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Grammys '11: Explaining the surprises

Canada's Arcade Fire won album of the year

Canada's Arcade Fire won album of the year at the 2011 Grammys. Credit: Anton Corbijn / Merge Records

Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but even looking back at last night's Grammys, some of the winners still look a little fuzzy.

To understand how Grammy winners are crowned, you have to go back to the rules. Except for the Top 4 categories – album, record and song of the year and best new artist – Recording Academy members vote only in their theoretical area of expertise. (Rockers vote in rock categories, country folks in country, etc., up to eight categories.) That's why there are generally few surprises in those areas.

In the Top 4 categories, everyone votes, which is what creates all sorts of confusion, because sometimes agendas beyond “who is the best” come into play – record company allegiances and/or grudges, young people vs. old(er?) people, and perceived quality vs. perceived popularity. And, let's be honest, the Grammy voters skew old(er).

How did indie-rockers Arcade Fire win album of the year?

Well, in part, it's a process of elimination. Lady Gaga's “The Fame Monster” and Katy Perry's “Teenage Dream” draw from the same pop-loving voting pool and pretty much cancel each other out. Eminem apparently did not win over Grammy voters with his “Recovery,” because many either haven't forgiven or forgotten his past antics. That left Arcade Fire, ambitious rock underdogs and the “quality” choice, against Lady Antebellum, mild-mannered and well-liked parts of the country music machine. Rockers had nowhere to go besides Arcade Fire and musicians who actually listened to both “The Suburbs” and Lady A's “Need You Now” really had to be impressed by the Canadian collective's concept. That was apparently enough for Arcade Fire's amazing win.

How did Lady Antebellum's “Need You Now” win record of the Year?

Again, process of elimination. With three hip-hop-flavored smashes – Jay-Z & Alicia Keys' “Empire State of Mind,” Eminem & Rihanna's “Love the Way You Lie,” B.o.B. & Bruno Mars' “Nothin' on You” – they all split that vote. That leaves Lady A's ode to drunk-dialing against Cee Lo Green's expletive-laden, Motown-loving kiss-off also known as “Forget You.” The expletives alone probably turned off enough voters to put Lady A over the top.

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How did Esperanza Spalding win best new artist?

First, you knock out critics' darlings Florence and The Machine and Mumford and Sons because they cancel each other out. That leaves the trio of tween heartthrob Justin Bieber, hip-hop fave Drake and Spalding. You would think that Bieber's lightweight pop would remove him immediately, but The Bieb's folks launched a campaign to show him as a drum-playing, guitar-wielding musician and that, as well as his connection to Usher and the powerful L.A. Reid, must have siphoned votes away from Drake. Given the fact that Spalding is a jazz bassist/singer in the Norah Jones model of Grammy success – a young, attractive artist who embraces an older style of music – she brought it home over the far more successful Drake.

How did Lady Antebellum's “Need You Now” win song of the year?

I have no idea. In theory, both Miranda Lambert's lovely country ballad “The House That Built Me” and Ray LaMontagne's folk-tinged “Beg Steal or Borrow” should have pulled votes away from Lady A, leaving the contest open to Eminem & Rihanna's “Love the Way You Lie” and Cee Lo Green's deserving “Forget You.” Does the Grammy grudge against Em and expletives(!) run that deep? Apparently so.

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