With platinum albums an endangered species and the practice of selling music looking more and more outdated, you've got to wonder how much the recording industry will have to celebrate at the 54th Grammy Awards in February. That is, if you forget momentarily how much the recording industry loves blowing its own horn.
On November 30 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for 2012's honors. Industry watchers had an easy time predicting who'd get the nod in the big categories: Lady Gaga and Adele, whose albums Born This Way and 21 are basically keeping the major-label system afloat; Bruno Mars, at 26 years old the most consistent hit maker in his age group (he's got a long, lucrative career ahead of him, as long as he stays out of jail when he gets busted for coke); and Kanye West, who released not one but two critically adored albums during the awards' period of eligibility. Gaga and Adele are sure to walk away with a couple of statuettes apiece, and not just because they've both been nominated so many times—traditionally the Grammys are very much about rewarding high earners.
But the Grammys are also under increasing pressure to appeal to consumers acclimated to the rapid churn of Internet-enabled entertainment—people for whom the awards' period of eligibility, which runs from the beginning of last September through the end of this September, means that pretty much anything that might win is already ancient history. The academy wants to appear at least conscious of what these kids are listening to, and it's surely just as eager to avoid gaffes like the notorious 1988 decision to award Jethro Tull, not Metallica, the prize for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. So the smart gambler will put money on indie-rock phenom Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon, to take home at least one of the four awards for which he's nominated: Record of the Year, Song of the Year (both for "Holocene"), Best Alternative Music Album (for Bon Iver), and Best New Artist. (To get some idea of the Grammys' level of self-regard, consider that you can now qualify as a "new" artist even if you've been nominated for a Grammy before—the only requirement is that you release a recording that first establishes your "public identity" during the eligibility period. And guess who's defining the "public"?)
Vernon is the token hipster pick for 2012, and after the Arcade Fire's unexpected Album of the Year win in 2011, he may have a better chance than token hipsters in the past, who were there mostly as window dressing—did anybody think the Ting Tings, Silversun Pickups, or MGMT would beat Zac Brown for Best New Artist at the 52nd Grammys?
Vernon may actually have an edge on the Arcade Fire, because people who haven't even heard of Pitchfork might know who he is—or at least recognize his name—thanks to his work on Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He's prominently featured on several songs, including the standout single "Monster."
Where the Arcade Fire has the edge is accessibility: the band's music gives meat-and-potatoes rock fans a lot to like, provided they can overlook the haircuts and hurdy-gurdies and overall preciousness. Bon Iver's self-titled album, on the other hand, falls so far short of outgoing that it's almost obscure. Vernon's talent is for setting moods and artfully piling up textures, not for writing punchy, unshakable melodies. Vernon's "Holocene" is one of the few cuts on Bon Iver likely to stick in your head, but for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year it's up against Bruno Mars's "Grenade" and its punchy, unshakable melody. It's relatively easy to argue that Vernon deserves Record of the Year, which goes to the track's performers and producers (primarily Vernon in both cases) as well as to the name artist—he's got one of the most beautiful voices of any current male performer, and "Holocene" floats in a haze of warm sounds. But Song of the Year is intended to recognize the songwriter, and it's much harder to make the case that Vernon has earned that one.
The problem faced by artists like Vernon, who are trying to make the leap out of the indie domain and into the mainstream, is the rapidity with which underground sounds now reach the pop market, where they're adopted by the producers and performers who make the kind of inescapable hits that the Grammy people love to reward. Vernon's "Woods," from his 2009 Blood Bank EP, is a fine song, but it can't stand up against Kanye's reinterpretation of it on Fantasy—his "Lost in the World" not only adds booming juke drums and gospel backup singers but also edits "Woods" down significantly, tightening it up in a way that I doubt Vernon could. Dubstep producer Skrillex—an explosively popular act in a genre many pop listeners were unaware of a year ago—was nominated this year for Best New Artist and in a couple of dance categories. But if he's nominated next year, he'll likely be going up against Korn's dubsteppy new album, The Path of Totality, which he worked on; it's all but guaranteed to take at least one dance Grammy, because many of the Academy voters who don't know a thing about dance music will at least recognize the band's name.
Despite all the eyes on him after his four nominations—and despite all the indie-scene cheerleaders enacting their own version of Stockholm syndrome, hoping to take a Bon Iver-related victory lap after the big-kids'-table validation of the Arcade Fire Grammy—Vernon doesn't seem to be sweating it too much. In February 2011 he waxed unimpressed about potentially winning a Grammy in an interview with New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica, and when the paper belatedly published his comments after last month's announcements, he admitted that he still agrees with most of them. "I would get up there and be like, 'This is for my parents, because they supported me,' because I know they would think it would be stupid of me not to go up there," he said. "But I kinda felt like going up there and being like: 'Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous. You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending that this is important.' That's what I would say."