- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

If Oscars were more like Grammys, Ben Stiller and Keanu Reeves would need dedicated closet space just to store all their trophies.

There’s no way to quantify this observation — it’s ultimately a matter of taste — but reasonable people would agree, I think, that the Grammy Awards are a distinctly more populist affair than their Hollywood counterpart.

Take a look at the current crop of album-of-the-year nominees (the awards ceremony takes place Sunday night): Justin Timberlake, Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Mayer. Each is broadly popular with the public. And while the Dixie Chicks may have taken their political lumps, they still play to packed arenas in most cities.

Only breakout alt-rap duo Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere” could plausibly be described as a bold choice.

Compare that lot to its closest Academy Award equivalent, the best-picture nominees: Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” did strong business ($129 million domestically), and “Little Miss Sunshine” was a beloved indie sleeper (with a $60 million gross). But there’s a good chance the man-on-the-street moviegoer has not even heard of the Mexican production “Babel,” the British import “The Queen” or the Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima,” let alone seen them.

Of last year’s top 10 box-office draws, only “The Pursuit of Happyness” and the animated “Cars” received major nominations. Even the critically praised James Bond blockbuster “Casino Royale” got none.

Depending on one’s aesthetic predilections, this contrast is either evidence that the Grammys are little more than a popularity contest or that the Academy Awards are the province of snooty high-culture connoisseurs.

There are exceptions, of course. Such blockbusters as “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” have won best picture in recent years. And the triumph of Bob Dylan’s shadowed, meditative and sometimes profound 1997 album “Time Out of Mind” seems particularly pleasing in retrospect.

Then there’s the fact that Oscars and Grammys are not precisely comparable. There are broad Grammy categories such as album of the year and song of the year, but they also are broken down by genre. The Oscars aren’t — which means, in practice, that Oscar attention nearly always migrates toward serious dramatic work, at the continual cost of genres such as action and comedy.

Nevertheless, the contrast is real and, despite these exceptions, remarkably consistent.

One factor in the disparity might be demographic. “Our membership is almost four times the size of the motion picture academy,” says Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. “We’re coming from a far broader approach.”

Not only does the 20,000-member recording academy dwarf the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (with its 6,500 members) in size; it’s also, literally, all over the map. NARAS is divided into 12 chapters across the country, whereas Oscar voters are largely, one assumes, confined to the coastal enclaves of Los Angeles and New York.

Still, Mr. Portnow is quick to deny that record sales and popularity drive Grammy decision making. “Neither is part of our criteria,” he says.

In fact, Rick Krim, executive vice president for music and talent programming for the VH1 network, distinctly remembers when the Grammys were out of touch with the mainstream — for the wrong reasons. The recording academy, he says, persistently favored established “heritage” artists over cutting-edge rock and pop acts. As much as he admires Bob Dylan’s rootsy “Modern Times,” its omission from this year’s best-album category was, he believes, actually a sign of vibrancy.

A notorious example of the recording academy’s cultural tone-deafness was the choice of ‘70s rockers Jethro Tull over Metallica in what was, in 1989, a brand-new category, “heavy metal.”

“That can never happen again,” says Bob Merlis, a veteran music-industry publicist and a NARAS voter. He says that in the wake of the Tull debacle, the recording academy instituted a “strenuous screening process” to ensure that the nominating committees for each given genre are manned by bona fide experts.

Mr. Merlis points out that the Grammys are free of the kind of expensive electioneering and publicity campaigns that attend the year-end Oscar frenzy — which means, on the one hand, that NARAS voters aren’t being muscled into voting for particular acts or, alternatively, that they’re not being exposed to lesser-known artists.

Today’s pool of Grammy talent, Mr. Krim says, is much more “reflective of what’s going on now.” And as the music business is buffeted by technological innovation — which has, in turn, created a relentless dynamic of genre segmentation — he claims that’s no bad thing.

“With the music industry in the state that it’s in, and trying to figure out how to deal with the new landscape, to have the Grammys be as big and broad and mainstream as possible is a good thing,” he says.

While acknowledging that the nominees in this year’s major Grammy categories are all popular, Mr. Krim stresses they are “popular yet credible.”

“They all can write and perform,” he says. “They’re not disposable, faceless pop.”

Alexandria-based graphic designer Neal Ashby was nominated for the second consecutive year in the best-recording-packaging category for his work on local trip-hop duo Thievery Corporation’s “Versions.” He says the reason for the more commercial bent of the Grammys is that, generally speaking, musicians have a much more modest definition of their vocation.

“Hollywood likes to think it’s a trendsetter and that it’s dictating a social consciousness,” he says. “The music industry doesn’t think in those terms; it’s more of an instant-gratification thing. A song is three minutes; a movie can be three hours. Even in an album form — which is dying — it’s hard to make that kind of a sweeping statement.”

Even more simply, it could be a case of what Mr. Ashby says is the “dirty little secret” of the Grammys: Members vote for whom they most want to see perform live.

Last year’s ceremony featured a joint performance by Madonna and Gorillaz, plus Bruce Springsteen and the first-ever Grammy appearance by Paul McCartney. Where else could you see a package like that — while rubbing shoulders in the audience with the artists themselves?

“It was the most phenomenal show I’ve ever seen in my life,” Mr. Ashby says.

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