"And the Grammy winner for album of the year is . . . Bob Dylan."
Will we finally hear those words during Wednesday's 40th annual Grammy Awards ceremony?
Or will the Grammy voters compound the embarrassment of having never honored the most acclaimed songwriter of the modern pop era with the record industry's most prestigious award?
The sense in the record industry is that Dylan is the odds-on favorite, thanks to the guilt vote (none of his earlier albums were even nominated) and the taste-maker vote. His "Time Out of Mind"--a stark, compelling meditation on life after the optimism of youth has been worn away--was widely hailed as the most distinguished album of 1997.
But there is no consensus among industry insiders regarding the night's second top award: record of the year.
This choice should be easy. Hanson's "MMMBop" was both the biggest seller among the nominees (one reliable prognosticator of Grammy results) and it is also the most inviting of the five singles.
But will the 9,000 industry professionals who vote in the Grammy process feel self-conscious about giving one of their key awards to three kids?
Here's a look at the pop categories that have the most interesting matchups. The ceremony at New York's Radio City Music Hall will be broadcast on CBS Channel 2 at 8 p.m.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Grammy voters have often dumbfounded us with their choices, so Dylan isn't a cinch. The reason for concern this year: "Time Out of Mind" falls short in that key Grammy barometer--sales.
Academy voters tend to favor mainstream best-sellers, and Dylan's album has only been certified gold (500,000 units shipped). By contrast, Paula Cole's "This Fire" is platinum (1 million units). Cole may also benefit from an ambitious Warner Bros. Records TV ad campaign that drew attention to her seven Grammy nominations, second only to Babyface's eight.
On merit alone, however, Dylan's only real competition is from Radiohead, and the British band doesn't have a high enough profile outside the rock world in this country for its "OK Computer" to be considered a strong threat.
Babyface has the industry reputation and respect to pose a challenge to Dylan, but "The Day" wasn't as striking as the Babyface-produced "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack album, which lost in the same category last year. Paul McCartney's "Flaming Pie" hardly reflected the ambition or depth of "Time Out of Mind" or "OK Computer."
Most deserving: Bob Dylan.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
Hanson's "MMMBop" was a slice of ear candy that put some early Motown pop zest in a '90s framework, thanks to the production work of the Dust Brothers, whose credits also include Beck's "Odelay." But some voters are going to find it hard to get past the fact that it was made by a trio whose youngest member was just 11.
That could put R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" in a good position, because the single rates high on the sales scale (1.3 million copies) and the record reflects the sweeping sentiments that frequently win in this category--think Bette Midler's "The Wind Beneath My Wings" in 1990 and Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" in 1994.
Otherwise, Shawn Colvin's "Sunny Came Home" is the only single with much individuality. Sheryl Crow won the best record award in 1995 for "All I Wanna Do," but her entry this time--"Everyday Is a Winding Road"--is so ordinary that it's hard to imagine a repeat. Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" is a tale of faded romantic idealism that is as obvious as its title.
Most deserving: "MMMBop."
BEST NEW ARTIST
A tough race. Paula Cole, with all her nominations, and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, with his empire of hits, are the betting favorites. Better choices, however, are Fiona Apple and Erykah Badu. If you think of the award in terms of which artist gave us the better debut album, Badu, thanks to the sophistication and style of "Baduizm," gets the nod. If you feel the category should measure career potential, it's a tossup between Badu and Apple. Since Badu registers on both scales, she is my choice. (Hanson rounds out the field.)
Most deserving: Erykah Badu.
BEST POP ALBUM
Throw out Cole's "This Fire" (the music is often too histrionic), Fleetwood Mac's "The Dance" (a reunion concert souvenir) and Jamiroquai's "Traveling Without Moving" (fun, but hardly a creative breakthrough). James Taylor's "Hourglass" was a nice return to form, but the level of accomplishment was closer to the modest scale of McCartney's album than the soul-stirring resolve of Dylan's. That leaves Sarah McLachlan's intimate "Surfacing" as the best of a weak field.
Most Deserving: Sarah McLachlan.
BEST ROCK ALBUM