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Los Angeles Times

It's Time to Nominate a New System
By Robert Hilburn
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 work.

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 addressed.

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 curtain.

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.

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