This year's Grammy Awards nominations seemed a bit cooler than usual, or at least pretty cool for the Grammys, a notoriously stodgy and out-of-touch institution. It was certainly in the realm of possibility that a challenging, artsy singer like Frank Ocean could win for Best New Artist and Album of the Year, or that rising R&B prodigy Miguel had a shot at Song of the Year, or even a relatively edgy rock star like Jack White could edge out bland competition like The Black Keys and Mumford & Sons. But no, that's not how it works: If given a choice, Grammy voters will pick the safest choice every time. So that's why Mumford & Sons won for Album of the Year, why Adele won Best Solo Pop Performance for a live rendition of a song from her multi-Grammy winning album from last year, and why The Black Keys backed out of the Staples Center with a pickup truck full of awards.
This isn't to say that those artists suck, or are unworthy. They're just the most conservative picks, and indicative of a record industry that can gesture in the direction of progress — artistically, technologically, culturally — but doesn't want to actually change much. The big winners at this year's Grammys, outside of rap and electronic music categories, all conformed to a very Boomer-centric notion of artistic credibility: music rooted in the blues, folk, old-school soul, stadium rock. Fun., the most formally inventive of the night's big winners, is basically a Millennial spin on Queen. Gotye, winner for Best Alternative Album and Record of the Year, can be considered a "weird" pick, but only if you have a fairly dim view of what a hit rock ballad can be in this era.
Just in the way you can spot Oscar bait within about 30 seconds of watching a movie trailer, it's not hard to hear a song as standard Grammy fodder. Wholesome + serious + respectable + commercial. This describes a lot of excellent music, sure, but it's rarely going to capture the zeitgeist. But obviously, no one looks to the Grammys for the zeitgeist. Like every other awards show, it's all about an industry's sense of self-image. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences wants to project a sense that it supports authentic, important music. And to some extent, it does. But the Academy's definition of what's tasteful and great is fairly static, and while it's expected by now, the Grammys are an annual reminder of how disappointing that is.