By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Would that the foundering music business could have gone back to the future, when digital piracy and Katy Perry didn't exist and sales were still robust.
Actually, for an hour last night, the industry sort of managed to do just that, and on national TV no less. The occasion was the Recording Academy's annual Grammy nominations news conference, at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The event was recast as a concert-cum-event and moved from its standard early-morning slot into the prime-time spotlight on CBS. It was such a smart trade-up, in fact, that the academy was compelled to use two exclamation points to convey its excitement, calling the show "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live!!"
The key headlines: Brilliantly bizarre New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne led the field with eight nominations, including the big one -- album of the year -- for "Tha Carter III," the best-selling album of 2008.
British arena-rockers Coldplay netted seven nominations and could be in line for a major-category sweep: The quartet's "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends" is up for album of the year, and the album's half-title track, "Viva La Vida," received nominations for both record and song of the year. (The former honor awards the performance and production; the latter is a songwriting award.)
Ne-Yo also received an album-of-the-year nod for his suave, superlative "Year of the Gentleman." The young R&B classicist netted six nominations, as did the rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West. Bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss and rock icon Robert Plant received five nominations for their unlikely folk-music partnership, including one in the album category ("Raising Sand") and another for record of the year ("Please Read the Letter").
The final album-of-the-year nomination went to Radiohead, which made headlines late last year by releasing its arty album "In Rainbows" exclusively online, with a name-your-own-price scheme. The inclusion of "In Rainbows" in the highest-profile of Grammy categories should serve as a reminder that the industry's business model is badly broken, with album sales continuing their freefall: After a 15 percent drop in 2007, sales are off by double-digits again in 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Against this doom-and-gloom backdrop, the music biz threw itself a holiday party whose theme seemed to be encapsulated by the night's final song: "Let the Good Times Roll," performed by B.B. King with the young blues-pop singer John Mayer.
All the performances, in fact, looked to the past as the concert's producers plucked various classics from the Grammy Hall of Fame and turned them over to modern pop stars and then held on for dear life.
"When you hear the word 'Grammy,' you expect great music," said rapper LL Cool J, who co-hosted the hour-long hootenanny. "And tonight, you're going to get it."
So: Mariah Carey took on Phil Spector's spectral "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," doing a passable job in place of Darlene Love until Carey had to go and add some of those piercing dog-whistle vocal notes near the end. Twiggy Quebecoise diva Celine Dion sang a plaintive, pretty version of Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" and somehow managed to refrain from launching into a vocal flyover of her own.
The Foo Fighters performed a raggedy rock version of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," though the band's best performance came later, when frontman Dave Grohl cracked a Nudie suit joke and started talking like a country boy in introducing the nominees for best country performance by a duo or group. Teenage country star Taylor Swift sang a sharp version of Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry," which segued into a warbly version of her own hit, "Love Story." And pop belter Christina Aguilera worked up George and Ira Gershwin's "I Love You, Porgy" and didn't embarrass herself.
Of course, by focusing on classics on a night intended to spotlight the industry's best and brightest circa 2008, the Recording Academy was probably gift-wrapping ammunition for the crankypants who complain that music just ain't what it used to be.
Does the Leona Lewis ballad "Bleeding Love" rate vis-a-vis the great Gershwin songbook? Not really, though it's now a record-of-the-year nominee, along with M.I.A.'s mesmerizing "Paper Planes," Adele's aching "Chasing Pavements" and the Coldplay and Plant-Krauss songs. (The trophies will be handed out Feb. 8 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.)
But the academy had to try something to generate heat for the music industry's marquee event: The 2006 Grammy Awards logged a worst-ever 17 million viewers, and this year's 50th-anniversary telecast didn't fare much better, with 17.5 million.
Thus, plugging in the flashback machine doesn't seem like such a bad play.