We’re not going to lie. Our compass on this category has seemed hopelessly misaligned ever since the recent win for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” broke every standing rule for Song of the Year requirements we presumed sacrosanct. It was fast, hooky, cybersexual, light years removed from “Dance with My Father.” “Single Ladies” as a SOTY winner suggests an (awesome) alternate universe where “Theme from Shaft,” “Rhythm Nation,” and “Percolator” also emerged victorious.
Still, subsequent wins for “Need You Now” and “Rolling in the Deep” suggest 2009’s results were indeed anomalous, so let’s rule out a couple of nominees right off the bat. Miguel’s buzzy-ticklish sex jam “Adorn” may strike some voters as a pitch-perfect revision of the ’80s Marvin Gaye template, but this category prefers more overtly baroque R&B gestures (e.g. Seal, Alicia Keys). And though Ed Sheeran’s acoustic sob story “The A Team” feels of a piece with John Mayer’s “Daughters,” NARAS likely prefers its twentysomething wunderkinds to be, well, Taylor Swift (whose new album Sheeran contributed a song to).
Neither “Adorn” nor “The A Team” are nominated in Record of the Year either, and though the correlation between the two is nowhere near as rock-solid as Oscar’s picture-director combo, it doesn’t hurt to be slated for both. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was ubiquitous enough a pop ditty to contend on its own merits, and if copycat YouTube covers somehow translated to votes (and, again, “Single Ladies” makes us wonder), this would be no contest. But even Beyoncé’s rope-skipping ditty provided a forum for its singer’s assertiveness. “Call Me Maybe” may ultimately be too emotionally frivolous (and pop) to be a true contender.
And so it’s probably down to the two Record of the Year nominees in the end. Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” pounds its message of survivalism with nothing resembling nuance, but also nothing resembling fragility: “Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.” It’s the sleeper here, but Fun’s “We Are Young” is the juggernaut. The song’s tempo-shifting heavy-handedness and “raise a cup” lyrics seem on first blush like Franz Ferdinand slumming through a cover of “Tubthumping.” But unlike “Call Me Maybe” or “Stronger,” the ambiguity of the way Nate Ruess desperately emphasizes “Toni-i-i-iiiii-iii-iii-ight” before declaring the title refrain rewards repeat listens. NARAS voters will certainly be able to relate.
Will Win: Fun featuring Janelle Monáe, “We Are Young”
Could Win: Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
Should Win: Miguel, “Adorn”