This year's Grammy nominations promise to inspire loud raspberry choruses from several corners of the popular music world. The top categories, including album of the year and record of the year, are dominated by acts at the very center of the mainstream, suggesting that sales, more than more genteel artistic standards, impressed nominators this year.
The Black Eyed Peas, not exactly critics' favorites, received more nominations than anyone except for Beyoncé and Taylor Swift -- more respected artists who've nonetheless worn out their welcome at the winners' dais lately. And instead of a hot newcomer like Amy Winehouse or M.I.A. (in 2007 and 2008, respectively) shaking up the ballot, there's only Maxwell, whose multiple nominations are greatly deserved, but who defies the stereotype of the critics' favorite on multiple counts: He's a mid-career veteran, an artiste of R&B rather than indie rock or Americana, and he's an unapologetic ladies' man.
So let the arguing begin. (I'm here to defend Lady Gaga against all comers.) But first, can we agree on one thing?
This nominations show has got to go.
Last year, this special honoring future Grammy champs and also-rans made its debut, and it was a disappointingly staid affair. Contemporary pop's star pupils, including Christina Aguilera, John Mayer and Celine Dion, honored greats such as Nina Simone and B.B. King with grace but not much fire. Wednesday night completely overturned that approach in an hour of schmoozy chair-hopping and rushed performances that did little more than remind us that those darn Peas have become inescapable.
LL Cool J, hosting for a second year (last year Swift shared the burden), was charming throughout and airtight in an opening number that put his rhymes within the context of current hits by the likes of Gaga and Kings of Leon. But he couldn't help but seem like a hip-hop wedding singer, circulating among the tables set up on the floor of Club Nokia and asking inevitably inane questions of the few celebrities on hand.
Did Ringo Starr feel great sitting next to Smokey Robinson? Why, yes!
One of LL's duties was introducing the night's musical performances, but that wasn't demanding: There were only six, including opener and closer by the Peas. The big news -- for tweens and the dads who've decided the Jonas Brothers do rock, after all -- was the debut of Nick Jonas' new band, the Administration, which came midway through the program and might be better left buried in our memories.
Introduced by his brothers, who emanated moderate enthusiasm, the youngest and most talented of the JoBro band worked to sound soulful on the title track to his new album, "Who I Am." But his gargled vocals conjured visions of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," not of Nick's hero Stevie Wonder.
The evening's other musical moments were less painful, but (with one huge exception) not much more exciting. The country duo Sugarland, almost always hugely invigorating live, was saddled with an outdoor performance beneath a gaudy Christmas tree that felt very much like what happens right before Santa enters at a winter celebration at the mall. Jennifer Nettles did her valiant best with a bluesy vocal, but the circumstances were tough to overcome.
Then there were the two omnipresent Peas hits, performed with predictable gusto by the group, who could make quite a living doing Beverly Hills kids' birthday parties if this pop thing ever fizzles out. I'm not anti-Peas as a matter of principle, and I'm delighted that "I've Gotta Feeling" has put the phrase "Mazel tov!" into general circulation. But somebody needs to teach this band the meaning of the word "oversaturation."
These few musical interludes didn't add up to much, yet the show still came off as cluttered and hard to follow. The nomination segments were plagued by musical miscues, bad pacing and stale patter from the celebrity announcers.
Only one moment transcended the ridiculousness. Maxwell's performance of Michael Jackson's "The Lady in My Life," which served as the evening's requisite MJ tribute, not only stood out, it made a quiet case for itself as one of the best televised musical performances of the year. Deploying his world-class falsetto in front of an understated but wicked-sharp band, the Brooklyn-based soul singer created an oasis of calm within the night's information overload.
If anyone questions his right to so many Grammy nominations after this performance, they're simply tone-deaf.
As wonderful a gift as Maxwell gave, it wasn't enough to justify this hour of prime-time chaos. It would be much more interesting (and, I believe, effective) if, next year, Grammy sponsoring organization the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences hosted the nominations as a live Web event. Artists could still perform, but interactive chats, video feeds from multiple sites and other Web-enabled features could turn this pseudo-event into something future-looking and genuinely relevant.
Keep LL Cool J, though; I'd love to read him rhyming on a Twitter feed.