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The Grammys at 50 are showing their age

Troubled British singer Amy Winehouse is the perfect poster girl for the current state of the music industry.
Music isn’t her problem. Everything else is. That’s exactly the same situation that the music industry – faced with lagging sales, a lack of star power and defection from its biggest moneymakers – finds itself in these days. And when the music industry has problems, the Grammys – celebrating their 50th anniversary Sunday – do as well.

Winehouse and her stunning R&B revivalist debut “Back to Black” (Universal Republic) are up for six awards; she’s the only artist nominated in all four top categories. If everything went according to plan, Winehouse would show up at the ceremony, give an amazing performance and sweep the awards the way Lauryn Hill did in 1999 or Norah Jones did in 2003, and a new multiplatinum-selling star would be born.

Of course, it isn’t working out that way. Winehouse, whose erratic behavior has grown increasingly dangerous, checked into rehab last month after a video of her doing drugs surfaced. Whether she’ll even be present at Sunday’s ceremony has become the event’s biggest question, one closely followed by the question of whether or not she will perform. (At press time, neither question had been answered.)

And it’s not clear whether her months of tabloid-worthy antics, from run-ins with the police to canceled concerts to bizarre paparazzi encounters, have affected the Recording Academy voters’ feelings for her.

“She really should win every category,” says Fuse VJ Steven Smith, who hosts “Steven’s Untitled Rock Show” on the channel. “I was just blown away by her record. It’s brilliant, that kind of soulful music we haven’t heard in so long. Ike Turner won a Grammy, so if Grammy voters cared about an artist’s personal life, he would never have had a chance.

“Every person I know who has her record loves it, and the only one who might argue with her winning everything is Kanye,” he adds.

That’s a pretty good bet. After all, rapper Kanye West has become well known for arguing where his awards are concerned. His “Graduation” is up against Winehouse’s “Back to Black” for album of the year, alongside the Foo Fighters’ “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace,” Vince Gill’s four-CD set “These Days” and the left-field entry, Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters.” Though West has eight nominations, he was nearly shut out of the main categories, aside from the album of the year nod. The rest of his nominations are in the rap field, where he often has two nominations in the same category.

West is another question mark for the ceremony, after a rough year with the unexpected death of his mother and criticism for his complaints about previous losses at various awards shows, including the Grammys.

So where is the star power going to come from for this year’s Grammy ceremony? Good question, says Sirius Radio’s Rich McLaughlin. But he says the more important question is “Where are the Grammys – and the music industry – going to get star power in the future?”

“There are a lot more artists around now, but fewer stars,” says McLaughlin, who is the format manager for two of Sirius’ alternative rock channels. “The Grammys need to stay relevant to these changing times. They need to give new artists a chance. But that’s not what they’re doing. Who are the Grammys appealing to? It’s definitely not music fans.”

Snubbing top sellers

McLaughlin says the biggest music story of 2007 was Radiohead, who will not be represented at the Grammys due to the eligibility year, which runs from Oct. 1, 2006 to Sept. 30, 2007. Some point at the snub of Daughtry, whose album was one of the year’s top sellers, in the major categories, even best new artist. Others point at the snub of Bruce Springsteen, whose “Magic,” one of the year’s best-received albums, also was passed over for the big prizes.

“You see the same people at the same podiums year after year, and I don’t know if people who love music can relate to that,” Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz told MTV after his band got shut out of the Grammys this year, despite having a No. 1 album and a string of hits. “You think about it and you get sort of upset, but then you think about it some more and you realize that it really doesn’t matter at all.”

That’s the line of thinking the Grammys need to guard against. “They used to say that winning a Grammy was worth an additional million albums in sales,” says Fuse’s Smith. “But what’s it worth now?”

A Writers Guild waiver

Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow, as he successfully lobbied the striking Writers Guild of America for a waiver to allow writers to work on the Grammys ceremony, has talked about how much the industry needed the show to happen. After weeks of double-digit sales drops, the industry needs the annual “Grammy bump” in sales, though with a slate of top sellers including Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé, it’s not like people haven’t already heard their music.

“People don’t need to see more Beyoncé,” McLaughlin says. “Everyone is done with Beyoncé. Been there, done that. People want to see someone newer.”

Both Smith and McLaughlin say a Grammy performance from best new artist nominee Paramore could propel the pop-rockers to a whole new level, but as of press time, the band hadn’t been invited to perform. Fellow best new artist nominee Ledisi also was waiting for the opportunity. “Who doesn’t want to perform?” she says, laughing. “That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Showing people what you can do.”

Even veterans have been shut out of prime performance spots. Country star Vince Gill, up for album of the year, said he declined to perform after producers offered him only a minute to sing one of his songs.

McLaughlin says the Grammys need to return their focus to put- ting on a show for music fans. “Eventually they’ll get it – they’ll have to,” he says. “But right now, they’re trying to appeal to a music industry that was 10 years ago. That’s why so many people are questioning the Grammys this year. They need to appeal to the industry of 2008.”


The 50th Annual Grammy Awards, live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS/2. Performers include Feist, Beyoncé, Foo Fighters, Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and Rihanna with a reunited The Time.

Can’t wait? Catch “Live From the Red Carpet” (6p.m., E!) and “Live at the Grammy Awards” (6 p.m., TV Guide Network).

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