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Pop crooner Bobby Darin won the Grammy for Best New Artist for 1959, the first year the category was introduced to the then-young music awards institution. A meteoric career followed, ending with Darin’s early death at age 37, as dramatized in the new Kevin Spacey movie, “Beyond the Sea.” When the 47th annual Grammy Awards airs on February 13, should the 2004 nominees look to an early nod from Grammy to put them on the same road to immortality? Not so much.
Winning a Grammy for Best New Artist does not guarantee that a two-time Oscar winner such as Spacey will someday write, direct, produce and portray you in a movie about your life. It doesn’t guarantee a “VH1 Behind the Music” or an “E! True Hollywood Story.” It doesn’t guarantee a career the year after you win. And hey, it may not even mean you’re any good. As history shows, winning a Best New Artist Grammy guarantees little more than a momentary spike in your record sales immediately following the award ceremony’s telecast.
Grammy critics assert nominations are based on record sales, not talent or relevance. There is some defense for the award’s credibility. Milli Vanilli’s 1989 BNA Grammy was revoked when it was revealed that Rob and Fab were merely pretty frontmen lip-syncing for less attractive vocalists. Also note, industry punchline Ashlee Simpson isn’t a nominee this year. But how does one explain the one-hit wonder Starland Vocal Band (“Afternoon Delight”) winning in 1976 over fellow nominee Boston? Love or hate the rock ballad machine, there’s no denying the band’s cultural resonance: Boston invented bad radio for the next five years. Ipso facto: Boston shoulda won.
Hall of shame
Bobby Darin won over Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, among others. The following year, Bob Newhart took home the BNA Grammy, and remains one of the few non-musical comedians to be nominated, let alone win. Three hit sitcoms and a star turn in the movie “Elf,” prove Grammy right on the money regarding Newhart’s talent and relevance. The Beatles won in 1964, though one might point out that fellow nominee Astrud Gilberto (“Girl from Ipanema”) sings better than any member of the Fab Four. Beyond those three solid wins however, Grammy’s BNA cred starts to get iffy.
Pubescent punk rock kids learned what a load of hooey awards shows were in 1978, when A Taste of Honey won over “angry young man” Elvis Costello. True, many of us have yet to expunge A Taste of Honey’s only hit “Boogie Oogie Oogie” from our brains … or forgive Costello from turning into a “fat old guy” and doing a guest shot on “Frasier.” But that doesn’t change the fact that, duh Grammys! Elvis Costello: Song-writing genius! Taste of Honey: Disco junk not even worthy of “Frasier.”
A Taste of Honey is not alone. There’s a legion of Best New Artist winners never to be heard from again. In one “VH1 Behind the Music,” members of the Australian band Men at Work marked winning the Grammy in 1982 as the beginning of the end. But hey, at least they got a “Behind the Music.” For every Beatles or Bob Newhart, there’s at least 10 Bruce Hornsby and the Ranges. (That band won BNA in 1986 over a bunch of other nominees you don’t remember.)
Sometimes it’s not so clear cut. We’ll always think fondly of the sweet pap winners of 1970, the Carpenters. Yet fellow nominee Elton John continues to stink up the Disney ghetto that is Broadway. America won in 1972. But while a reconstitution of that outfit is best relegated to the State Fair, fellow nominees the Eagles can charge Baby Boomers more than $100 to watch their revival act. Then there’s BNA for 1999, Christina Aguilera, who won over Britney Spears, among others. (Both those young ladies beat out Jessica Simpson when auditioning for the Mouseketeers.) At least we remember them for now. Evanescence for some unknown reason won over 50 Cent for 2003 — two years from now, who among us will recall what song they/he/she/it did?
When it comes to Best New Artist, there’s also Grammy’s suspect definition of what constitutes “new.” Bette Midler won the BNA Grammy in 1973. By then, the Divine Miss M had been performing in bathhouses for years, a “gay icon” before the term “gay icon” even existed. One of her fellow nominees, Marie Osmond, of the Utah showbiz dynasty, was no stranger to the entertainment industry either. Punk rock revivalists Green Day, nominated in 1994, had an army of fans long before they ever lost Best New Artist to Sheryl Crow.
Who wins? Who cares
A nomination for Best New Artist Grammy is best described using the engineering term, “signal-to-noise ratio.” That is, the magnitude of meaningful information (artists of talent and relevance) vs. the magnitude of background noise (the majority of acts nominated for Best New Artist Grammys). Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, and the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy were all nominated for BNA Grammys but didn’t win. Same goes for the Swingle Singers, Jennifer Holliday and Corey Hart. (Who? Who? And Ewww!)
You know, Hootie and the Blowfish won the BNA Grammy in 1995. Rumor has it the boys now play weddings back in their home state of North Carolina. Culture Club won in 1983 against Big Country, Eurythmics, Men Without Hats and Musical Youth. As catchy as those early days of MTV were, you know who should have won that year? A little Athens, Georgia, band by the name of REM.
Consider a few more from the roster of those never nominated for Best New Artist: Nirvana, Run DMC, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, U2, Otis Redding, White Stripes, Eminem, The Who, The Kinks, Iggy and the Stooges, Queen Latifah, Jimi Hendrix, Sleater Kinney, NWA, Guns N’ Roses, B-52s, Liz Phair, Patti Smith, the Supremes, Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, Jackson Five, Madonna, De La Soul, Pixies, Prince, Dusty Springfield and the Ramones.
Given the inexact science that is the Best New Artist Grammy, this year’s nominees need not cross their fingers and sweat when their names are called. Los Lonely Boys, Maroon5, Joss Stone, Kanye West and Gretchen Wilson need only remember the words of a cartoon hobo when Homer Simpson’s own Grammy is tossed from a balcony onto the street: “Hey, don’t throw your garbage down here!”
Helen A.S. Popkin lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.