Over the past two decades, the Grammy Awards have become a tough institution to defend, mainly because of their jarring bipolarity. "Music's biggest night" hasn't known whether to celebrate artistic excellence or sales clout; when it does both, it comes off as disingenuous. Sometimes Milli Vanilli wins best new artist; sometimes Herbie Hancock beats Kanye West for album of the year — never mind that the show typically uses great gobs of Kanye to boost ratings.
The good news is that the Recording Academy, the governing body of the Grammys, has solved its identity crisis. The bad news is that, in its 53rd year, the whole debacle has officially become a cloying high school yearbook, honoring the prettiest prom kings and queens and now and then throwing a chess-club bone to the nerds.
On Sunday's Grammys, Katy Perry's Teenage Dream — a top-selling album with maybe three decent songs on it — will vie for album of the year. That's an all-time low, a suckup admission that, in these dismal days for the music biz, the Grammys are only interested in honoring acts that can move product. Eminem is this year's leading noms-getter with 10; his Recovery was the bestselling album of 2010. Never mind that it's just a so-so effort.
Anyway, you should still watch. Bob Dylan is scheduled to rock with newcomers Mumford & Sons. And you know Lady Gaga has something meaty up her sleeve. As a spectacle, the Grammys work; as a merit system, they're a mess. With that in mind, here are my cynical predictions for the biggest categories:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: In 2001, Eminem was the stud attraction at the Grammys. His Marshall Mathers LP was a critical, commercial monster. And in the night's final moments … he lost to Steely Dan for album of the year. Plop. That won't happen again: Recovery will take the top prize this year. Lady Antebellum's Need You Now, Gaga's The Fame Monster and Perry's Teenage Dream were sales giants, too. And The Suburbs, by Canadian conceptualists Arcade Fire, should be the winner. But Em is king. Plus don't underestimate the fact that the Detroit playa had not one but two Super Bowl commercials. The Grammys love edgy acts who are actually safe.
RECORD OF THE YEAR: Speaking of the edgy-safe paradigm: Cee Lo Green's F--- You is a profane pop hit that is, in essence, benign. It'll win record of the year (which is awarded to the artist and producer of a song). This is a tough category that also includes B.o.B and Bruno Mars' Nothin' on You and Eminem and Rihanna's Love the Way You Lie. But the Grammys long to feel reckless, and Cee Lo and his killer tune will sate that need.
SONG OF THE YEAR: This is awarded to the writer of a song, and although Cee Lo and Em are up for this, too, they'll get doinked for coarse language. Instead, it will come down to Lady Antebellum's Need You Now single (which the country band wrote) and Miranda Lambert's The House That Built Me (written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin). Lady A will get the nod, if only because they'll get to accept the award and look pretty on TV.
BEST NEW ARTIST: With apologies to British neo-soulists Florence and the Machine, English folk-rockers Mumford & Sons and jazz dynamo Esperanza Spalding: Don't bother writing acceptance speeches. This is between hip-hop star Drake and teen cutie Justin Bieber. A month ago, I would have said Drake was a shoo-in. But Bieber's new flick, Never Say Never, is getting good reviews, and the kid has friends in high places, including Usher and mogul L.A. Reid. Call me crazy, but I'm goin' with the Biebs.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column cis at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.