The Grammy Awards ceremony is tonight, but for Oregon State University's Bob Santelli, the event itself is just another stop in a two-week blur of activity.
Santelli, OSU's director of popular music and performing arts, is the founding executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and still maintains his ties to the organization. "Far and away, this is my busiest time of the year," he said in a recent interview.
Santelli is, understandably, reluctant to predict the winners of the big awards tonight. But he's always willing to talk about trends that he's noticed in the nominations over the past few years, as the Grammys, sometimes notoriously shy about embracing relatively new musical genres such as hip-hop, work to widen their scope.
The biggest change this year, he said, was the decision to expand the number of nominees in the major categories. So, for example, eight albums instead of five are competing for the album of the year award. That, he said, broadens the possibilities that a relatively unheralded album might break through — and that happened this year, when Brandi Carlile's beloved but modestly selling "By the Way, I Forgive You" won a nomination.
Another promising sign: This year's nominees for best album showcase five female artists, a refreshing change after (justifiable) criticism last year that the awards have shortchanged female performers.
The other best album nominees by female artists are Janelle Monae's "Dirty Computer," Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy," H.E.R.'s self-titled album and Kacey Musgrave's wondrous genre-hopping "Golden Hour." (The other nominees are Drake's "Scorpion," Post Malone's "Beerbongs & Bentleys," and the soundtrack from "Black Panther," curated by Kendrick Lamar.)
It's not a list that includes what Grammy voters might consider a "safe" choice — and Grammy history is full of instances when a middle-of-the-road nominee collected the best album trophy over a more artistically challenging effort. Just ask Adele, who won something like 95 Grammys for "25," and then famously said her pick for album of the year was Beyonce's "Lemonade."
Or even look at last year, when Bruno Mars' "24K Magic" (a so-so album with, granted, a couple of terrific songs) won the best album Grammy over Lamar's "DAMN." (Lamar had to settle for winning a Pulitzer Prize a few weeks later for the album.)
So it says something about Grammy progress that this year's safest choice among the best album nominees might be ... Lamar's "Black Panther" album. (Of course, Lamar should have won the best album Grammy for "To Pimp a Butterfly," but whatever. And you can make a case that soundtrack albums, which essentially are collections, shouldn't be in the running for best album in the first place, but the Grammys have a long tradition of honoring soundtracks: The very first Grammy for album of the year went to Henry Mancini's "The Music of Peter Gunn.")
As he did last year, Santelli points to an interesting trend: The nominated best albums don't include what you would call a traditional rock 'n' roll recording. He notes that the Grammy Awards are meant to reflect the previous year in music, and "clearly the pop music of today is hip-hop and country music." To his point, the only full-on rock band nominated in any of the major categories is Greta Van Fleet, the Led Zeppelin acolytes, competing for the always-iffy best new artist Grammy. (Fun fact about the best new artist Grammy Award: Led Zeppelin itself was nominated in the category in 1970 — and lost, to Crosby, Stills & Nash. In fact, you could fill a wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with acts that have lost the best new artist Grammy. To be fair, that says something about the vagaries of the music business, and the sheer number of artists who are turning out excellent music; some of them win Grammys, while others never get the big break.)
As for Santelli, you might think that he's got a music lover's dream job, working backstage at the Grammys. He won't deny that it's a nice gig, but it's not something you can enjoy in the moment: "The actual show itself is a nail-biter," he said. "You don't really have the time to sit and enjoy it. ... It's a night of hard work and stress as opposed to a night of pure musical enjoyment."
The rest of us get to sit back and enjoy — celebrating the worthy winners and kvetching when the Grammy voters get a category wrong. Both of those events are sure bets to occur Sunday night. (mm)