MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Award season is quickly approaching, and last night was the annual Grammy nomination concert. The one-hour event was hosted by LL Cool J. and included performances by Rihanna, a tribute to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, featuring the legendary D.J. himself, and interesting collaborations, including Lady Gaga and Sugarland.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AND I")
LADY GAGA: (With Sugarland, Singing) I'm a New York woman, born to run you down, I want my lipstick all over your face, something something about just knowing when it's right...
MARTIN: Of course, the purpose of the concert was to announce the nominees for the best music of the year and, as always, there were a few surprises and what is being interpreted as a few snubs.
Here to help us make sense of these announcements, as well as other headlines in the world of music, are three music writers. NPR music critic Ann Powers is with us. Also with us, Jasmine Garsd, who cohosts NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast. And also with us, Nekesa Mumbi Moody, music editor for the Associated Press.
Welcome, everybody. Thank you for joining us.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.
NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Thank you.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, happy to be here.
MARTIN: So let's start by talking about last night. There are a total of 78 categories in the Grammys. All the nominees were posted online, but the major categories were announced at the concert last night. And it looks as though Bruno Mars and Adele and Kanye cleaned up.
Let's see. Bruno Mars and Adele each was nominated for Best Song, Album and Record of the Year. We'll just play a quick clip from each of the artists in case people aren't familiar with all of them. This is Bruno Mars' song "Grenade."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRENADE")
BRUNO MARS: (Singing) ...understand is I'd catch a grenade for you, throw my hand on a blade for you. I'd jump in front of a train for you.
MARTIN: And here's Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," although - I don't know, if you haven't heard this one, I don't know; maybe you were on the space shuttle or something. But here it is. Here's Adele, "Rolling in the Deep."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")
ADELE: (Singing) We could have had it all, rolling in the deep. You had my heart inside your hand, but you played it with it beating. Throw your soul through every open door.
MARTIN: So Ann, do you think that the nominations were about right? Did they get it right, from your perspective?
POWERS: I noticed that the Twitterverse was blowing up last night with confusion about the exclusion of Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" from the Best Album of the Year category.
I also wonder what happened with Beyonce. She didn't have very many nominations - or at least, not in the major categories. That was confusing to me.
So I think it's a year that's going to cause a lot of discussion, actually. They got some things right, and some things possibly way wrong.
MARTIN: So the exclusions were the things that caught your eye. Were there any inclusions that caught your eye?
POWERS: Well, Bon Iver, the band led by Wisconsinite Justin Vernon. Beloved by indie rockers, and people who like beautiful, singer-songwriterly and texturally rich music - got some pretty amazing nominations, and there's a lot of people who are excited about that.
MARTIN: Nekesa, what about you? What caught your ear?
MOODY: I was a little bit surprised about Bon Iver as well, just because - not for the Best New Artist, but for Record and Song of the Year. I was surprised Mumford & Sons - again, Record and Song of the Year and...
MARTIN: That were nominated?
MOODY: That were nominated.
MARTIN: Those were the ones that were nominated and you're a little...
MOODY: Those are the ones that were nominated.
MARTIN: ...questionable about that?
MOODY: I think the Kanye West exclusion was shocking. Also, Taylor Swift. She had a huge year, and the album was very well critically received, so I think that was a big shock that she was shut out, as well, of the major categories.
MARTIN: Now, Jasmine, you mostly cover Latin alternative music, so one of the things I wanted to ask you was whether there are artists from that part of the music business who you think should have gotten more recognition, and did not.
GARSD: Well, it's difficult with the Latin category because one category is Best Latin Pop, Rock or Urban. Then you have Best Regional Mexican or Tejano, Best Banda Or Norteno. You know, it's hard because when you have one category that's Best Latin Pop, Rock or Urban - I mean, that's the equivalent of having one category that is inclusive of...
MARTIN: Best human.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GARSD: You know, Best Rap, Country and Jazz, all in one category. I mean, it's a little bit - it's hard. At the same time, I was pretty pleased with the people who were nominated. I almost found it to be more focused than the Latin Grammys. Maybe because, you know, they have to squeeze everyone into this tiny category, so only the best ones make it in. I'm quite pleased with the nominees. You have Calle 13, the Puerto Rican rap duo who, you know, basically, you know, did a - staged a coup at the Latin Grammys. And you have...
MARTIN: We heard. You're fans. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: We had a conversation, a whole conversation about that. Yeah.
GARSD: We have the Venezuelan band La Vida Boheme, who are newcomers. They're exciting; they're everything Latin rock should be. We have Gustavo Galindo, who is also doing some exciting mixes with electronica and folk. I was really pleased with the Latin nominations. Of course, it would be awesome to have some more variety that would reflect the variety in Latin music.
MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of variety, though, we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about the concert itself. I mean, as we said, it was the Grammy nomination concert so - but it was still a concert. And I thought it was very interesting. They put some interesting groups together, unexpected pairings - let's maybe put it that way - and there was a group performance in honor of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's classic song "The Message." Let's hear some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Rapping) Don't push me 'cuz I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my head. Uh huh ha ha ha. Hands up. Hands up. It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under. Hands up. Hands up. Standin' on the front stoop hangin' out the window. Watchin' all the cars go by, roarin' as the breezes blow. Crazy lady, livin' in a bag. Eatin' outta garbage pails, used to be a fag, had sex and danced the tango, skip the life and dango.
MARTIN: And that featured Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Scorpio from the Furious Five, and more - let's say recent hip-hop artists: Common, Lupe Fiasco and LL Cool J.
And I always like to point this out because the youngins' who think, you know, that they're all way ahead of us - I like to point out that it's my generation that invented the genre. Just thought I'd mention it, just in case anybody was interested. So now Nekesa, what did you think about the performances this year?
MOODY: I think the performances were on par for what the Grammys do. They try and bring in different genres together, and kind of do a mash-up. I thought the Sugarland-Lada Gaga performance was probably among the best. I thought that the band Perry showed their excellence. Kimberly Perry just has an amazing voice, and I that came through when she wove in pop. So I think it was a good show.
MARTIN: Jas, what did you think?
GARSD: First of all, I loved the whole Grandmaster Flash performance. And I think it's a really poignant statement on the state of hip hop right now, that a song that came out in 1982 relates to the hardships that people are going through now so much more than so much of what is out there on commercial hip hop. I think that says a lot.
I thought the Gaga performance was also brilliant. I mean, I just think Lady Gaga - she has so much visual stuff going on that sometimes you forget that she's truly an amazing performer. She's very good live.
MARTIN: Interesting point. Interesting point. But to the point that you're making - and if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about last night's Grammy nomination concert and announcements with NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast co-host Jasmine Garsd, NPR music critic Ann Powers, and Associated Press music editor Nekesa Mumbi Moody.
Jas, you were talking about the fact that the message still resonates, given that a lot of people are experiencing a lot of situations right now. I'm interested in the role that social activism is playing in popular music right now. I mean, obviously, you know, every movement has its sound. Like the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, anti-Vietnam War movement had a certain sound. A lot of people have been waiting to see whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will develop a sound. And there have been performers - like Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground, and the hip-hop artist Talib Kweli have signed on with a group called Occupy Musicians, saying that they support the Occupy movement.
But Ann, is there a major star - does it look as though the movement is sort of coalescing around a particular star? I know that Miley Cyrus just released a video to the remix of her song "Liberty Walk," that features video from the Occupy demonstrations. But I think some people are just kind of scratching their heads at that.
POWERS: I think it's great that Miley made that statement, and I'm excited whenever I see someone who has power in the conventional mainstream music industry connecting with social movements. I do feel that the Occupy movement is very grassroots, very viral, and it's really not oriented around stars of any kind - political stars as well as musical or cultural stars. So even though certain artists have wanted to connect with Occupy and are making statements, it's really not the kind of movement that's going to produce that kind of glamour.
And in fact, I think the whole kerfuffle around Jay-Z and his Occupy All Streets shirts, which he created and then was going to sell without donating any money to, I think, any political cause, that's a good sort of example of how difficult it is for mainstream artists who are very invested in the capitalist entertainment industry to really find a way into this grassroots movement.
MARTIN: Jas, what about musicians from other parts of the world? One of the things that you've noted in your coverage of Calle 13 is that they're a fun dance band, but their lyrics are often very political. So are there musicians from other parts of the world, or music and genres in other parts of the world, who are taking up this whole question of economic inequality, which is the Occupy Wall Street cause?
GARSD: Absolutely. I mean, you have musicians that are always being very vocal. You have Juanes in Colombia, who has been very vocal about violence in Colombia. Shakira has been extremely vocal and which earned her, you know, a Person of the Year for the Latin Grammys. And Calle 13, you know, this week they released a new music video about human trafficking in Latin America.
You know, it's really interesting this idea that we live in such a celebrity culture, and this idea of elevating people who are essentially entertainers to the role of activists and moral compasses. To me, you know, that's great when it happens but people, these people are entertainers. They make great music. It's wonderful when it happens, and it kind of brings me back to a conversation I'd had with Latin American friends...
MARTIN: Well, doesn't that, Jasmine, then speak to the question of whether the role of the artist is to lead or to follow?
GARSD: Absolutely. And it brings me to this conversation that I've had with Latin American friends of, you know, in - during the time in, you know, '70s and '80s, when Latin America was in the grip of dictatorships, there were artists who entertained and got people's minds off of the atrocities that were happening, and there were artists who got involved and they were activists. I always have this ongoing debate with friends as, you know, which one is right? And if you are just an entertainer during a time of crisis, are you complicit?
MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. Nekesa, any thoughts about this?
MOODY: Well, I think it's interesting. I feel like a lot of the pop acts are trying to seize on the electricity that they see with Occupy Wall Street. You've had Kanye West go down. I think Jackson Browne is performing today. We have a lot of artists who want to attach themselves, but I think they don't know quite the right way to do it because they are usually part of the 1 percent. So it's an interesting dynamic. You know, I think they see some energy, and they want to see how they can harness it for their music and for - maybe for their image. But as Ann said, it's not quite the same type of movement that the Occupy Wall Streeters would have, would latch onto these celebrities. And I...
MARTIN: Well, that's true because they've had a whole structure around who they invite to speak, and who they allow to come and speak. There was this whole situation down at Atlanta where John Lewis, who is a hero of the civil rights movement, came down and wanted to speak to the group and was rebuffed because apparently, they had some process for inviting speakers that he didn't know about, and that caught some attention. Ann, you wanted to say something briefly?
POWERS: Well, I just wanted to say that there is political music being made, even in the most mainstream arenas, and Lady Gaga is a great example of that.
POWERS: Her causes however, have been more identity based liberation causes. For example, her song "Born This Way" has been taken up by many different kinds of people as a liberation anthem. So pop music tends to serve identity based politics better, in some ways, than it serves sort of economically based politics, at least during this era, and I think that is something we can't forget.
I also want to say that Kanye West and Jay-Z made some very strong political statements on their album "Watch the Throne" this year. So it's not like even commercially successful mainstream pop is devoid of political statements. It's just that connecting them with Occupy Wall Street doesn't always happen in an easy way.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Exactly - or sort of lend line between the two. OK. Well, before we left each of you go, going back to the Grammy nomination concert last night, can I just get a - don't you hate it when people ask you to make predictions? I mean, it's just so - it's such a cheap thrill. But I'm going to ask because there was all this discussion around who will win for Album of the Year. And I know it's not till February, but come on. I will just put you on the spot, just for my own amusement. Jas?
GARSD: I think it's going to be Adele.
MARTIN: Adele's "21."
GARSD: I think you'd have to be crazy to bet against her.
MARTIN: Okay. Let me just quickly recap the nominees. There is Adele's "21," "Wasting Light" by Foo Fighters, "Born This Way" by Gaga - Lady Gaga, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" by Bruno Mars, and Rihanna's "Loud." So Ann, your prediction.
POWERS: Oh, Adele. She's like an angry bird. You know you have the mighty eagle that you can use to come in and destroy everything. That's Adele. She's the mighty eagle. She is going to really sweep every category she's nominated for.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: OK. Nekesa, final word.
MOODY: I want to say Adele, and I do believe it probably will be Adele. But then again, I thought Kanye was going to get Album of the Year. So you can't really trust the Grammys, as far as saying that there is a sure thing, because they'll always shock you.
MARTIN: OK. Nekesa, come on. You didn't answer my question. Which of the nominees...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOODY: OK, I'm going to say Adele.
MARTIN: ...is going to be - OK.
MOODY: I'm going to say Adele.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOODY: Watch Bruno Mars surprise us all.
GARSD: Yeah, that's right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: As he told LL Cool J. last night, let me have my moment. That's right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: All right. That was Nekesa Mumbi Moody, music editor for the Associated Press. She joined us from our studios in New York. Also with us, NPR music critic Ann Powers. She was with us from member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios, Jasmine Garsd, co-host of NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast. Ladies, thank you all so much.
POWERS: Thank you.
GARSD: Thank you for having us.
MOODY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And let's go out on an artist who was nominated for Best New Artist of the Year, Nicki Minaj, and her song "Super Bass."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")
NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) This one is for the boys with the boomin' system. Top down, AC with the coolin' system. When he come up in the club, he be blazin' up. Got stacks on deck like he savin' up.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And to tell us more, please go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.