Column 55 — Bright Eyes gets punk’d by The Academy

Category: Blog — @ 1:18 pm December 14, 2005

The discussion with Saddle Creek about The Grammys did happen. I really thought last March that ol’ Conor and company were going to make it onto the red carpet. At the time, Wide Awake and Oberst were getting showered with press that exalted him as the second coming of… well… someone. But the year wore on, the press petered out and people began to forget, especially considering that you’re not going to hear Bright Eyes on your radio (and certainly not on a Clear Channel station). Members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — voting members of which are producers, performers or engineers on six or more tracks of a commercially released album — are obviously entrenched in “the industry” and historically have judged performers not on quality but on success, which they define as being heard on the radio and “moving units”… and lots of them. But if that’s the case, how does one explain The Arcade Fire? Is it their Bowie connection? Well, Bright Eyes’ connection to Springsteen trumps that. No, there are exceptions to every rule, except for the one about biting the hand that feeds you even if it didn’t feed you anything at all. In the end, a lack of nomination for “Best Alternative Album” wasn’t a surprise. It was Best New Artist shun that raises an eyebrow. Fall Out Boy? Keane? Now these are The Grammys that we’ve come to ignore.

Column 55: No Love in Grammy Town
Bright Eyes doesn’t get the nod. Surprised?
So last March I’m interviewing the guys who run Saddle Creek Records — Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel — for a preview piece for the coming year. We talked casually about record releases and new construction and whims of temperamental artists until we got to a discussion about “the industry” and The Grammy Awards. “Wouldn’t it be a kick in the ass if Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning got nominated?” I asked straight-faced.

Nansel and Kulbel just smiled their usual dead-pan smile. Yeah, it would be something. Especially for an independent record label like Saddle Creek which is more of a co-op than a business. But it could never happen. Not the way Bright Eyes wunderkind Conor Oberst takes on Clear Channel and the rest of the above-ground record industry like a rabid rat terrier flushing out a ground squirrel. Oberst has gone as far as canceling gigs at venues upon discovering their affiliation with CC.

On top of that, there’s no way that a community that worships the marketing possibilities of entities like American Idol are going to give the nod to a guy who’s taken on our beloved Commander-in-Chief on The Tonight Show.

But still… well, anything’s possible. There’s no question that I’m Wide Awake is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, and that Oberst, despite his toe-scuffing gee-whizzes, has been deemed this generation’s Bob Dylan by a covey of journalists too lazy to realize just how ridiculous that statement is.

I wasn’t alone in my speculation. Last week before they were announced, New York Daily News critic Jim Farber posted his guesses at the nominees. Among them: “In the coveted Best New Artist category, expect to see John Legend (the male Alicia Keys), Daddy Yankee (the poster boy for reggaeton) and emo-poet Bright Eyes (aka Conor Oberst),” Farber wrote. “Of course, Oberst is hardly a new performer. But the Grammys, which will never win any awards for hipness, considers an artist eligible for this category if they simply made their first impact in a given year.”

Certainly that could be said for Bright Eyes. This was the year that Oberst thrust himself wholeheartedly into the welcoming limelight, going on a peace tour with Bruce Springsteen and appearing (though uncomfortably so) on various late-night chat shows. Oberst has done every bit of publicity he could without losing his self-respect. If it’s ever gonna happen, it’s gotta happen now. As 2006 rolls in, Oberst, who’s been putting out records for over a decade, will no longer be considered a “new artist.”

Ah, what silly lads we are, Mr. Farber.

Later that day, amongst a blitzkrieg of flashbulbs and blazing-hot cell phones, the 48th annual Grammy nominations were announced at Gotham Hall in New York City. All the usual schlockmeisters were named in the usual categories, including world-class yodeler Maria Carey, thug-life role model and videogame character Fitty Cent, Madonna impersonator Gwen Stefani, and proud i-Pod hucksters U2. There were no surprises.

Eagerly, I scrolled down the list expecting the inevitable and getting it. The nominees for Best New Artist: Ciara (the so-called “first lady of Crunk”), Fall Out Boy (a painfully bad Green Day rip), Keane (a painfully bad Coldplay rip), John Legend (Touché, Mr. Farber), and SugarLand (yee-haw country).

No Bright Eyes.

OK, how ’bout Best Alternative album (even though there’s nothing really “alternative” about Bright Eyes)? And the nominees are: The Arcade Fire’s Funeral (For once, the Grammy’s got something right), Beck’s Guero (One of my favorite albums of ’05), Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans (Oops, this one was a step backward for the band, but better late than never); Franz Ferdinand’s You Could Have So Much Better (*yawn* When will these guys go away?) and The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan (The love affair with this novelty act continues).

No Bright Eyes. In fact, a quick word search of the list for Bright Eyes turns up “Not Found.” It looks like our boy has been — as they say in the awards business — snubbed.

I wasn’t the only one who searched out the nominees list online Thursday. So did Nansel. When asked Saturday night about the lack of nominations for Wide Awake, I got the same faraway look that I’d seen last March when I first proffered the topic. Nansel said he wasn’t surprised or disappointed. “Just look who got nominated,” he said, betraying at least a hint of disappointment. Whether he wants to admit it or not, a Grammy for a Creek artist would have made a world of difference, not only for the artist, but for a label that’s managed to survive in a business that doesn’t tolerate troublemakers. When did rock ‘n’ roll become such a prissy sport?

And what about Oberst? Something tells me he wouldn’t have accepted the award anyway.

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