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How did Herbie and Amy pull off shocking Grammy wins?

February 10, 2008 | 10:07 pm

If you were flabbergasted by Herbie Hancock winning Grammy's album of the year award, you haven't been paying attention to the voting patterns in this race. The top category has clearly distinguished itself as a veteran's achievement award in recent years.

Content of the albums — what critics thought, how the discs sold in stores — hasn't seemed to matter much. Did any voters even listen to "Two Against Nature" in 2001? Of course not. That victory was a career hug for Steely Dan. Therefore, the facts that CD sales of Hancock's "River" were low and that he's not performing his own signature sound, but rather doing covers of Joni Mitchell's music, probably weren't factors at all in voters' minds. I think it's safe to say that most voters were not really familiar with the music on most of the albums by other veterans who won over the past 15 years: Eric Clapton ("Unplugged"), Tony Bennett ("MTV Unplugged"), Bob Dylan ("Time Out of Mind"), Santana ("Supernatural"), Ray Charles ("Genius Loves Company") and U2 ("How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb").


Though a lot of music critics predicted Amy Winehouse would win best record and/or song, it's still extraordinary that she did so, considering Grammy history (and the fact that music journalists aren't really award experts). Voters don't usually like riff-raff. That's probably one of the reasons Kanye West lost best album, as many other hooligans had in the past (Eminem, Pearl Jam). Also, the defiant message behind Amy's song is truly anti-hip in rehab-happy Hollywood. Keep in mind that the notorious video showing Amy smoking crack that finally did send her to treatment, kicking and screaming, came out in recent weeks, after the voting period ended.

But I have a theory that the positive spin on a booze or drug message doesn't matter — just the fact that the brain-altering substance is mentioned at all. In the videos (below) that I did with Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly, I go into it a bit, warning that it might be a factor this year at the Grammys.

Remember Sheryl Crow's big upset in the record of the year race back in 1995 when "All I Wanna Do" beat Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" and Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You"? Do you remember what Crow wanted to do in that song? Answer: have some fun getting drunk in a saloon while the sun came up over Santa Monica Boulevard.


I believe that James Coburn pulled off an upset at the Oscars a few years ago in the supporting actor race for "Affliction" because he portrayed a nasty drunk. Booze is probably what fueled the big-kudos success of "Lost in Translation" and "Sideways" in recent years too. Spiritus fermenti was also a key ingredient in wins dating back to "Leaving Las Vegas" and "The Lost Weekend" and, before that, even Katharine Hepburn's first best actress victory in 1933. She had a big drunk scene in "Morning Glory."

Booze has fueled many top Emmy wins too, including some for Candice Bergen ("Murphy Brown") and Kirstie Alley ("Cheers").

Bottom line: It doesn't matter if alcohol use is portrayed irresponsibly, without redemption. Even though thousands of voters no longer imbibe, a sneaky part of them longs to, desperately, and we often see it spill out at showbiz awards.

So here's a toast to all of those winnahs!

Photos: United Artists/ AP