So: Lady Antebellum wins five Grammys, and sends Eminem home scowling with only two. How did that happen?
Here's how: Lady Antebellum are the Nixonland not-so-silent majority candidate, this year's stealth Taylor Swift, the voice of Middle America with a pretty, de-twanged sound that's all about harkening back to a "simpler" time. How far back? Well, the Nashville country-pop trio's name refers to a time before the Civil War, expressing nostalgia for a Gone With The Wind-era when the Romantic notion of the South evokes images of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, white columned plantation houses and oh yeah, black slaves laboring in the cotton fields.
I don't mean to demonize the band. I'm sure they're nice people. But really, I hate their name.
So how did they win all those awards, when supposed experts like myself predicted it was obviously Eminem's year, and maybe Cee Lo Green's fantastic "F--- You," would get a little somethin' somethin' besides?
Easily. The Grammys like to the think of themselves as daring and edgy, more Gaga than Antebellum when it comes to their choice of Lady parts. But while media attention was paid to Eminem's impressive comeback and Cee Lo's profane pop song, something got lost in the shuffle. East and west coasters who wouldn't be caught dead listening to country radio wouldn't know it, but the album that led the best selling race for most of 2010 was Lady A's Need You Now, which ultimately sold 3.09 million copies, second only to Recovery's 3.42 million.
Lady A are being referred to as a "country crossover" act in a lot of places today, but that's not nearly as true for them this year as it was in 2010 for Swift, who was last year's big country-pop Grammy winner. Swift has an omnipresent mainstream pop girl next door profile, but Lady A are largely a phenomenon of country radio. If you stubbornly insist on thinking that "country" means Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard, more than Kenny Chesney and Sugarland, then you probably don't think Nashville slickers like Lady A have any business pretending to be part of the Hank Williams-Patsy Cline legacy.
But millions of people who listen to country radio - the nation's most popular format - identify themselves demographically as country fans, and proudly consider airbrushed Nashville pop acts like Lady Antebellum or the far more execrable Rascal Flatts to be "country," even if they don't sound that way to people who'd rather be keeping it real by listening to the Avett Brothers and their old Louvin Brothers and Johnny Cash LPs.
Lady Antebellum's big win last night was in some ways a function of the reactive marketing strategy that Nashville record exec, Wharton School grad and Garth Brooks promoter Jimmy Bowen delineated back in the early 1990s, when he said "I hope rap keeps getting stronger and more violent, because it is sending me customers!"
That was during the rise of gangsta rap, now long past its prime. But understanding why Lady A won big last night is a lot easier when you take into consideration that the outsized characters who were supposed to beat the country trio for Song and Record of the year include a still-angry white rapper whose pretty great mega-hit about violently obsessive love, "Love The Way You Lie," features fantasies of tieing his girlfriend to the bed and setting the house of fire, and a "Crazy" soul man who dressed up as a psychedelic Mummer to sing a super infectious ditty called "F-- You."
Both of those songs would have been more worthy winners that Lady A's pining, palliative "Need You Now." But both of those songs, for all of their popular acceptance, could still be construed as dangerous. That plays into my Nixonland argument, a reference to Rick Perlstein's fabulous 2008 socio-political-history which explains red state-blue state culture war confiicted America through the prism of Richard Nixon's channeling of the "slient majority" resentment set off by the chaotic and cataclysmic social upheavals of the 1960s which still reverberate today.
And in case you hadn't noticed, we're living in a reactive time, with the party of the first African-American President taking it on the chin in mid-term elections and a conservative wind blowing throughout the land in a time of economic uncertaintly.
I'm not going so far as to call Lady Antebellum the Grammy Tea Party candidates, because God knows, their music is much more mild than that. Their sound is closer to Air Supply than Toby Keith. But in a field that could be considered to be full of risky choices by a voting body as ultimately conservative as the Recording Academy, Lady A took advantage of an electorate divided over Eminem and Cee Lo, and emerged as the safe, surprise winner.
As for the Obama voters, they got their win in the form of jazz bassist and friend of POTUS Esperanza Spalding shocking the world by beating out Justin Bieber et. al. for Best New Artist. That was a choice reminsiscent of Herbie Hancock's 2008 out of the blue album of the year win for The Joni Letters. Spalding is hardly an unknown, having been prominently featured in all sorts of august media outlets such as the Philadephia inquirer Weekend section, and she's played everywhere from the White House to The Roots Picnic to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Stockholm.
Spalding has yet to fully mature as an artist, but she's obviously tremendously talented and classy and possesses both a bountifully photogenic Afro and one of the coolest names in showbiz. As a young star in the making - she's 26, and was an instructor at the Berklee College Of Music when she was 20 - she made Grammy look good, even as she enraged true Beiiebers enough to move them to sabotage her Wikipedia page in hormonal addled cyber vandalism last night.
Now, if I can only figure out how Arcade Fire managed their (much deserved) upset win for Album of the Year over Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum, I'll be sure to let you know...