If the music industry had one face, it wouldn't be hard to guess the expressions that greeted the Grammy nominations for best album announced earlier this month.
There would have been a knowing smirk for Santana, the sentimental choice and heavy favorite. The announcement of the Backstreet Boys would have inspired a subtle roll of the eyes that said, "Sure, sales don't count." And polite nods would have been in order for TLC and the Dixie Chicks.
And what about the fifth nominee, Diana Krall? Well, let's just say the sound of an entire industry's jaw hitting the floor must be pretty loud.
The nomination of the jazz singer's "When I Look in Your Eyes" in the marquee category was the most jolting Grammy surprise since a blue-ribbon screening committee was set up four years ago to, well, eliminate surprises.
"An absolute shocker" is how Grammy chief C. Michael Greene described the Krall selection, and similar appraisals were heard throughout the industry. Even Krall herself was bemused. "I had no idea at all it was coming, and it's still sinking in, really," the Canadian singer said a week after the announcement.
Why exactly is it such a surprise?
The other four albums nominated all finished among the Top 10 sellers in 1999, with each notching somewhere between 3.5 million and 9 million copies. Krall's album has sold a comparatively meager 327,000 and has cracked the weekly Top 200 only once since its release.
And in the words of her record label's head, the album has gotten "really, really minimal airplay" on radio. There was also no avalanche of praise from music critics, although Krall is clearly a respected force in jazz and enjoyed upbeat reviews for the disc.
Moreover, no jazz album has been nominated for best album since Bobby McFerrin's "Simple Pleasures" in 1988, and that record was powered by the pop hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Krall not only doesn't have a hit song, but she also has fairly limited name recognition beyond jazz fans.
So how did Krall get the nomination ahead of more hyped releases from "name" artists such as Ricky Martin, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, and critic favorites such as Beck, Nine Inch Nails and Tom Waits?
The answer lies with a secret and select panel of 25 musicians, producers and other industry types assembled by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. The panel met over two days in December to choose the final five nominees in each of the top four Grammy categories: best album, record, song and new artist. Its decisions can translate into millions of dollars worth of album sales and global publicity.
The panel doesn't start its process with a blank slate, however. The entire NARAS voting membership--10,000 strong--votes first, and the top 20 vote-getters in each of the four categories are then delivered as an alphabetical list to the panel. The panelists listen to the music, discuss it and then secretly list their top five choices.
It hasn't always worked that way. The panel was created in 1995 by a NARAS decree that some insiders have called "the Three Tenors rule," a reference to the best album nomination for "The Three Tenors in Concert 1994," which was widely dismissed within the classical music community as a garish novelty.
That nomination and years of other questionable selections--such as Tony Bennett's "MTV Unplugged" collection of standards being named the supreme album accomplishment of 1994--seriously undermined Grammy prestige.
"The hope was that, with a screening committee, we would see choices made on sentimentality and the heat of popularity curtailed," Greene said. "Is it a perfect system? No. But you look across what could have been nominated and I'd say it's certainly having a positive impact."
By no means does Krall's nod belong on a list of embarrassing Grammy moments--her nomination was a surprise, but certainly not a "groaner," as Greene described some past nods.
Still, in recent weeks, none of the general Grammy voters informally canvassed by The Times even mentioned Krall as a serious contender. Was there a Krall advocate in the room whose lobbying turned the tide, a la the lone, impassioned juror in "12 Angry Men"?
"I have to think someone in that room, or maybe two or three people, felt strongly and brought it up," says Tommy LiPuma, chairman of the Verve Music Group, Krall's label. "Otherwise, how this album even got brought up, I don't know. It's a wonderful album, believe me, but I was stunned by this news."
But Greene, who presides at the meetings, said there was no Krall lobbying.
"That room got real quiet after we played them," Greene said, referring to discs by Krall and Susan Tedeschi, a young blues singer-songwriter who was a surprise nominee for best new artist. "They're such clearly excellent recordings. We were all very surprised when they turned up in the top five, though, because there was very little conversation."