The nominations for the 54th Grammys were announced tonight and there was no shortage of surprises (click here for full list). The precedent for past Grammys has been thrown into disarray and this could be the sign of a new era for the ceremony.
First, let's look at the obvious. Song of the Year nominations were conceivable for Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver, but for both of them to take slots in Record of the Year speaks loudly as to how the NARAS are trying to shake things up. Usually when there are surprises like this, it comes from the result of a weak year, but there were several other viable contenders that fit into the previous mold of commercial and critical acclaim (think "Super Bass," "Pumped Up Kicks," "All The Lights"). In spite of that, the NARAS seemingly went straight for critical acclaim in a category that rewards big records. It looks as if Arcade Fire's win for Album of the Year was no fluke and the blue ribbon panel is willing to overlook sales in favor of merit. "The Cave" was a much more feasible choice because of its success at radio, but "Holocene" did not gather much attention outside of the indie press and its inclusion here is colossal.
In another cred seeking move, the Best New Artist category this year has two hip hop artists (J. Cole and Nicki Minaj), which is a first and a "dubstep" artist (I have nothing against Skrillex, but I'd rather not disrespect the genre by identifying his music as such). The Skrillex nomination is most interesting because he is at the head of a movement that has a very devoted fanbase but hasn't really broken through mainstream America. Once again, this is not typical behavior of the Grammys. They've apparently been paying attention to what's current and have adjusted accordingly.
Another way that the NARAS defied tradition was with Album of the Year, where four of the five nominees are also nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album, a first. In my predictions, I excluded Lady Gaga partly because of this exact reason. Album of the Year has been known to have a sole representative from a genre, so I surely thought that there would not be three Pop Vocal Album nominees here. I think this only helps Adele's chances, which might have actually been the reasoning behind this.
Adele, Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters and Bruno Mars were all seen as major contenders for a slot here, but Rihanna was pegged as being a step or two behind them. The thing that kept Loud in contention was the success of the singles, much like how it helped Katy Perry's Teenage Dream get into this category last year. Everyone knew she wasn't going to win, much like I think Rihanna has the smallest chance to take it. In order for this to have been a clean victory for Adele without any outcry, Kanye had to be absent. A win for 21 over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would have made it look like the Grammys were back to their old tricks again by not recognizing progressive music and deciding to play it safe (think back to Norah Jones' Come Away With Me winning over Eminem's The Eminem Show or Robert Plant & Alison Krauss defeating Radiohead and Lil' Wayne). History eventually makes decisions like that appear wrongheaded and it has been a recurring theme for the Grammys.
Bon Iver also seemed headed for an Album of the Year nomination with a nod in Record of the Year, which I mentioned was colossal because rarely does a song of such small stature get recognized. There was an obvious willingness to acknowledge Bon Iver in the general field, but without him competing in the biggest category of the night, a win for Adele still helps the Grammy save face. A ROTY nomination for "Holocene" was probably a consolation prize. I also think that the Song of the Year nomination for Kanye's "All The Lights" was also a consolation prize and the Grammys did not want to completely ignore one of the most critically acclaimed albums within the past few years. When compared to other hip hop songs that have been nominated in this category, it is far behind in lyrical content.
I believe that something similar happened as well back in 2009 when Estelle's "American Boy" seemed like a no-brainer for Record of the Year, but in order to make room for Plant & Krauss' "Please Read The Letter," she was relegated to Song of the Year as a sign of appreciation, at least that's how I see it based on the history of the nominations.
So if the Grammys are really trying to be relevant, then why didn't they nominate a true critical favorite in Album of the Year such as Bon Iver or Kanye West, seemingly favoring Adele over them? I still think that the NARAS is heading in the right direction, but they are also in the business of getting people to tune in, and one easy way to do that is when a universally adored artist (Ex. Lauryn Hill, Norah Jones)is set to pick up a lot of awards. Right now, the Bon Ivers and Mumfords of the world are seen as the underdogs, but if the Grammys are indeed sincerely looking to rebuild their cred, they are going to have to eventually reward them and other hip artists with more general field wins or risk being called irrelevant and out of touch again. As of right now, they've shown that they can do a decent job of playing catch up.