The Record
12:00 am
Fri February 10, 2012

What The Grammys Say About Pop Music Now

Originally published on Fri February 10, 2012 9:34 am

On Sunday night, the 54th annual Grammy Awards will be given out. Who is nominated for the Big 4 awards — Song, Record and Album of the Year, as well as Best New Artist — tells us what counts as mainstream pop now. Ann Powers spoke to Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep about the awards and her high hopes for one of the Song of the Year nominees: "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele and her co-writer Paul Epworth.

"Adele is the queen of the night," says Powers. "Not only is she likely to win many awards, but she's making her vocal comeback after throat surgery sidelined her for quite a while. So it's a very big night for the young British singer."

"Rolling in the Deep" is up for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year — which many people are confused by. Why is that not redundant?

"Song of the Year rewards songwriters," says Powers, "the people who actually pen the melody and the lyrics. Record of the Year rewards all the people that take that basic text and make it into something that you hear pouring out of whatever you listen to."

It's the difference between, in theory, sheet music and the performance. But Powers says the separation of the two awards is almost quaint now. "Frankly, even a song like 'Rolling in the Deep,' which is a great song as it is — it's the production, it's the arrangement, it's the engineering that makes that totally indelible. Those things, I think, should be counted as elements of songwriting."

The other category that most people are frequently befuddled by is Best New Artist. The musicians nominated for it often don't seem all that new.

"This is the other conundrum of the Grammys," says Powers. "How can a best new artist like, say, Bon Iver, who's nominated this year, be on, not their first recording, but be kind of well into their career. The reason is, the technical definition is that it's an artist who came to prominence this year, which is one of those beautiful fudges that allows for all sorts of people to enter this category."

That means, technically, one could be 67 and just now hit the big time.

"I think it would be hard to have a best new artist who had 10 records out," Powers says, "but if you're on your second or even your third, you can still get into the category."

This year the mix of those who did make it in is pretty varied: rapper Nicki Minaj; country group The Band Perry; Bon Iver, the indie band led by Justin Vernon; the electronic DJ artist Skrillex; and, finally, J. Cole, another young rapper.

Powers says pop has generally been understood as what the mainstream listens to. But the range of styles nominated this year dissolves the notion that what we're listening to all sounds the same.

"A country band like The Band Perry might not necessarily share a core fan base with Skrillex, but I bet that a lot of people who are 20 years old have both on their iPods," she says. "And that's the thing — this range of new artists, to me, really speaks to pop right now in 2012."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The presidential campaign has a long way to go, of course, but the campaign for the Grammy Awards is almost over. The winners collect their honors on Sunday night. The big 4 awards are Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year, as well as Best New Artist. And this week we've been introducing the nominees for Song of the Year. NPR's music critic Ann Powers has high hopes for this nominee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")

ADELE: (Singing) ...rolling in the deep. You had my heart...

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Adele is the Queen of the Night. And not only is she likely to win many awards but she's making her vocal comeback after throat surgery sidelined her for quite a while. So it's a very big night for the young British singer, Adele.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")

ADELE: (Singing) We could have had it all. We could have had it all...

INSKEEP: OK. So, Adele song, "Rolling in the Deep," is up for Song of the Year. It is also up for Best Record, if I'm not mistaken. And I've never understood this. Why is that not redundant?

POWERS: I know. This is the great Sphinxian puzzle...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POWERS: ...the Grammys. Song of the Year rewards songwriters, the people who actually pen the melody and the lyrics. Record of the Year rewards all the people who take that basic text and make it into something that you hear pouring out of whatever you listen to.

INSKEEP: Oh, so...

POWERS: So Record of the Year...

INSKEEP: Oh, it's the difference between - in theory - sheet music and the performance.

POWERS: In theory, yes. It's almost quaint that we still have a Song of the Year category because, frankly, even a song like "Rolling in the Deep," which is a great song just as it is, it's the production, it's the arrangement, it's the engineering that makes that totally indelible. Those things, I think, should be counted as elements of songwriting.

INSKEEP: And then there's Best New Artist. And, of course, often the people up for Best New Artist don't seem all that new.

POWERS: Yes, that's true. This is the other conundrum of the Grammys: How can a best new artist like, say, Bon Iver, who's nominated this year, be on, you know, not their first recording. But be kind of well into their career. The reason is the technical definition is that it's an artist who came to prominence this year, which is one of those beautiful fudges that allows for all sorts of people to enter this category.

INSKEEP: You could be 67 and finally have your big hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POWERS: You could. I think it would be hard, you know, to have a Best New Artist who had like 10 records out. But if you're on your second or even your third you can still get into the category.

INSKEEP: OK, so who's in the category?

POWERS: Well, we have a very interesting mix this year in Best New Artist, Steve. We have the rapper Nicki Minaj.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")

NICKI MINAJ RAPPER, SINGER/SONGWRITER: (Singing) Boy, you've got heartbeat running away...

POWERS: We have the country group, The Band Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I DIE YOUNG")

THE BAND PERRY: (Singing) If I die young, bury me in satin. Lay me...

POWERS: Bond Iver, the indie band led by Justin Vernon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALOCENE")

BON IVER: (Singing) Some way, baby, it's part of me, apart from me...

POWERS: The electronic DJ artist, Skrillex.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARY MONSTERS AND NICE SPRITES")

SKRILLEX: Oh, my God...

POWERS: And finally, J. Cole who is a young rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK OUT")

J. COLE: (Rapping) Hey, we got a good thing. Don't know if I'mma see you again...

INSKEEP: I like the mixtures of genres that you just referenced there in that list of nominees for Best New Artist. Is that by accident or design?

POWERS: That's the thing that's great about Best New Artist this year, particularly, I think. It really represents how, in pop music, as the main stream - the notion of the mainstream kind of falls apart - dissolves in our hands. A country band like The Band Perry might not necessarily share a core fan base with Skrillex.

But I bet that a lot of people who are 20 years old have both on their iPods. And that's the thing, this range of new artists, to me, really speaks to pop right now in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")

ADELE: (Singing) We could have had it all...

INSKEEP: NPR music critic Ann Powers joined us from Alabama Public Radio in Tuscaloosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")

ADELE: (Singing) You had my heart inside your hand. But you played it with to the beat. Baby, I have no story to be told, but I've heard one on you and I'm going to make your head burn. Think of me in the...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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