Regardless of age, most Americans who have spent time in front of the radio or TV in 2012 can probably recite the chorus to "We Are Young," the infectious, and now Grammy nominated, rock song by New York band Fun. Feel free to sing along: "Tonight we are young. So we'll set the world on fire, we can grow brighter than the sun."
It's a catchy song — I still haven't decided if I love it or hate it — that took on new symbolism when the band that created it garnered nominations Wednesday night in each of the four major categories in the 55th Grammy Awards. Little did we know that in addition to the year's biggest anthem, it was also a portent.
What did it foretell? That an avalanche of relative unknowns would bum-rush the stage, unhindered by legacy acts like Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay, to connect the generations. Many "Today" show viewers will no doubt be feeling particularly out of touch Thursday morning — but their kids will probably be equally baffled by the surprises.
Many will be shocked by the arrival of Frank Ocean, the brilliant young R&B singer whose "Channel Orange" spoke to his fans with admirable — and melodic — honesty. He earned his six nominations all year long, whether from his revelatory appearance on "Saturday Night Live" or, closer to home, his performance of the slow-burn ballad "Thinkin' Bout You" at the Wiltern in the spring, which dented my consciousness like few moments this year. When all 2,300 sang the opening verse like it was the Lord's Prayer, Ocean's future seemed secure.
Ocean, a New Orleans-born Angeleno who came out as gay just prior to the release of "Channel Orange," single-handedly broke a barrier in the hip hop and R&B worlds that few imagined would fall so quickly. But he earned his nods not because tucked away in a few lines within a brilliantly sensitive work was a confession, but because his voice commanded attention. Ditto for the surprise song-of-the-year contender Miguel, a San Pedro-born singer whose "Adorn" was a dangerous, seductive gem (even if Usher's "Climax" was, on the whole, a better song).
Yes, most of the big-ticket nominees are young, but that's often the case in pop culture. That many of the nominees in the big four categories (album of the year, song of the year, record of the year and best new artist) — including Fun., Ocean, Mumford & Sons, Gotye, Miguel, Ed Sheeran — all arrived with little baggage suggests a shift toward the future. At the beginning of 2012, few would have predicted the earnest Denver group the Lumineers, nominated as best new artist, would stubbornly stick in the iTunes top 10 for much of the year with their annoyingly infectious "Hey Ho."
Seeing a bunch of kids at the Fonda drinking and shouting along helped explain why. This is not your mom's Adele obsession.
Not that the music busted many rules. Skrillex's "Bangarang" was nominated for three awards, but didn't land a nod in a major category for his futuristic dubstep. Rather, American rock was a big winner, as conveyed by relative veterans the Black Keys and Jack White, two acts that hew close to a blues rock tradition that has endured for half a century even if the kids with the crooked haircuts dismiss it as old school.
Along with the remarkable Alabama Shakes — nominated as best new artist and in best rock performance — the Grammys this year confirmed a traditionalism that relegated the less standard sounds of Muse, Fiona Apple and Coldplay to specialty categories. (When 20-something folk rockers Mumford & Sons capped their sold-out gig at the Hollywood Bowl with a cover song, they didn't do it with Radiohead, but a classic song by the Band: "The Weight.")
If there's a chaos to the proceedings this year, it's largely a reflection of a mainstream music culture that, as my colleague Todd Martens observed Wednesday, is "more of a moving target," easily disrupted by random YouTube uploads and ever-evolving release schedules. Over the eligibility period artists ranging from Carrie Underwood, Lionel Richie, Justin Bieber, Pink and Mumford & Sons to Nicki Minaj, Miranda Lambert, Usher and the Zac Brown Band held the top spot on the album chart. And with the exception of Mumford, all of them were shunned from the major categories.
In fact, both hip hop and country were also mostly ignored, but I'd be hard-pressed to explain why. Such chaos doesn't lend itself to easy explanations. Better to hit the music hubs pronto and become fluent with a new generation of musicians, and leave such concerns for history to sort out.