A word of advice to those wondering who will be the big winners at the Grammy Awards broadcast this Tuesday: Don't bet on the obvious choices.
Why not? Because last year was not an obvious year for the industry. It was a strange period, a time when even veteran observers felt a bit like Dylan's Mr. Jones in "Ballad of a Thin Man," aware that there was something happening here, and they didn't know what it was.
That sense of uncertainty is reflected in this year's list of nominees. Not only were some of last year's biggest sellers -- stars like Paula Abdul, Prince, Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire -- under-nominated or overlooked, but those who did get the nod represented an unexpectedly wide range of genres. So instead of being able to bet the Grammys by album sales or musical style, handicappers have to look closer than usual at each individual entry.
And if that weren't enough, there's the additional complication of changing tastes within the ranks of Grammy voters, the members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Once the domain of fatuous fuddy-duddies, the NARAS folk have gotten hipper in recent years -- but not hip enough to make their choices easily predictable.
Still, some of us go ahead and guess anyway, factoring all the variables to come up with a list of what we think will win. So if you're planning on watching this Tuesday (the broadcast begins at 8 p.m. on CBS (WBAL-TV, Channel 11 locally)), here's who I think will wind up in the winners' circle:
RECORD OF THE YEAR: Traditionally the most hotly contested of all, this Grammy -- celebrating the year's best single -- is also the hardest to call. Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" would be the most obvious candidate here, having spent more time at No. 1 than any other single released last year. Popularity is an unreliable indicator with the Grammys, though; moreover, that single's strengths have more to do with the song than the performance, and it's performance that matters most in this category.
That's why Amy Grant's "Baby Baby" won't win, either, while Natalie Cole's duet-from-the-grave treatment of "Unforgettable" will likely lose points for its gimmickry. Consequently, Record of the Year becomes a contest between Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About" and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," with Raitt -- a longtime industry favorite -- having the edge.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Raitt's good rep might also give her the edge on this award, but don't count on it; "Luck of the Draw," though solid enough, lacks the underdog appeal that helped put "Nick of Time" on top two years ago. Likewise, Paul Simon -- another perennial favorite among NARAS members -- is unlikely to do as well with "Rhythm of the Saints" as he did with "Graceland" in 1988.
Nor will R.E.M.'s "Out of Time" likely carry the majority, despite having been voted "album of the year" by the readers and critics of Rolling Stone. As for Amy Grant's "Hearts in Motion," consider this a case where nice girls finish last.
No, the entry to beat here is Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable," an album with enough appeal to both the traditional pop and R&B constituencies to win this one in a walk.
SONG OF THE YEAR: This one's easy. Whatever "Baby Baby," "Losing My Religion" or Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" might have to recommend them, it doesn't stack up against the melodic resilience of "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You." In fact, the only real competition here would be "Unforgettable," but its age and history make it an unlikely bet.
BEST NEW ARTIST: A number of critics have already written this one off as an automatic win for C+C Music Factory, citing the group's Top-40 success and strong showing at the American Music Awards. To which I have but one thing to say: Milli Vanilli.
After the Grammy lip-sync embarrassment of 1990, it seems unlikely that the NARAS voters are going to want much to do with a group that used one singer (Martha Wash) on its biggest hit, "Everybody Dance Now," then put a slimmer, more voluptuous chanteuse (Zelma Davis) in the video. Nor is the Factory's studio masterminds-plus-hired help organization likely to help.
In other years, either Boyz II Men or Color Me Badd would have been reasonable fallbacks, but together each cancels out the other. And Marc Cohn may indeed be a comer, but at this point he seems just a one-hit wonder.
That's why I'm going with a long shot and betting on English dance pop star Seal. His commercial profile may not be as high, but his reputation among musicians -- that is, the NARAS constituency -- is sterling.