alike. Whether or not she'll cap off her extraordinary year by sweeping this awards show is not the interesting question -- it's how on earth she'll follow this up."
Powers agreed. "Though the calendar has turned, it's still Taylor's year. Commercial might plus ingenue charm will push her ahead of the equally unavoidable Peas in this category. Rock fans will prop up the Kings above Lady Gaga, whose song in this category is too old, and Beyonce, entered here with a ballad that's the blandest hit from her nominated album."
Brown got more to the point. "If there’s anything the mercurial Grammy voters can agree upon, it’s a country-tilting, mega-selling, effortlessly charming singer who already ran the table on every other major awards gauntlet last year."
There was little agreement on best new artist. The only consensus was on British dance-pop duo the Ting Tings, who received zero first-place votes and ranked fifth on The Envelope's chart. Synthy duo MGMT finished in the front, receiving three first-place votes, but country's Zac Brown Band earned two, and R&B singer and local rockers the Silversun Pickups earned one apiece.
Pastorek was the sole voter for Silver Lake's the Silversun Pickups. She argued, "The Silversun Pickups sound like a band that have been around forever. Because they have. Expect their warm, familiar sound to edge out the edginess of MGMT (a band that has also been around basically forever)."
But Powers disagreed, opting for MGMT. She wrote, "Keri Hilson might surprise in this category, but despite her breakthroughs and big collaborations with the likes of P. Diddy, Plies and Trey Songz, her profile remains strangely low. MGMT seems to generate a lot of goodwill among music industry folk. Silversuns might get the local vote. Zac Brown Band has been robbed at plenty of other awards ceremonies this year, and the Ting Tings seem simultaneously too old and too new -- if that's possible."
The last country artist to win this award was "American Idol's" Carrie Underwood. Johnston is betting on the Zac Brown Band to return the prize to Nashville. She contends, "The Zac Brown Band's been kicking around the business for years, and they certainly had a breakout year in 2009, with success on the country charts and a Bonnaroo slot. Plus, something tells me that MGMT, Silversun Pickups, and the Ting Tings all going up against each other will result in the alt-rock bloc being split into three."
Brown thinks it's a toss-up. He writes, "While we ride hard for Silver Lake and its favorite sons and daughters in Silversun Pickups on these pages, Grammy rarely rewards the fringes in this category, so it feels like a tossup between Zac and Keri. The latter had more than one impactful single, so we’ll take Ms. Hilson over Mr. Chicken Fried."
SONG OF THE YEAR
A songwriter's award, Swift is still a favorite here, but the competition is closer. Oddly, Swift ranked No. 1, but had only one first-place vote. How did that happen? The Envelope's grid is based on a point system, with first place votes worth 5 points, second place votes worth 4 points and so on and so forth. First place votes in this category were scattered, with most voters placing Swift second, which added up to give her the edge.
The lack of a clear winner was likely due to the fact that Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" was in the running here. Thought a massive hit, some argue its success is based more on its production than its songwriting. Beyonce and Kings of Leon each received three first-place votes.
Here's what Powers had to say: "Admit it. You are doing the 'Single Ladies' dance right now, as you read this."
Brown also go to the point: "Undisputed. America liked it, Grammy will put a ring on it."
Yet Johnston is confident this prize is going to the Kings of Leon. She writes, "'Use Somebody' is a rare animal in 2009 -- an old-fashioned rock song from a band that's been on the verge of making it since they were first birthed as the Southern Strokes. Though I can see Taylor Swift getting a lot of 'good on ya!' votes from people happy that singer-songwriters can sell well."
Photo, top left: Beyonce (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times), Lady Gaga (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times) and Taylor Swift (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)