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Hollywood Analysis: Kinder, gentler Grammy

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- This year's Grammy nominations will apparently not provoke the kind of debate and controversy that last year's nominations generated -- leaving open the possibility that music fans and industry professionals may concentrate on the quality of the recordings, rather than the character of the artists who made them.

Heading into the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards, the biggest story was the passionate argument over whether Academy voters had been socially irresponsible in nominating rapper Eminem's album, "The Marshall Mathers LP," for four Grammys -- including album of the year.

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Defenders of the choice said the CD was being recognized for its artistic merit, and that the nominations did not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Eminem's point of view.

In the lead-up to the 44th Annual Grammy Awards, which will be presented Feb. 27 in ceremonies at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the only real argument to break out so far has nothing to do with message -- or music for that matter. It's a legal battle between American Music Awards producer Dick Clark and Recording Academy President/Chief Executive Officer Michael Greene over Greene's refusal to allow musicians to perform on the Grammys telecast if they have already performed on a competing awards show in recent months.

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For the fourth time in six years, a rap/hip-hop album is once again up for album of the year. OutKast's "Stankonia" is also up for rap album of the year, and the Atlanta duo is up for record of the year and rap performance by a duo or group for the single, "Ms. Jackson."

To be sure, there is plenty of rude language in OutKast's work -- enough that "Stankonia" is available in both the "explicit lyrics" and the "clean" version. However, Dre and Big Boi -- partners in OutKast -- have not run afoul of the social critics who found "The Marshall Mathers LP" so objectionable.

When the nominations were announced last week, two main story lines immediately began to form.

One was the Recording Academy's continued partiality toward U2's "comeback" album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." The other was the rivalry between two new singer-songwriters, India.Arie and Alicia Keys.

Less attention has been paid to the ongoing string of successes put together by Bob Dylan late in his legendary career, or the inconsistencies that show up regarding nominations for Dylan and for the fifth nominee for album of the year, the soundtrack from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

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U2 led the rest of the field with eight nominations, including album of the year, record of the year ("Walk On") and song of the year, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of").

This will be the second straight year that the album is a top contender at the Grammys. Last year, it was not eligible for album of the year, but the first single -- "Beautiful Day" -- was eligible, and the veteran Irish rockers took home Grammys for song of the year and record of the year.

They also provided one of the performance highlights of the Grammy telecast when they played "Beautiful Day" -- a moment that surely sold a ton of CDs and probably contributed to the Recording Academy's voting pattern this year.

According to conventional wisdom, an album of the year Grammy for U2 might be the safest awards season bet since "Titanic" sunk the competition at the 1997 Academy Awards. But conventional wisdom has been wrong before, so let's hedge our bets a little here.

Voters might not be inclined to leave themselves open to the kind of criticism they heard last year, when they gave the album of the year Grammy to another veteran band -- Steely Dan for "Two Against the World."

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If that turns out to be the case, U2, Dylan and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" may all pay the price. U2 are veterans, Dylan is venerable, and all the music on "O Brother" is so old it's traditional.

That leaves India.Arie and Keys -- both youthful and fresh. The catch for both is that they might also cancel each other out.

Still, both have a shot at more or less replicating the phenomenal night Lauryn Hill had in 1998 when "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" won for album of the year and R&B album, and Hill won for new artist, female R&B performance and R&B song for "Doo Wop (That Thing)."

Both India.Arie ("Video") and Keys ("Fallin'") are up for record of the year, song of the year and new artist. Curiously, India.Arie's self-titled album is up for album of the year, but Keys' "Songs in A Minor" is not.

Adding to the curiosity, Dylan's "Love and Theft" is up for album of the year and male rock vocal performance ("Honest with Me") -- but not rock song of the year, a category in which U2 scored two nominations ("Elevation," "Walk On"). With all due respect to Dylan's singing, one must wonder what his career would have looked like if he hadn't been one of the preeminent songwriters of the last four decades -- and "Love and Theft" is loaded with first-rate Dylan songs.

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Still, the Recording Academy somehow managed to nominate U2 for rock album of the year, but left Dylan off that list, finding room for him instead on the list of nominees for contemporary folk album of the year.

"Love and Theft" continues Dylan's current winning streak, both in the marketplace and in the critics' corner. His "Time Out of Mind" took album of the year honors in 1997, and he won the Oscar for best song last year for "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys."

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" also experienced curious treatment at the hands of Academy voters.

The collection managed nominations for male country vocal performance ("O Death," Ralph Stanley), country collaboration with vocals ("Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby," Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch) and best compilation soundtrack album. But again, you have to ask, if it is good enough for an album of the year, why not for country album or bluegrass album?

None of this matters, though. After all, as they say at all the awards shows, it's just an honor to be nominated -- particularly for those in the new artist category.

Besides India.Arie and Keys, the other nominees for best new artist are Canadian singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado, British singer-songwriter David Gray and the metal-influenced hip-hop band Linkin Park.

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Grammy night is also shaping up as a potentially big night for veteran conductor Pierre Boulez. With six nominations -- including two for classical album of the year -- he has a chance to add to his career total of 26 Grammys and get closer to the all-time Grammy winner, the late George Solti, who won the trophy 31 times.

The Grammy celebration has expanded into a month-long deal, including not just the Grammy Awards but a series of special music programs and the annual MusiCares gala -- which will honor Billy Joel this year as person of the year for his musical and philanthropic accomplishments.

The recording industry could stand a bit of cheer this year, following a year in which record sales were down 2 percent from the previous year. But without a controversy such as last year's Eminem contretemps, there is a chance the TV ratings for music's big night might also be down from last year.

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