Grammy's Golden Age of Parity

The Grammys, like the National Football League, have achieved their own blissful state of parity. Eminem, far and away the year's most visible artist, received a once-hefty total of five nominations yesterday, and so did Bruce Springsteen, rock's largest living icon who released his most acclaimed album in almost two decades. Oh yeah, also receiving five nominations were pop newcomers Norah Jones, Avril Lavinge and Ashanti, as well as hip-hop heavyweight Nelly, rock's all-time leading collaborator Sheryl Crow, and R&B vet Raphael Saadiq.

So, how did eight artists tie for the most Grammy nods? Well, for the same reason as the NFL: In an age of unparalleled splintering demographics, nobody wants to see one team dominate. This year, there are 104 categories with five artists (sometimes more -- remember those duets!) facing off in each. That's 620 chances for your team to make the playoffs.

In addition to Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal, Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance, the Academy has added Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance (where, apparently, ordinary, non-city-dwelling folk are ineligible). If you make R and/or B music, you have forty opportunities.

And then there are the subdivision categories. Within Rock (not to be confused with Pop), there are separate Rock, Hard Rock and Metal categories (this year, the latter two both feature P.O.D.). However, the apparently more distinct Alternative (whatever that means in 2003) gets its own category separate from Rock, but Elvis Costello is featured in both.

All of this means that more or less any recording artist (except, apparently, Wilco) can get a nomination: commercial and critical successes (Eminem), commercial successes and critical misses (Nickelback), critical successes and sales misses (the Soundtrack of Our Lives), and even critical and commercial misses (Bowling for Soup). And just because an artist doesn't release an album in a given year, doesn't mean it can't get in on the action. The Academy has taken the title of U2's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind quite literally, as material from it (though pre-/re-released in alternate versions and formats) has grabbed Grammy nominations three years in a row.

The names on the once-tired Grammy ballot haven't so much changed -- they've expanded. So masked alterna-rockers Clinic get to hang with Kenny G. And, like another televised sport, as long as everybody believes that anybody can win, everybody wins.