All the Grammy ladies
American women were the overwhelming winners at the music industry's big shindig this week. But, says Elisa Bray, why were their British counterparts ignored?
Friday 05 February 2010
It is the most prestigious awards ceremony in the music industry, and last year, British acts were at the centre of it all. The 51st Grammy Awards were awash with British acts, and Robert Plant, Coldplay, Adele, Estelle, Radiohead and Duffy all took home prizes. Why, then, was British talent almost completely invisible at this year's glitzy LA bash?
With the exceptions of the legendary guitarist Jeff Beck, who won an award for best rock instrumental performance, and the heavy metal act Judas Priest, who picked up an award for the best metal performance, Brits were absent. Last year it was all so different. Robert Plant was the overriding winner, taking home four Grammys, the night's winner of the largest number of awards for his collaboration with Alison Krauss – including the most prestigious of the accolades, Album of the Year for Raising Sand. The event's other big winners were Coldplay, who received seven nominations, and picked up three awards. Meanwhile, among the girls, Adele won both Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal for the single "Chasing Pavements", Duffy also won one, as did London-born rapper Estelle for her catchy single "American Boy".
This year, by contrast, it was all about home-grown talent and it was all about the women. Or rather, it was all about Beyoncé. The R&B star broke records with her six wins – the most won in one night by a female performer in the event's 52-year history, surpassing the achievements of Amy Winehouse and Norah Jones. She now boasts 16 Grammys, including those garnered from her years in the pop group Destiny's Child. The other success of the night was 20-year-old Taylor Swift, with four wins for her country pop, including the highest accolade of Best Album of the Year for her platinum-selling Fearless. The now-ubiquitous Lady Gaga was, of course, the big winner in the dance category.
Male performers didn't really get a look in. Beyoncé conceded one prize to her husband, Jay-Z, while Kings of Leon scored three, including one major award, for Record of the Year. But in a year when female talent swept up the awards, it was noticeable that British solo singers were overlooked.
Look to the previous year's most promising British act, Adele, who won the Brits Critics Choice in 2008, topped the BBC's Sound of 2008 poll, and went on to win two Grammys last year. You might think there would be a repeat of the pattern with Florence and the Machine, who won Brits Critics Choice last year, and came third in the BBC's Sound of 2009 poll. Florence and the Machine may now be up for three Brit Awards, and look set to follow in Adele's footsteps, but Florence's UK chart-topping album Lungs did not receive a single Grammy nod. But unlike Adele, Florence Welch has not yet conquered America.
Adele's success in America came quickly – her debut album, 19,was released there in June 2008, but it was in October, when she appeared on Saturday Night Live on the same night as Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, that she achieved her big breakthrough. Her successor Florence and the Machine first went on tour in America late last year, and did not have such a fortuitous early television appearance. But it is when Florence undertakes her first major tour of North America this April that she will no doubt win support across the Atlantic. This year is Florence Welch's chance to make her mark in America, and to lay the foundations for future Grammy recognition. Shame that the Grammys have overlooked someone who is set to be a star there so soon.
Perhaps more unfairly omitted from any Grammy acknowledgement is another, better- established pop star, Lily Allen, whose sophomore album It's Not Me, It's You was released in February 2009. It was her LA-based producer Greg Kurstin, instead, who scored a nomination for the album. Allen was nominated for her 2007 debut Alright, Still, but it was her impressive follow-up album, depicting her contemporary female-perspective world of equality in relationships and sex, which is most deserving of an accolade – and rightly scored her three nominations in this year's Brits. Full of assured and memorable pop tunes, its lyrics were packed with wit, as in the tale of the lingering, obsessive ex-lover who just won't take the hint and gets labelled a "fool" in "Never Gonna Happen" and "It's Not Fair", whose subject is crap in bed ("You're supposed to care/ But you never make me scream"), and to whom she directs the album's most humiliating and biting line: "I look into your eyes, I want to get to know you/ And then you make this noise and it's apparent it's all over." But, like Florence Welch, Allen just cannot compare to the commercial success of the female stars in America.
It's not just about the women. Even among the boys, British acts were overlooked. Paolo Nutini's chart-topping album Sunny Side Up would have made a good contender. Embracing ska-pop, soul and Dixieland jazz, it was one of the UK's best selling albums of 2009, and the first No 1 of the decade. Nutini has certainly made his impact here, but the young Glaswegian has yet to be recognised by the Grammys. As Paul Rees, editor of Q magazine, says: "Given the commercial success of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift in the US, the Grammy nominations were hardly a surprise. I do think that Lily Allen made a terrific pop record, though – one of wit, flair and no little panache – and of all the female artists you could suggest were overlooked, she would have the strongest case."
Still, if it's all about commercial appeal in America, then although she was snubbed by the Brits, Scottish Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle's chance may still be to come at the Grammys. She took America by storm this year, although her album, I Dreamed a Dream, was released too late to be eligible for a Grammy award this time. Comedian Stephen Colbert told the starry crowd at Sunday night's Grammy ceremony: "You may be the coolest people in the world, but this year your industry was saved by a 48-year-old Scottish cat lady in sensible shoes".
I would put money on Susan Boyle featuring in the 53rd Grammys, as well as the other women who will make an impact on America over the course of this year. Solo female stars have been rolling out the commercial hits in the UK over the past year and are continuing to do so, as evidenced by females leading the Brit nominations (Pixie Lott, Florence and the Machine, Lily Allen and Lady Gaga all have three nods each). Should Florence and the Machine release anything this year it's pretty safe to predict that next year's Grammys will consider her.
Add to that Ellie Goulding, Little Boots and La Roux, and it shouldn't be long before British women step back on to the red carpet of the music industry's most prestigious awards.
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