Los Angeles Times
Time to Nominate a New System
February 28, 2002
"O Brother"? Oh my goodness.
Let's raise a toast to the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack
for its victory in the most prestigious Grammy category, album of
the year-and then start figuring out how to make the Grammy voting
process more credible.
It's easy to feel good when the character
and passion of American country and roots music are celebrated with
five Grammys, especially when commercial country music has relegated
this vintage sound to the outhouse.
But "O Brother" wasn't the most
distinguished album of the year. It wasn't even one of the three
most compelling nominees in that category.
By most measures, Bob
Dylan's "Love and Theft," U2's "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and
OutKast's "Stankonia" were more substantial works.
In the Village
Voice's annual poll of more than 500 U.S. pop music critics to name
the best album of 2001, Dylan was the easy winner, with "O Brother"
finishing No. 19. In the Voice poll for the best album of 2000,
OutKast and U2 finished No. 1 and No. 7, respectively. (Albums from
different years may compete in the same Grammys because the
eligibility period runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.)
So how did "O
Brother" beat three far more acclaimed albums?
One possibility is
that the 13,000 Grammy voters, who are often far more conservative
in their choices than critics, simply thought it was the strongest
But there is a second possibility-one that clouds the Grammy
voting so consistently that the recording academy ought to consider
changing its voting procedure.
Though I'd have voted for Dylan, U2
went into the competition the overwhelming favorite, thanks to the
thoughtful, inspiring tone of its music, which took on added
resonance and depth after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The only way the
album wouldn't win, pundits said, was if Dylan drew enough votes
away from U2 for a longshot-such as "O Brother"-to sneak in. And
that is just what happened, one suspects.
Looking over previous
Grammy contests, it's easy to see where strong albums may have drawn
enough votes from each other to let a compromise choice win. In
1985, two of the great albums of the decade-Bruce Springsteen's
"Born in the U.S.A." and Prince's "Purple Rain"-went head to head in
the best album category, allowing Lionel Richie's far less memorable
"Can't Slow Down" to get more votes.
Three years later, U2's
deserving "The Joshua Tree" might have benefited from a voter split
between two other commercial blockbusters, Prince's "Sign 'O' the
Times" and Michael Jackson's "Bad."
And didn't Celine Dion's
shallow "Falling Into You" win best album in 1997 only because
progressive forces Beck, the Fugees and Smashing Pumpkins canceled
out one another?
It may be that all of these albums would have won
under any circumstances, but the chance of the voters' will being
subverted leaves too much of a doubt over the voting system for it
not to be addressed.
One solution is a weighted system. Instead of
just voting for one artist, voters would list preferences one to
five. The recording academy brain trust was smart enough in 1995 to
put the final responsibility for choosing nominees in key categories
in the hands of a special committee. The quality of nominees has
improved greatly since then, but the final balloting now needs to be
It was encouraging to see so many quality acts receive
Grammys at Staples Center on Wednesday, including Dylan, Alicia Keys
and U2, but a weighted system could do much to increase confidence
in the integrity of the awards.
In addition, the academy ought to
put a second item at the top of its Grammy telecast agenda.
Wednesday's show was a maddening mix of stirring performances by
classy artists-from U2 and Dylan to Keys and OutKast to the "O
Brother" ensemble-and tacky sidelights.
Emcee Jon Stewart's opening
fell so flat-he stripped to his shorts as part of a skit involving
heightened security precautions following Sept. 11-that he never
recovered. After failing to regain his comedic edge, he seemed at
the end to simply be going through the paces, eager for the final
Even worse was the usual award-show clutter of TV
personalities and Other celebrities who traded inane comments while
presenting awards. This celebrity obsession is obviously designed to
lure viewers, but there ought to be a way to include celebrities
without insulting the intelligence of the audience.
How absurd it
is to cut short speeches by the night's key winners-U2's Bono, Keys
and "O Brother" producer T Bone Burnett-while they let actor Ray
Romano run around Staples Center endlessly handing out door prizes
to confused audience members.
Oh my goodness.