How Important Are the Grammy Awards?

Vibemagazine music editor Jon Caramanica and Gail Mitchell, senior editor for Billboard preview the Grammy Awards. The two editors discuss with Michel Martin what a Grammy trophy means compared to other major performing arts awards.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is NEWS & NOTES.

The 49th Annual Grammy Awards are this Sunday in Los Angeles. It's one of the biggest events in the music industry. There will be big names handing out awards, big names receiving them, and big names performing. In other words, it's big. We wondered how it all comes together. What's it like backstage? And what does it really mean to win?

To lead us through all of it, we have two trusted guides. I'm joined by Jon Caramanica, music editor for Vibe magazine, an urban music and culture monthly, and Gail Mitchell, senior editor covering R&B and hip-hop for Billboard magazine. Welcome both of you. Thanks for coming in.

Ms. GAIL MITCHELL (Senior Editor, Billboard): Thank you.

Mr. JON CARAMANICA (Music Editor, Vibe): Hello. How are you?

MARTIN: You know, the Oscars are a big deal to the artists as well as to the audience. People have been known go to see a movie that they might otherwise skip just because, you know, the movie's been nominated and they want to get in on their office Oscar pool. Do the Grammy's work the same way? Do the musicians care if they win and does the audience care? John.

Mr. CARAMANICA: I definitely think there are two categories of musicians. I think there's a category of musicians for whom the Grammy is the end goal to win that kind of critical acclaim, as well as claim from fellow industry people, that's what they're working towards. And also I think there's a category of artists for whom the Grammy is incidental. I think you see this a lot in the hip-hop space where a lot of people on the hip-hop industry don't necessarily feel like the Grammys best represent what's going on. So for them, if they win that's nice, but if they don't they're not seeing it as any kind of shock to their careers.

MARTIN: But if they do care, why do they care? Is it particularly important in some genre, and if so, why? Is it because they just like the approval of the industry or because it really drives sales or for some other reason?

Mr. CARAMANICA: I think what you're seeing with these albums is obviously these albums have been out for quite a while, so will see a spike in sales immediately after the Grammys for the albums that have been most successful. But I think in certain categories, say, for someone like Norah Jones, who, a couple of years ago, had a very, very big year at the Grammys. That for her I imagined was ultimate validation of the project that she was working on.

Whereas, if you look back to the late '80s, the first time, say, there was a rap Grammy award when Will Smith was nominated, the rap Grammy was actually not televised and he actually boycotted it, which is something a lot of people forget. So I think you see it working in different ways for different types of people.

MARTIN: Gail, how do you get a Grammy? How does it work?

Ms. MITCHELL: The way you get a Grammy, there's a process where they've got the nomination categories and they send it out to a panel of the voting constituency. The nominations are then figured out that way, and then the voting constituency gets the final breakout. Those were announced in early December.

The different categories - album of the year, song of the year, new artist of the year, as well as the individual genre categories - those are sent out to the voting membership and brought back in, sent back in, I'm sorry, and polled by a separate institution. And then the winners are announced on Sunday.

MARTIN: And who gets to vote - I'm sorry - how do get to - can I vote? Do I get to vote?

Ms. MITCHELL: To be a voter, they're looking for people who have production credits on - you have to have production credits on an album. There's so many credits, I think it's six credits you need as a producer, liner notes, different people from different aspects of the industry: engineering, production, et cetera.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. MITCHELL: And once you have six credits, you apply for membership. You get - and if you got those credits, then you are brought in as a voting member.

MARTIN: What John was saying, that particularly people in hip-hop don't necessarily see the Grammys as the be all and end all of validation, but does it follow then, Gail, that they don't necessarily pursue voting membership, they don't necessarily pursue participation in the process?

Ms. MITCHELL: A lot of what John said is true. I agree that the Recording Academy is making efforts now. And there is more urban outreach because a lot of the urban community, especially on the hip-hop side, has felt disenfranchised by the awards. So there is an outreach going on right now to increase the voter membership among those ranks because, as everyone knows, a lot of what's going on in popular music is driven by what's going on in R&B and hip-hop.

MARTIN: Do you agree with John that people in hip-hop don't necessarily value the approval as much, even if they (unintelligible) so they don't feel that they're necessarily as - have not in the past been as recognized? What do you think?

Ms. MITCHELL: Early on…

MARTIN: It's sort of kind of contradictory feeling, though, wouldn't you agree?

Ms. MITCHELL: Yeah, early on. Like John said, because it took a while for there to even be an R&B and rap category in the Grammys. So that took a while and I agree with John that they were still - and they're still are probably two camps.

And a lot of times, I think right now there's so many awards ceremonies I don't know that a lot of the truer artists who are really into this, whether they're rap or hip-hop or R&B, are necessarily validated by this. It's a nice thing. And if it happens, especially in the case of Mary J. Blige, if this is just a mainstream validation of what the urban community has known all along - that she's a great artist and she probably should have been recognized several years ago like this. But…

MARTIN: Do you guys both go? Do you both go to the Grammys?

Mr. CARAMANICA: Not going this year.

MARTIN: No. Not going. Gail, are you going?

Ms. MITCHELL: Yeah, I'll be going. I'll be backstage covering it for Billboard.

MARTIN: Do you get all dressed up?

Ms. MITCHELL: Not really because I'm backstage from about 1 o'clock for the pre-ceremony, which are the - all the awards that aren't televised. That starts about one goes for about two, two and a half hours - then at 5 o'clock the live telecast starts, and that goes for another, probably, two and a half or three hours.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. You're not really expecting us to feel sorry for you, are you? If you get to like go and rub elbows with Mary J. and the rest. Sorry, love you, I'm not feeling sorry for you. But…

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, then - you're backstage in a room with a bunch of other journalists - elbow to elbow. That's the print room. There's a TV/radio room, so that's separate. Then there's a photo room - and it just depends on the show or whether they can get back to which room.

MARTIN: Okay. What - do the artists care about the performances at the Grammys? Is it a state of high anxiety? Do they, you know, sweat over every outfit? Do they really care about their performances or is it just - is it something to be endured?

Mr. CARAMANICA: Yeah.

Ms. MITCHELL: I think I happen to have done a Grammy career day yesterday and I interviewed. I had a Q&A session with Corinne Bailey Rae and this is her first time being nominated. And she had a great album, and she told me one of segments - the musical segments with her is going to be her, John Mayer and John Legend. And she very excited about it.

I think from the performance they're going to want to do a good job. And that's a personal thing of any artist. So she didn't seem to be sweating it. She was looking forward to it. And yesterday was going to be the first rehearsal, the first time she was going to meet John Legend who she's going to go on tour with in several months, and then the first time meeting John Mayer. So she told me she was excited about it.

MARTIN: Okay. Jon. Jon, we're down to our last couple of minutes. I think we need to hear your handicap this thing for us. Is there - are there any surprises anticipated? Are we going to see a sweep like we've seen in past years where Lauren Hill or Carlos Santana kind of just swept the board? What do you think?

Mr. CARAMANICA: (unintelligible) I think, we're going to see big years for two artists. I think, obviously, this is going to Mary's year. I feel really strongly about that, and nominated eight times, and really, as Gale said, overdue recognition from the recording academy.

Mary is someone who's been making great music for well over a decade. And frankly, when she first started out, probably, wasn't the sort of artist that would be recognized. She definitely had a rough upbringing, came up through the hip-hop community even though she was an R&B singer. And that wasn't necessarily the type of music that was on the radar of the academy, say, in '94 and '95 and '96.

MARTIN: Okay. Sorry…

Mr. CARAMANICA: Now she's, you know, she's on Oprah. She's communicating with the different kind of audience and that's going to work.

Also, I think, it's a big year for the Dixie Chicks. I think in the recording academy, which probably is viewed as somewhat liberal. I think people think of a vote for the Dixie Chicks as probably a vote against the Bush administration given their outspoken political views, and I can see them finally getting a lot of the recognition that they've deserved. You know they've been recognized previously. I think this will be a big year for them.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm sorry we're going to have to leave it there, a lot more to talk about. Hope you'll come back and see us after it's all over.

Jon Caramanica, music editor for the urban music and culture monthly, Vibe magazine; and Gail Mitchell, senior editor covering R&B and hip-hop for Billboard magazine.

Gail, I didn't really mean it. We do feel sorry for you having to -

Ms. MITCHELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: - elbow to elbow. Have a great time. Come back and tell us all about it.

Ms. MITCHELL: I will. Thanks.

MARTIN: Thank you, both of you for coming in.

Mr. CARAMANICA: Thank you.

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