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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").

Sober

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.

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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

The comments to this entry are closed.

Comments

Rob what you just said is so true...I don't know what it is with NARAS...either there's too many older members in the Blue Ribbon Panel or just too many older NARAS members over all. Record and Song winners always lean towards the bland and balladry...very rarely a good uptempo song whether it be rock, country, r&b, rap/hip-hop, jazz, or dance-oriented ever win in those categories...and if it does it's a bland, mediocre recording like Rosanna, Up, Up & Away, or Love Will Keep Us Together, etc. I'm glad Rehab won..and I would have been happy if Umbrella won also...even though it's not a great record but it's catchy, uptempo and a fun little ditty like MMMBop...

Point taken Frankie - but I can't help noticing that most of those songs on your list are ballads. The Grammys are still reluctant to reward uptempo pop/dance tracks - least of all R&B-inflected ones - outside of the genre categories. All I'm seeing is that Umbrella, despite being favoured by many pundits, never really stood a chance. While Rehab was an adventurous choice by their standards too, its traditional instrumentation and semi-serious subject matter made it an obvious winner from the start, in my opinion.

I will say I was shocked that Herbie won Album of the Year. I had predicted a complete sweep by Winehouse. My history teacher in my class had said he thought the album was the best of the bunch and he's also a long time Hancock fan.

What was even more astounding was that if you re-watch the win, everyone in the crowd all over the Staples Center started to stand up. It wasn't even one of those some people stand and slowly everyone else stands. People all around him stood and at the same time you can see everyone in the Staples Center stood up. I'm guessing there was a trend in the academy that was actually rooting for Hancock's upset.

One last comment though. I thought Hancock winning the Album of the Year honor to be the biggest Grammy surprise since Steely Dan bested Eminem seven years ago. When that happened, I was more upset that the Grammy's had passed over Radiohead's "Kid A" for the honor. Later in life when I started to become a Steely Dan fan and actually listened to "Two Against Nature", I realized how much of a genious album it is. Radiohead still deserved the honor, but The Dan were still very worthy of it.

Oh Rob...Grammys rarely award fluffy pop hits....here's a run down of Record and Song of the Year winners...ya know fluffy stuff:

I Honestly Love You;
A Whole New World;
Killing Me Softly;
Love Will Keep Us Together;
You Light Up My Life;
Evergreen (Theme From A Star is Born);
Sailing;
Rosanna;
Wind Beneath My Wing;
From a Distance;
I Will Always Love You;
My Heart Will Go On;

....there's more...but get the picture?...the majority of Grammy winners have always been fluffy pop hits...those little guilty pleasures we love hearing in the privacy of our own homes...those cheesey songs you can't help but sing along to...

Oh Rob...Grammys rarely award fluffy pop hits....here's a run down of Record and Song of the Year winners...ya know fluffy stuff:

I Honestly Love You;
A Whole New World;
Killing Me Softly;
Love Will Keep Us Together;
You Light Up My Life;
Evergreen (Theme From A Star is Born);
Sailing;
Rosanna;
Wind Beneath My Wing;
From a Distance;
I Will Always Love You;
My Heart Will Go On;

....there's more...but get the picture?...the majority of Grammy winners have always been fluffy pop hits...those little guilty pleasures we love hearing in the privacy of our own homes...those cheesey songs you can't help but sing along to...

Posted by: Brian | February 11, 2008 at 09:33 AM

Wow, you make some good observations, esp. about Amy Wino :) In Amy I see Lauryn Hill -- a good, not great talented singer, better at song writing than singing, because let's face it -- she can only fill a 500 seat bar, she's not stadium quality.
As with Lauryn Hill, it will take Amy about another 3 years to produce a CD because of her "afflictions" (if she's not dead by then), the album will tank or be critically panned....she will be forgotten and drift off somewhere, and people will ask "where's Amy?" I've seen it so many times with the "best new artist" singers. She does not have longevity. This is her best shot.

______________
Yeah, kind of like Janis Joplin. Thank god filling a stadium is not the criteria for making a legendary or even good artist. See Bon Jovi et al. Since when is the adjective "stadium quality" a positive one?

And why is it cool to perennial have this same conversation about the relevance of the Grammys? I don't get it.

So Amy Winehouse's Grammy haul was "shocking"? Let's see... young female singer-songwriter, steeped in the traditions of a previous musical era, with critical acclaim, big sales, and a huge single that captures the zeitgeist of the current celebrity scene... adds up to bona fide Grammy bait. How could you NOT see this coming - regardless of her personal troubles? I never understood why you and so many others thought Rihanna would win Record/Song of the Year... she has nowhere near the same level of artistic credibility as Winehouse, and the Grammys rarely reward fluffy pop hits in the marquee categories. Winehouse had it sewn up from the beginning... and she deserved to.

The key to Winehouse's success lies in her crossover appeal: I'm in my late 20's, and I own the Back to Black album. So do my fiftysomething parents. So does my 12 year-old niece. On the other hand, my mom hates Umbrella, and my dad doesn't even know who Rihanna is. Broad appeal wins out every time. Sometimes us critics know more than you think, Tom!

So why did Come Away With Me by Norah Jones win for Album of the Year Tom? what's that? you mean it's the babe factor thing? So what is the clincher really? Say hi to Sasha and tell her she's not a good sport for not letting me post my comments which are written to temper her overzealousness for an all-star Oscar nominate/winner cast for films vying for BP. hehehe. :)

Natalie Who? Would she like a little whine with her cheese? Who cares what Natalie Cole thinks? Where's her creative masterpiece?

Amy Winehouse when she won for best record-now THAT is what awards shows are made for.

This logic could be used to indicate that Marion Cotillard and Tilda Swinton (next year) win Oscars.

Part 2 Grammys:
Hilights: Aretha and the Choir; John Fogerty, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis really show that old dinosaurs can still rock like no other; Feist, simple yet awesome; Tina & Beyounce shaking and shimmying and rocking...And Amy Winehouse was grand...

Mixed review: Beatles salute was a little on cringe inducing side; Opening with (and appropriately) with Frank Sinatra was good but should have left Alicia Keys out of the equation. She has a voice for standards, but duets with old videos is kinda on the creepy side (remember Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole)...after all did we really need a double dose of Alicia? Was Morris Day and the Time necessary? I love "Jungle Love" but their time is pretty well...up..Rihanna alone was good enough; I found the stage settings overshadowed Kanye's performance...but his predictable yet moving tribute to his mother was a nice touch...Foo Fighters rocked out but please NARAS STOP WITH AMERICAN IDOL NON-SENSE...it's really awful!!...Andre and Josh were a nice vocal pair but not exactly thrilling..It was nice to see Keely Smith and still sounds great. But the pairing with Kid Rock was rather odd...Kid just makes me cringe really...

Low points: Fergie's blandness; Will I Am's awful renditions of some Record of the Year winners, Carrie Underwood cheesey production and Brad Paisley bland offering

Biggest missed opportunity: Herbie Hancock doing Gershwin instead of his nominated River: the Joni Letters...The Gershwin tribute would have been suited with someone like Marvin Hamlisch, Elton John or Billy Joel and let Herbie do a number with Joni Mitchell or better yet since she was performing already Tina Turner, who did Joni's rendition of EDITH AND THE KINGPIN on Herbie's album...What a waste!
..and to Natalie Cole (ex-druggie herself)...I believe the Grammys are about honoring music and not one's behavior...Amy Winehouse deserves her Grammys because Back to Black is really good work...her personal life is her personal life...good, bad or indifferent...As long as she'll keep producing outstanding work, she will (hopefully) grow more and more along the way...and not end up a real train wreck a la Britney...
And...no Michael Jackson...wonder why?...I guess no tribute or award was going to be presented to him, so probably got miffed and stayed away...and thank God no Justin Timberlake!!! Yeaaaahhh!!! even though he won one--ugh!...The Grammys were okay this year--quite ho-hum really...til next year...

Jimbo you've hit the nail partially on the head when it comes to Grammy voting...One really has to look through Grammys history and notice the pattern...In the early decades...it seemed the voting was mainly based on album sales, as well as the quality of the work. You would see mainly best-sellers make the cut no matter how critically unloved the work is...great examples: Even Now -Barry Manilow, Grease - movie soundtrack, Can't Slow Down - Lionel Ritchie, Falling into You - Celine Dion, It Must Be Him - Vikki Carr, Glass Houses - Billy Joel, Flashdance - movie soundtrack, The Body Guard - movie soundtrack, etc. After much grousing from record executives, NARAS members, and critics..the Grammys have made more bolder selections in the Album of the Year category. Unfortunately, when it comes to the actual winner, NARAS has gotten it right half the time but not always. The Grammys have long neglected many vital artists of past decades and just the past two decades alone they have been playing catch-up as seen with wins by Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole (more of an honor for her late father Nat), Steely Dan and Santana. So it should come as no surprise really when Herbie Hancock won last night. Even I predicted he would win...why? Again...Herbie's a well respected recording veteran who's work paid tribute to another well-respected (but always neglected) artist Joni Mitchell. Both these artists are long overdue for honors of their works. And it's been a very loooonnnggg time since a Jazz recording has taken the top honor...we're talking Getz/Gilberto back in 1964. You also have to take into consideration the mix bag of genres nominated: rap/hip-hop, jazz, country, pop/r&b, and rock. How can you compare apples and oranges...How can you distinguish if one genre of music is better than another? you really can't. But other factors played a key in the final category: Amy Winehouse's troubles overshadowed her work but not enough to win in other categories. Kanye needs an attitude adjustment...he's too arrogant, over-confident, slightly humble or sincere which turns off a lot of NARAS members. Vince Gill's These Days was an ambitious work (4 CDs set)...but after the O'Brother Where Art Thou Win...I think NARAS thought twice about honoring another Country recording again. Foo Fighters wasn't exactly the best rock entry..I wouldn't grumble over Herbie's win...It's a good recording--clean production, nice arrangements, excellent vocals from guest artists..it has everything going for it that NARAS likes...Looks like NARAS is straying away from the best-selling, commercially accessible kinds of recordings and actually choosing artistic merit over commercialism and popularity...will this actually become a permanent pattern?

Mr. O'Neil both hits, and totally misses, the mark in this single sentence"

"Content of the albums — what critics thought, how the discs sold in stores — hasn't seemed to matter much."

I would re-write that sentence to say:

Content of the albums, instead of what critics thought or how it sold in stores, has actually seemed to matter on occasion, in recent years.

Let's not confuse popularity with quality and let's CERTAINLY not confuse the opinion of pop-oriented critics like Mr. O'Neil with musical quality. Likewise, tabloid coverage, rehab stints, and public displays of bad behavior have nothing to do with the quality of the recording in question.

Let's face it, the best music rarely gets rewarded with a Grammy, so when it does, it should be a cause for celebration, not a reason to bash the usually flawed system. The awarding of Steely Dan's Two Against Nature as album of the year wasn't the crime. The crime was, every other Steely Dan album wasn't awarded the same prize. Whenever The Dan releases a studio album, it is the best album of the year.

To me, the shock isn't that River won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The shock is that something this good got nominated in the first place.

I applaud the engineers, producers and musicians in the Academy who disregarded the hype and concentrated on musicianship and the quality of performance and recording, when casting their votes. As with Two Against Nature, River is heads and shoulders above the pedestrian competition.

Wow, you make some good observations, esp. about Amy Wino :) In Amy I see Lauryn Hill -- a good, not great talented singer, better at song writing than singing, because let's face it -- she can only fill a 500 seat bar, she's not stadium quality.
As with Lauryn Hill, it will take Amy about another 3 years to produce a CD because of her "afflictions" (if she's not dead by then), the album will tank or be critically panned....she will be forgotten and drift off somewhere, and people will ask "where's Amy?" I've seen it so many times with the "best new artist" singers. She does not have longevity. This is her best shot.

As for Kanye -- he's trying to make Rap relevant and cross-over to the masses; but it's still a young person's genre. He gets frustrated because not only is HE not recognized but the genre is losing steam. Kanye recognize that people grow up and move away from what's hot and hip, they move on to new sounds and new artists. Somebody needs to teach him how to write an acceptance speech.

Tom, the Album of the year has judges and that includes the producers and engineers. Like it or not they don't judge the album based on longevity of the artists. The judge it on the quality of the music. See, even though the artist has talent, it's the producers and the engineers that have the ear that can make a great album sound better. That was the case with Steely Dan, the O' Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and that was the case with Mr. Hancock.
Sadly, you would prefer that the winner be based on the subject of tabloids, record sales and boose. For the former two look up the American Music Awards. No, The Grammys are based on quality of the record. Amy did a great record, but Herbie made a better one and based on the performances and the organic feel of the record and the musicians who worked their asses of, they earned it.
Also, as far as music journalists are concerned. They may not only know how awards work but also what music works. Something for you to keep in mind. I write for jazzreview.com and believe me. I have to analyse what makes a great recording and like other music journalists and critics that's what counts. No tabloid shit, no record sales, no outside deals that make people like Jay Z more money than the music itself. No, this is about the music, not the fame. If you can't deal with it then hand the Grammy job to someone who loves music. Or at worst, Billy Bush. Just throwing my two cents into this. Hope you learned something. Bye!

"Hooligans"? "Booze?"
This post sounds like Marcia and Lorenzo doing a round table at the early bird/blue plate special 'round about 4:30 at Stuckey's.

Album of the Year score: Toto 1, Kanye West 0.

Conclusion: A quarter-century later, this is further evidence that Grammy voters are clueless.

I agree with Natalie Cole completely. Why should drunks and dopers be awarded for their horrible behavior? That's the same thing that happened tp "Trailer Trash" Spears. Give the awards to decent people that we can look up to.

Foolish error, Tom. People weren't familiar with U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb? Are you that out of touch with the music world? Not only were they considered to be the biggest band in the world at the time, Atomic Bomb was one of their most successful albums to date (commercially and critically). The album went #1 in over 13 countries and went platinum 3 times in the States. The song "Vertigo" was one of the most popular songs of that year (Remember the Ipod commercial?) and even your own newspaper, the LA Times, called the album, "One of the Irish quartet's essential works".

Winehouse won Record and Song of the Year because "Rehab" was by far the best of the bunch. I don't think "alcohol being cool" had anything to do with it.

And Herbie Hancock winning is ever weirder than Steely Dan or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" winning Best Album. Blech.

The Grammys can be so out of touch, it's embarrassing. At least they got Winehouse right.


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