CORNISH: Tonight, all ears are on the rapper Eminem, the Hawaiian-born songwriter Bruno Mars, and the flamboyant fashionista Lady Gaga. They lead the pack of nominees at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony.
(Soundbite of song, "Love the Way You Lie")
EMINEM: (Rapping) I'll never stoop so low again. I guess I don't know my own strength.
RIHANNA (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Just going to stand there and watch me burn...
CORNISH: Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers will be covering the event. She joins us now. Welcome, Ann.
Ms. ANN POWERS (Pop Critic, Los Angeles Times): Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: Now, back when the nominees were announced, you wrote that the list would, quote, "provoke both excitement and horror."
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: And I want to know what you mean by that?
Ms. POWERS: Well, it's funny about the Grammys. You know, on the one hand, it's a great representation of what the conventional music industry really cares about - which oftentimes means what's selling, not necessarily what a critic or a fan might say is the best recording.
At the same time, it means a heck of a lot to the artists. They really, really care and it is a sign of legitimation for these artists. So what's interesting now is, as the music industry is kind of continuing to fall apart, we have a strange mix of the sublime and the ridiculous at the top of the charts, and at the Grammys.
CORNISH: Right, we mentioned some of the sort of big pop artists at the top here. But who would you consider a dark horse?
Ms. POWERS: Well, a lot of people are talking about Arcade Fire. They're nominated for Album of the Year. And one of the notable things about that is not only is Arcade Fire a much-beloved band by critics and by fans of, quote, unquote, "good music," but also their album, "The Suburbs," came out on an indie label. An independent label called Merge that's been a stalwart in the independent rock scene for many, many years.
So this is seen as not just a triumph for the Canadian-based collective, but also for indie rock, for independent labels, for people doing things differently. And I think that's pretty interesting. If they would win, which I don't know if they're going to, it would be seen I think as a vote of confidence for doing things not just for, you know, to sell a million records, but because of the best interest of the artists and the best interest of the fans.
CORNISH: Then there's an artist like Eminem, who sort of had a little bit of a comeback. I don't know if he really went away, but he had a little bit of a comeback. And what do think of the trajectory of his career?
Ms. POWERS: Eminem had a huge comeback. His album "Recovery" was a major seller. It's very unusual for a rapper to survive this long and to return after a few years in the wilderness. Eminem had problems with addiction. He really struggled, but now he's back and he's commercially and artistically more viable than ever.
Hip-hop and rap particularly are a young man's games. And for Eminem to be still relevant to such a big audience and to be making very powerful albums - I mean, though, Eminem when he started out was a troublemaker. He was a shock to everyone. He was kind of a horror-core rapper. You know, his images and his songs were very misogynistic and very confrontational, full of humor but kind of troubling humor.
All that is still present in his music, however he's now gained the kind of a patina of gravitas. You know? And he never smiles. I'm just wondering if he's going to finally smile if he wins a Grammy. You know, it'll be a big moment if that happens.
CORNISH: At the same time, there are so many artists who are shocking in a way...
Ms. POWERS: Yeah.
CORNISH: ...in terms of mainstream artists. When you think of imagery in a Lady Gaga video or something like that or, even, you know, Katy Perry with like whipped cream shooting out of her bra...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: ...in one of her videos. It seems as though that spectacle pop artist actually is very much alive and well.
Ms. POWERS: Yeah, and if you think about Cee Lo Green nominated for Song of the Year - a song whose name we can't say on the radio...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. POWERS: ...but rhymes with, as Stephen Colbert famously said, Fox News. You know, the fact that that song exists is really interesting. And that it's a playful song that people might even play for their kids or, you know, wouldn't be too horrified if their kids heard it. I think thats - in this way, pop music is really reflective of and connected to pop culture in general.
I mean we're living in a moment of extreme ADD, extreme exhibitionism. There's so much going on in front of us at all times, as consumers, as viewers, as listeners, you know, we have - I walked in on my husband the other day and he had a computer, an iPad and a television going all at the same time. You know? And he was reading a book.
So while we're living this kind of overloaded life, I think artists feel they have to shout to be heard. And...
CORNISH: How much do the Grammys then honor music? And how much do they, you know, essentially reward sales and showmanship?
Ms. POWERS: The Grammys have traditionally focused on the kind of showmanship that foregrounds music - its still showmanship. I think that the voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who are working within the music industry, recognize that pop now is a multimedia form. It's not only about music.
So how do you honor artistry that flowers in music but also flowers in visuals and fashion and poses and spectacle? It's an interesting question.
CORNISH: Do you think there will actually be any big surprises tonight?
Ms. POWERS: I think one thing that could happen is that Lady Antebellum does much better than people expect.
CORNISH: And this is a country act - a very popular country act.
Ms. POWERS: They're a very popular country act; big voices performing, very accessible songs that don't quite fit any genre or story but welcome in a really huge audience. Many critics and, you know, many people I think find them rather bland. But within the traditional Grammy universe, they're the perfect artists. And they might surprise us and knockout some of the more spectacular figures up there on the stage.
CORNISH: Ann Powers is chief pop critic for the LA Times. She joined us from their studios in Los Angeles.
Ann, thanks so much.
Ms. POWERS: Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of song, "American Honey")
LADY ANTEBELLUM (Music Group): (Singing) Oh nothing's sweeter than summertime, an American dream and American honey.
CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week.
I'm Audie Cornish.