Preview: The 53rd Grammy Awards

R&B singer Bruno Mars and rapper Jay-Z are two artists tipped to have a big night at this year's Grammy Awards on Sunday. Both are nominated for six Grammys each. Host Michel Martin looks ahead to music's biggest event with Jacob Ganz, who blogs about music for NPR.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

(Soundbite of song, "Nothin' On You")

Mr. BRUNO MARS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Beautiful girls all over the world. I could be chasing, but my time would be wasting. They got nothing on you, baby.

B.O.B. (Rapper, singer, record producer): Not, not, not, nothin' on you, babe. Not, not nothin' on you.

Mr. MARS: Nothing on you, baby.

B.O.B.: Not, not, not, nothin' on you, babe.

MARTIN: And that is one of the songs nominated for record of the year at this Sunday's Grammy Awards, Hawaiian-born Bruno Mars, singing "Nothin' On You." Mars is nominated for seven Grammys in all. Other artists potentially heading for a big night: Jay-Z, Lady Antebellum and Lady Gaga, with six nominations each. So what can we expect from the Grammys this year?

To give us a heads up, we've called on Jacob Ganz. He blogs about music for NPR, and he took off his headphones for just long enough to join us from our studios in New York to tell us what's going on.

Jacob, thanks so much for joining us.

JACOB GANZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what are you looking forward to?

GANZ: I think with the Grammys every year, the awards kind of take a backseat to the performances. This year there are, you know, there are a number of pairings that look interesting. Mick Jagger and Raphael Saadiq are going to perform together. Cee Lo Green is going to perform with Gwyneth Paltrow and a bunch of Muppets, apparently.

MARTIN: And for people who aren't - who don't know Cee Lo Green, tell a little bit about why that's particularly amusing.

GANZ: Cee Lo is a R&B singer and was part of a hip-hop collective in Atlanta for a long time, and has sort of slowly broken out into the mainstream over a number of years. He was nominated for record of the year Grammy a few years ago as part of the group Gnarls Barkley, that song "Crazy" that I'm sure everybody has heard. This year he had a song under his own name, Cee Lo Green, that I can't say on the air.

MARTIN: I'm sure you that's so funny about the fact, you can't say the title of his song on the air, but he's performing with the Muppets. But there is a clean version a G version, G-rated version.

We'll play a little bit of "Forget You."

(Soundbite of song, "Forget You"0

CEE LO GREEN (Singer-songwriter, rapper): (Singing) I pity the fool that falls in love with you. Oh, she's a gold digger. Well. Just thought you should know. Ooh. I've got some news for you. Yeah, go run and tell your little boyfriend.

I see you driving 'round town with the girl I love and I'm like, forget you.

MARTIN: And if you substitute forget you for F you, then you get the version that's not safe for work.

GANZ: Correct.

MARTIN: OK. So why do you think that's a hit?

GANZ: I think that's a hit - I mean, that's the big question going into the Grammys is, is this the novelty song, or is this a genuinely great song? And I think it's a song that's designed to be sort of a niche hit that people can chuckle over and enjoy in a very specific way. And then, you know, when it goes to a broader audience, which the Grammys very much represent, it is where it sort of things gets into a little bit of shaky territory.

MARTIN: I take your point that you made earlier, that the Grammys are at least much about the performances that night as they are about the awards. But people do follow the awards, like particularly, I think, for record of the year. Now, four of the five nominees for record of the year - including Bruno Mars, whom we heard earlier - have elements of R&B or hip-hop, and the other nominee is country group Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now." I'll just play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Need You Now")

LADY ANTEBELLUM (Country Music Group): (Singing) I guess I'd rather hurt than feel nothing at all. It's a quarter after one. I'm all alone, and I need you now. And I said I wouldn't call, but I'm a little drunk and I need you now.

MARTIN: And so who you like for record of the year? What do you think?

GANZ: For record of the year, I have to say that Lady Antebellum's song seems to me like the give me pick. It's, you know, it's the one that sort of appeals to the broadest audience. It's a classic, melodic song. You know, it has the benefit of being the only one in the category that sort of a classic rock-type song. The other ones might potentially split the vote.

If I had to pick another one that might come in as a dark horse, "Empire State of Mind," just because Jay-Z hasn't won a huge award like that before. And that is an anthemic song, the way that a lot of big winners often are. The rest of them, you know, seem like they're...

MARTIN: Well, just one second. Just - we'll play a little bit of Jay-Z, just so people could hear what we're talking about.

(Soundbite of song, "Empire State of Mind")

JAY-Z (Rapper): (Rapping) Cruising down 8th Street. Off-white Lexus. Driving so slow, but BK, it's from Texas. Me, I'm out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie. Now I live on Billboard, and I brought my boys with me. Say what up to Ta-ta, still sipping Mai Tais, sitting courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high-five. I be Spiked out. I could trip a referee, tell by my attitude that I'm most definitely from, from, hey...

Ms. ALICIA KEYS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) New York. Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do. Now you're in New York. These streets will make you feel brand new, the lights will inspire you. Let's hear it for New York....

MARTIN: So, you think in a way it's like a make-up call for Jay-Z? Like one of those like, I hate to say this, but like lifetime achievement award that should have been, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GANZ: It's a big issue with the Grammys, in general. I mean, the Grammys are -the Grammys - it's a huge organization. They nominate pages and pages and pages of songs and artists and albums every year, and it's hard to keep up with exactly what happening. And often, the Grammys don't recognize things until a year or so after they have come to prominence. Yeah, and Jay-Z had his first number one hit with "Empire State of Mind."

MARTIN: OK.

GANZ: You know, so it's not just the Grammys that were late recognizing him.

MARTIN: Speaking of a little late - maybe I'm wrong. But one nomination that surprised me was the cast of "Glee" for "Don't Stop Believing." You want play a little bit, just so people know what we're about? For people who haven't caught it, here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Glee")

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Believing")

Ms. LEA MICHELE (Actor): (as Rachel Berry) (Singing) Working hard to get my fill. Everybody wants a thrill, paying anything to roll the dice just one more time. Some will win, some will lose. Some are born to sing the blues. And now the movie never ends. It goes on and on and on and on.

Strangers...

MARTIN: I mean, am I being mean, but aren't they a little late to the party on this one?

GANZ: You could say that. Yeah. I mean, this category in general is pretty weird. The category that that song "Don't Stop Believing" is nominated in is the best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals. That song was originally released in 1981 by Journey. You know, Journey never won any Grammys itself. It does sort of seem like the Grammys are sort of acknowledging late that "Glee" is a massive pop cultural force an economic force, as well. The singles that TV show generates sell extremely well.

But, you know, that category that it's nominated in also includes the song "Hey Soul Sister" by Train, but not the version that everybody's heard. It's a live version from a bonus EP that the band put out. The original version was put out before the eligibility period for this Grammys and wasn't nominated in the last go-round because it was in a massive hit yet. So the Grammys, yeah, they do play catch-up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I know. A lot to keep up with. OK. So, Jacob, any dark horse you want to point us to? Or either that, or you could like place bets on what Lady Gaga is going wear.

GANZ: Honestly, the thing that people are going to be talking about is the new song that she's going to put out and she's going to perform at the Grammys this weekend. I think that, you know, by the time the Grammys are over, everybody's going to be looking forward to awards ceremony in 2012.

MARTIN: OK. NPR music blogger Jacob Ganz joined us from our studios in New York.

Jacob, thanks so much for joining us.

GANZ: Thanks, Michel.

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