They're trying. They're really trying. But when it comes to hipness, Grammy Award voters have a long way to go. Once again, they've managed to miss the most talked-about musical trend of the year: the resurgence of garage rock.
You couldn't pass a magazine rack without spotting the White Stripes, the Hives, or the Vines, three bands that critics said "saved" rock 'n' roll after the prefab fluff of teen pop. But they won't be in Madison Square Garden when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) bestows its golden gramophones Sunday night. (The Grammys will air on CBS at 8 p.m.)
"I can't think of a single reason why so many of the breakthrough artists of the year were overlooked," says White Stripes publicist Chloe Walsh. "The potential to reward some very exciting new artists ... seems obvious."
That's not to say that there won't be any new faces at the podium this weekend. Grammy voters gravitated toward Norah Jones, whose debut album, "Come Away With Me," and single, "Don't Know Why," have earned a total of eight nominations, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year (a songwriters award that would go to "Don't Know Why" composer Jesse Harris).
Jones also is competing for Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album.
Zach Hochkeppel, marketing director for Jones' label, the EMI/Capitol jazz subsidiary Blue Note, is thrilled that her release hit a high note with voters and the public. But he laments that overall, "The music business right now is in a very unimaginative stage."
He claims decisionmakers underestimate people's tastes - rather, they underestimate that listeners actually have taste - and blames the lack of garage-act nominees on the fact that some Grammy voters "are still painfully out of touch." He credits NARAS for working to correct that, but adds, "Sometimes it's better not to get totally acknowledged by the establishment. I don't think [the bands] are losing any sleep over it."
Mr. Hochkeppel is also skeptical about rapper Nelly's top album nod for "Nellyville." He and Jones are up against Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," the Dixie Chicks' "Home," and Eminem's "The Eminem Show."
"Rap acts that got nominated are the ones that sold the most records. It might as well be the Billboard Awards," he scoffs. (Those awards are unabashedly sales-based.) Eminem's album was the top-selling disc of 2002; Nelly's was No. 2; the Chicks' "Home" was fourth.
But record sales can't account for R&B/pop hitmaker Raphael Saadiq's five nominations, which include Best R&B Album for "Instant Vintage," and Best R&B Song and Best Urban/Alternative Performance, both for "Be Here." He's also got a writing credit on Erykah Badu's "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)," which is vying for Best R&B Song and Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or other Media.
Two weeks before the nominations were announced, Saadiq and his label, Universal Records, parted ways. He was disappointed that his album sold only 168,000 copies and noted, "Being on a major label, it should have sold more than that."
Saadiq was flattered to learn Grammy voters were listening anyway. It's also possible Universal's many Grammy voters threw support his way before he left the fold.
There's no such muscle-flexing at independent label Red House Records, which has one song sung by Lucinda Williams in the running for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
"We have one vote in this building and the Sonys of the world have many, many votes," says Red House president Bob Feldman. "They have more visibility; they're able to spend more money [on lobbying]." Williams is competing against major-label stars Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Lee Ann Womack, and an independent-label release by Dolly Parton.
As for whether major-label staffers vote with their ears or to protect their jobs, Mr. Feldman says, "I'd like to think they're voting for the talent and voting in the categories they know about. But I don't think that's the case.... If they did, there'd be a lot more indies winning."
Hochkeppel predicts that Bruce Springsteen's cathartic post-9/11 release, "The Rising," "will clean up." The disc is also contending for Best Rock Album, and the same-titled single is up for Song of the Year, Best Male Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.
"Springsteen is going to win [for Album of the Year] because (a), it's a wonderful record and (b), it's a lifetime achievement. He's been neglected by the Grammys," says Hochkeppel. Recent wins by Santana and Steely Dan bolster this theory.
Neglect of outstanding artists is another industry issue.
"A lot of [the problems] come from the fact that the major labels have too much power," he says. But he commends NARAS for making progress; 10 years ago, an album like last year's "O Brother, Where Art Thou" likely would not have been nominated, much less win Album of the Year. (The film soundtrack is on roots music label Lost Highway, a subsidiary of Universal.)
Other indie artists, such as Delbert McClinton (the musician who taught John Lennon how to play harmonica) are also getting long-delayed recognition.
McClinton's "Nothing Personal" won Best Contemporary Blues Album last year; he's nominated again for his follow-up, "Room to Breathe."
McClinton's friend, blues player Tommy Castro, finds that encouraging. It means, he says, "Good music still has a chance of getting out there. As long as the songs are good, anything can happen."