Handicapping the Grammys: Part 2: Song of the Year + Karen O's Luck

Song of the Year is the odd category out in the Big Four of the Grammy Awards. It's the category that for some reason confuses people even more than the record/album distinction. To put it simply: Song of the Year rewards the best written song of the year that gained prominence in the eligibility period.In other words, it's the best written hit song. It does not go to the performer unless the performer wrote the song themselves.

Here are the nominees:

"Poker Face" written by Lady Gaga:

I won't say I find this nomination surprising. It is not the best written song on Lady Gaga's The Fame, but, aside from previously nominated "Just Dance" (Best Dance Recording), it is her most popular single. Popularity accounts for a lot in this category and this song was popular. "Poker Face" reached number one in twenty countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK, and the US. Aside from the ease of singing along with the song and how well it stood out among Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40 formats for embracing dance music aesthetics beyond a simple beat, the lyrics stand out for maintaining a consistent and accurate metaphor throughout the song. The poker imagery rings out clearly even if the meaning she ascribes to it - fantasizing about a woman while sleeping with her boyfriend - does not. Otherwise, the lyrics just repeat themselves again and again. Her voice is mostly used as an instrument in this song. Unfortunately, the song is just not strong enough to win here. She has a great shot at Record, but not Song, of the Year. 

"Pretty Wings" written by Hot Davids and Musze (Maxwell):

The industry loves Maxwell. When he has music out, he consistently sells records and albums. That type of clout helps very much at the Grammys since it's voted on by the members of the industry. Even more than "Poker Face," "Pretty Wings" repeats itself. What sells the repetition is Maxwell's gorgeous voice. He can sing beautifully, and that can hide a lot of flaws in a production. The song is particularly sentimental for an R&B ballad, focusing on how much Maxwell will miss a lover when the relationship has to end. When the nominations were being submitted, it was impossible to miss this song on Urban/Hip-Hop/R&B stations, and his label made a big push due to his absence from the industry for seven years. "Pretty Wings" reached number thirty three on the Hot 100 and number one on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. I believe the single has already peaked and will probably not win this category unless the love for Maxwell is so strong after his hiatus.

"Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" written by Thaddis Harrell, Beyonce Knowles, Terius Nash, and Christopher Stewart (Beyonce):

More than any other nominee this year, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" could not be ignored. It went to number one on the Hot 100, R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and Hot Dance Club Play, as well as number two on the Pop 100. That means this empowerment anthem about marriage could not be avoided unless you listen exclusively to classical, rock, country, or oldies music stations in the US. It's still pervasive on the radio. The production is top notch on the track, even if the lyrics are a little inane. Seriously, "Up in the club, we just broke up / I'm doing my own little thing / Decided to dip and now you want to trip / But you never noticed me." This is the best intentionally promoted nominee, partly due to the visually stunning music video, inspired-by-Bob-Fossee's "Mexican Breakfast" (the original audio version disappeared off of YouTube and I'm not linking to the awful hip-hop overlays). She performed this song at every awards show she was invited to. She was always interviewed about "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." The song is slick and catchy. She very well may walk away with Song of the Year. The one thing holding me back is how "Halo," not "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" is nominated for Record of the Year. Consistency helps in winning one or the other, and that split might hurt her if voters believe "Halo" to be a better written song.

"Use Somebody" written by The Kings of Leon:

I'm a fan of The Kings of Leon. However, with "Use Somebody," it's as if they set out just to make a hit single. The complexity I expect from the group is not nearly as pronounced as other tracks and the lyrics are especially simple. Lead singer Caleb Followill has a very strong voice with wide vocal range and it's just not put to use here. Still, it is a very solid pop/rock song that, like "Pretty Wings," peaked at the right time. It went to number one on the Hot 100 Rock Singles, number two on Digital Downloads, and number four on the Hot 100. The band's leg up is previous Grammy wins and the popularity of the song. It's a clearer match with Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40 than "Single Ladies" or "Poker Face" for falling into a clear pop/rock vein. Sadly, dance and hip-hop/R&B tracks are still treated as crossovers for that market. Kings of Leon have a good chance of winning this category for clean, straightforward songwriting.

"You Belong With Me" written by Liz Rose and Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift):

Taylor Swift has had a phenomenal year. She has been consistently winning awards for her second album and this song in particular. Combined with the industry-well-wishing from the VMA incident that I do not speak of anymore, she has an excellent chance of winning this category. It is a very solid pop/country love song. It was very popular, reaching number two on the Hot 100, number one on Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks, number one on Hot Country Tracks, and number two on Pop Songs. This is also the first country track since Billboard shifted to a far better monitoring service in 1990 to reach number one on the Hot 100. It's a monster hit, essentially. The industry is in love with Taylor Swift right now more than any country solo artist really since LeAnn Rimes at the 1997 Grammys (where she walked away with Best New Artist on the strength of a Patsy Cline cover). There are enough interesting things going on in the arrangement of the song to push Swift to a win here.

The Prediction: It's a three-way battle between Kings of Leon, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift. Industry good-will plays a lot in these awards and I expect Taylor Swift to benefit from it here over Beyonce. Kings of Leon are right up there.

The Bonus:

For those who have not heard, Miley Cyrus had her nomination rescinded for "The Climb" in Best Song Written for a Soundtrack. That means the next highest vote getter, Karen O's "All Is Love" is nominated instead. This song works so well in the context of Where the Wild Things Are that I hope she wins the category. Maybe Karen O will finally win a Grammy, since The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are always bested in Best Alternative Album. I doubt it, since she's up against Bruce Springsteen and "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, but at least I can dream.