Rocking My Life Away

Tradition and substance will govern this year's Grammys

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Last year at the Grammys, Eminem was the overwhelming story. His lyrics disparaging women and gays on The Marshall Mathers LP had incited an extraordinary amount of debate, but all of the hoopla had not prevented it from garnering a nomination for Album of the Year, one of the Grammys' most prestigious categories. In a bizarre gesture of support, Elton John offered to duet with Eminem on "Stan," and the performance, though it ultimately proved anticlimactic, was on the minds of all the Grammy commentators in the days leading up to the show.

Finally, when the Album of the Year award went to Steely Dan for the duo's perfectly fine, but inconsequential, Two Against Nature, it was apparent that Grammy voters had had enough of controversy. That vote was an unambiguous statement that, whether or not Two Against Nature was worthy of the prize, Steely Dan's long-established record of artistic credibility was preferable to Eminem's provocative rhymes. Eminem had won in three other, less visible categories, and the Grammys had displayed a rare -- and welcome -- edginess in acknowledging him as much as they did. But the limit for daring had clearly been reached.

This year's awards are, in part, a continued reaction against the Eminem episode and, as with so many things in our culture these days, a response to September 11th. In an understandably patriotic time, a period when everyone is concerned with emphasizing whatever is best about America, the music industry has no interest in being perceived as endorsing violence, bias or any other irresponsible behavior. Hence, the preponderance of squeaky clean, and on the whole, entirely worthy nominees. And the Grammys broadcast will unquestionably strike a similar note.

Not that the voters of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) didn't characteristically go over the top. The musical sophistication and general high-mindedness of Alicia Keys' Songs in A Minor produced six nominations which, while hardly a surprise, are excessive. Keys has been overhyped all year, and a backlash against that will reflected in the final voting. Still, she will make a strong showing, particularly for a debut artist. She will be the inevitable winner in the Best New Artist category, and "Fallin'," by far the strongest track on A Minor, will likely carry off Song of the Year.

India.Arie is a far more interesting case. Her debut album, Acoustic Soul, is a much more idiosyncratic record than Songs in A Minor and, partly for that reason, it hadn't made much of an impact before the Grammy nominations were announced and, to everyone's amazement, Arie was nominated in seven categories. Acoustic Soul is now a platinum album, and will no doubt do even better commercially after the Grammys show. Like Keys, Arie benefited from the post-September 11th desire to honor music of quality and spiritual ambition. Her duet with John Mellencamp on "Peaceful Word," a song that took on deeper meaning in the wake of the terrorist attacks and that is itself up for a Grammy, helped gain her attention -- and votes -- that she would not otherwise have received. That Arie and Keys are both African American, of course, also helped the Academy blunt criticism that it was giving short shrift to hip-hop's harder edge for racial reasons.

Leading the field with eight nominations, U2 stand to be the biggest winners at this year's Awards, after a strong showing last year. The band's long-standing credibility and Bono's well-publicized efforts to relieve world debt combine to make U2 a no-brainer, feel-good vote. The band's tendency to rise to the occasion onstage -- did you catch that spectacular performance at the Superbowl? -- ensures that U2's sales will soar after the Grammys show.

September 11th also lent momentum to another trend that had already been gathering steam: American roots music. The relatively small Lost Highway label quietly racked up fifteen Grammy nominations, driven by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack; the Hank Williams tribute, Timeless; and excellent releases by Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams. The Grammys broadcast will feature a tribute to O Brother that will, again, help that release boost its already quadruple-platinum sales.

So while this year's Grammys show will be short on contentiousness and drama, it will be long on inspiration. Just about every song and every artist that struck a chord after September 11th will be represented, and everyone will be working hard to put out a positive message. Popular music has often been a significant voice of protest and rebellion, and it doubtless will be again. But this year unity, tradition and substance will be the governing themes at the Grammys, and, whoever ends up winning or losing, my prediction is that everyone will emerge from that night feeling better about the good things music can mean.