Culturally resonant singles received their due in the nominations for the 56th annual Grammy Awards as songs and artists that dominated radio airplay, streaming and social media were represented in the four major categories.
In selecting Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (2.9 million sold), Lorde’s “Royals” (3.8 million) and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (6.3 million) as record of the year candidates, the Recording Academy’s nominations revealed a newfound love of not just pop music, but the pinnacle of popular pop music. Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” heavily licensed for advertising and video games prior to becoming a single 13 months ago, was as ubiquitous as the other tracks, selling 5.25 million this year, the third highest figure in 2013. All sales figures, compiled by Soundscan, are through Dec. 1.
Song of the year is equally full of significant sellers as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love” is the only nominee not in the Soundscan top 10 of sales for the year. It stands out as the Academy’s bravest choice in the four general categories, the selection of an anthem that pushes for equality and understanding in sexual orientation over a track that celebrates buying used clothing. (The duo performed “Thrift Shop” at the nominations concert on Dec. 6; it is nominated for rap performance).
After a few years of the top four categories looking like mandated genre diversity, the 56th edition of the awards has taken a breather from that tendency. Kendrick Lamar and Sara Bareilles are surprise nominees in the album category – pundits projected Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience” as a shoo-in – and for some they represent a step away from the mainstream represented in the song and record categories. Still, their records and Taylor Swift’s “Red” are as geared toward the pop marketplace as “Blurred Lines” or Katy Perry. After several years of slipping country stars into the general categories, the Academy passed on honoring the acts that defined the year out of Nashville, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton.
Diversity does still exist among the candidates in the big four categories, but it’s more career path than genre. On one side are those who have worked wholly within the label system and are reaping the benefits a major can provide –Imagine Dragons, Swift, Mars, Perry and Thicke. On the other side are those who followed the now-metaphorical “sell the records out of the trunk of your car” path – Lamar, Macklemore and best new artist nominee Kacey Musgraves. There is less of a middle ground than ever before, perhaps owing to the lack of an elder statesman or an artist with a substantial history but few hit singles. (Last year that would have been the Black Keys and Jack White).
It’s a rare year that the list of artists with the most nominations is dominated with people who work in a single area. With Jay Z (tops with nine nominations), Lamar, Macklemore, Lewis, Pharrell Williams, Timberlake and Drake topping the leader board, it appears the Academy is declaring this a strong year for commercial hip-hop and R&B. Daft Punk, with four, and Black Sabbath with three skew the male side of things older.
It gets creakier in the rock categories where the nominations suggest that only AARP-eligible artists could qualify. And it’s not that rock music is no longer being done well by younger acts -- the alternative music album category is a superb reflection of the last year in edgy rock music, with albums by acts likely to appear in numerous critics polls (Vampire Weekend, the National, Neko Case).
The top females -- Lorde, Musgraves and Swift – have four each. Collectively, they represent youth in a way that the male artists do not; each made an album that challenged notions and expectations about genres and gender, creating worksthat stimulate anticipation for their follow-ups. The Grammy nominations suggest those three artists are peerless at this point in time, nominating them for songwriting, performances and albums. None of them have bulked-up stats from guest appearances.
Grammy nominations are always greeted with carping and it’s likely to be focused on the Timberlake omission in the general categories. That’s overlooking the fact that Timberlake is actually being honored in a way that’s unique – his seven nominations are spread across the pop, R&B, rap and music video fields, a sign that he is a superstar with a broader reach than just about anyone else making music today. That alone is a rare achievement, one that deserves celebration on its own.