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The Grammys embrace pop (and so should you)

By Maura Johnston, Special to CNN
Johnston says Justin Bieber stands out because adults are "more able to warm to him than they were to his predecessors."
Johnston says Justin Bieber stands out because adults are "more able to warm to him than they were to his predecessors."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maura Johnston: "Youth movement" has changed Grammys' "stodgy" ways

  • She says performances by Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift boosted the Grammy show's image

  • Johnston: The "infatuation with pop coincides with the genre's dominance on the charts"

Editor's note: Maura Johnston is a writer for Popdust.com.

(CNN) -- In years past, the Grammys have been rightfully criticized for being stodgy and out-of-touch -- honoring Jethro Tull over Metallica in 1989, giving Steely Dan the Album of the Year nod over Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP," bestowing that same prize to Herbie Hancock's tribute to Joni Mitchell instead of Amy Winehouse's "Back To Black."

Like cranky baby-boomers huffing and puffing over the shallowness of Twitter, the Grammys strenuously emphasized "serious" music over songs that seemed ephemeral or frothy or, worst of all, vulgar.

But last year, a change started to take over the show -- a youth movement spearheaded by the female triptych of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, who performed on the telecast and sent it to its highest ratings since 2004. And the trend will continue in full froth this Sunday at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, with a cast of nominees and performers who prove that pop music -- that oft-dismissed, singles-dominated landscape of big beats and even bigger personalities -- is not only worthy of notice, but praise.

The Grammys have always mirrored the music industry's mindset more than that of consumers, and it's no coincidence that this sudden infatuation with pop coincides with the genre's dominance on the charts. According to Billboard magazine, in 2010, seven of the year's 20 best-selling albums were by pop artists, compared with four in 2009 and two in 2005. Certainly, pop is undergoing a creative renaissance: supernova-level star power (multicultural, too) fueled by expertly crafted, Brill Building-worthy songs.

Technology, too, has buoyed pop: The Internet has transformed the music industry back into a singles economy, always the natural domain of pop, while stars like Gaga and Swift have been adept at utilizing social media.

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No discussion of pop's dominance is complete without mentioning Gaga, so let's start with her. The shape-shifting singer has become music's biggest star through what in part seems like sheer will -- recall that her debut album was called "The Fame" -- but she's also put her product where her proclamations are, releasing videos that are mini-spectacles, working the 24-hour news cycle to her advantage through her spectacular outfits and passion-filled Tweets, and, most crucially, constantly upping herself with her songs.

Gaga is up for six awards on Sunday night, and rumors about her performance have lit up even those parts of the internet that claim to be "over" her. (Is she performing with Muse? Is she going to give her new single "Born This Way" its TV debut? And, of course, what is she going to wear?)

Gaga isn't the only personality who's making pop music fun again. Bruno Mars, the crooner with a big smile and even bigger hair, has been a fixture on the charts with his soulful, expansive love songs, and he's up for seven awards on Sunday as both a performer and a songwriter; with his production and songwriting crew the Smeezingtons, he was behind the board for both his own "Nothin' On You" and for Cee Lo Green's profane kiss-off "F--- You."

Green's single, which is up for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, also encapsulates how pop music can electrify mass audiences who might bypass the radio to hear new music. When "F--- You" dropped back in August, it lit up the internet thanks to an easily shareable video that was deceptively simple.

The song would never get played on the radio in its original form, but that didn't stop it from penetrating the popular consciousness; perhaps because of its ability to aid pop catharsis, it became a singalong for many, and it was eventually covered by Gwyneth Paltrow on "Glee" and the subject of multiple gags on a recent episode of "Saturday Night Live" where Green was the musical guest.

Then there's teen idol Justin Bieber, the baby-faced Canadian teenager who's up for Best New Artist. There's one wrinkle in Bieber's story that helps him stand apart from other objets de crush: Adults seem to be more able to warm to him than they were to his predecessors. It's with good reason.

Not only is his music able to turn the tables on his detractors -- his 2010 single "Baby" was a fluttery, gorgeous slice of crush-pop produced by the team behind Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" -- but his charm is hard to deny.

Last week, he helped David Letterman out with Twitter and briefly sat in for Jon Stewart at "The Daily Show." When he was on "SNL" over the weekend he outshined some of the regular cast members.

Bieber is performing on Sunday as well, and, like Gaga, he's promising "surprises," which is little more than a cheap ploy for audience tune-in, and one we wholeheartedly support. Forget the honors and awards: Entertainment spectacles like the Grammys are all about tweet-worthy moments, fleeting and fun and impervious to concerns about propriety, or even permanence.

Pop music lives in the moment, and if you're open to it, it's a pretty fabulous moment at that.