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Grammys Preview

Popularity is the key to this year’s contest

Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce Taylor Swift, Lada Gaga, and Beyonce are all nominated for record of the year. (From left: Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff/ Evan Agostini / AP; Scott Wintrow / Getty Images)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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If you tune in to the 52d annual Grammy Awards tonight at 8 on CBS, familiarity with the contenders for the top awards won’t be a problem if you were within earshot of a Top 40 radio station for even an hour this year.

The three main categories - record, song, and album of the year - are packed with a veritable hit parade of 2009’s commercial behemoths. If you couldn’t get it out of your head, it was nominated.

Competing for the record of the year trophy - which goes to the performers, producers, and engineers of a single - are the earwormiest of tunes: Beyoncé’s “Halo,’’ Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,’’ the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,’’ Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,’’ and Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.’’ All hit the top five of the Billboard Hot 100, and right now you’re humming/singing/whistling one of them.

The tale is the same in the song of the year category, which recognizes the songwriter. “Poker Face,’’ “You Belong With Me,’’ and “Use Somebody’’ are all there, along with Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’’ and Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings.’’

The album of the year race has Beyoncé’s “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce’’ doing battle with Lady Gaga’s “The Fame,’’ Taylor Swift’s “Fearless,’’ the Black Eyed Peas’ “The E.N.D.,’’ and the Dave Matthews Band’s “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.’’

While commercial success and popularity have always factored into the list of Grammy nominees, this year it was overwhelming. Few slots in the main categories were available to acts that didn’t dominate the charts and airwaves. Not a single lion of rock made the cut, as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney have in the past. There were no make-goods for classic artists like Steely Dan. No alternative or left-of-center act squeaked in, a la past contenders the White Stripes and Gnarls Barkley. And no vaunted critical darling managed to nab the “prestige’’ slot that often leads to surprising wins like the “O Brother Where Art Thou’’ soundtrack in 2001 or Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters’’ in 2008.

With the exception of the gorgeous but lesser-known comeback jam by Maxwell, the major Grammys are synonymous with ubiquity this year.

“It’s not like, I think my dad has one of those records. It’s the Black Eyed Peas,’’ Ann Donahue, senior editor at Billboard magazine, says with a chuckle.

Donahue theorizes that part of the reason mainstream pop made such an impact on this year’s nominations was the industry-wide desire to recognize the artists who are selling records in numbers that belie the tough times the music business is facing. Swift, for instance, had the best-selling album of the year, moving 5 million copies. “They want to encourage people who are doing well to keep doing what they’re doing,’’ Donahue says.

In other words, Grammy favorites in rock, such as Green Day, or those who received plaudits in other genres, such as country singer Lee Ann Womack, might have made good records in 2009 - and been nominated in their respective fields - but with sub-platinum sales, it’s not their year for the big dance. Ditto any critical darlings with niche followings.

And with audiences becoming more diffuse, there wasn’t much critical consensus on what would have been the prestige or heritage act to make the cut this time in the album of the year race, the way Robert Plant and Alison Krauss did last year with “Raising Sand,’’ which ended up winning the award.

“There wasn’t that sort of big cross-genre album that everybody put on at dinner,’’ says Catie Wilber, program and music director at Triple A station WXRV.

Most of the big nominees might also be shining more brightly this year because of their escapist pop sounds. In a world beset by economic woes, war, political divisiveness, and natural disasters, sometimes you want to - to quote five-time nominee Lady Gaga - just dance.

“For me the common denominator in all of that stuff is it’s feel-good,’’ says multiple nominee Thaddis “Kuk’’ Harrell, who had a hand in writing the thrice-nominated Beyoncé track “Single Ladies.’’ “It’s all uptempo, no darkness.’’ The songwriter-producer, who won a Grammy for his work on Rihanna’s infectious “Umbrella,’’ believes that listeners crave an upbeat soundtrack right now, likening it to the ’80s pop heyday of Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson.

No matter the confluence that brought us these nominees, everyone agrees that familiar names and songs will help boost viewership for the show, whose ratings have fluctuated in recent years. The broadcast hit a recent low with 17.1 million viewers, though it bounced back last year to 19.1 million.

“From a show standpoint it’s great,’’ says Ken Ehrlich, longtime producer of the telecast. “There’s a huge horse race this year both in album and record. There are three women there, and I think anyone could win.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.