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Who vs. who: The bouts at this year's Grammys

The Grammys are like a graduation ceremony. You only really care about what’s going on if you’re the one graduating, or a parent. Everyone else scans the notice in the newspaper, sends gift certificates and prays they aren’t so closely related as to be invited to the inevitably dull, marathon ceremony.

The 53rd annual Grammy awards, airing at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 on CBS live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, will boast plenty of pomp and likely little circumstance. This year’s telecast will contain few actual awards (last year, only nine of the 109 awarded trophies were handed out on-air) and a lot of contrived, collaborative performances, such as Usher singing with his mop-topped protg, Justin Bieber, and Bieber duet pal Jaden Smith; a trio of 2010’s biggest pop-R&B success stories, comprised of Bruno Mars, B.o.B. and Janelle Monae; a first-ever duet between rapper Drake and singer Rihanna; and an FCC-challenging (but no doubt dumbed-down) performance of the hit f-word song by Cee Lo Green, complete with actress Gwyneth Paltrow and … the Muppets. Even Mick Jagger will join Raphael Saadiq and his band for the requisite obit reel.

Other scheduled performers during the show include the band Arcade Fire, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, Miranda Lambert, Muse and Katy Perry. (Rumors persist that a surprise Britney Spears performance is in the offing. There is nothing as yet to substantiate them.)

For those actually interested in the Recording Academy’s stated mission “to honor artistic achievement … without regard to album sales or chart position,” there could be a few horse races in this year’s Grammys — if Eminem doesn’t sweep all 10 of his nominations. He dominates the field, with Mars bearing seven nominations, and Jay-Z, Lady Antebellum and Lady Gaga each with six. (Full list of nominations is here, plus Chicago nominees.)

Here’s a look at a few of the bouts set up for “music’s biggest night” …

Eminem vs. Jay-Z

It’s typical of the Grammys to throw trophies at an artist long after that artist’s relevance has waned. Anyone remember 2001, when Eminem — riding high on the smart satire of his second disc, “The Marshall Mathers LP” — lost the top Grammy to Steely (Effing) Dan?! Turnabout likely will be fair play next Sunday when the Detroit rapper loads up on Grammys for his “Recovery” comeback, the top-selling album of 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Eminem has 11 Grammys thus far, none of them in the marquee categories. Now he’s up for album of the year against Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” His only competition here is the country Lady; the trio won several top country awards in 2010.

Jay-Z, meanwhile, also comes swinging with 2009’s “The Blueprint 3” album. He and Eminem face off in several rap categories (rap/sung collaboration, rap album and rap song) as well as the coveted record of the year slot, where Eminem’s duet with Rihanna, the bleak and bracing “Love the Way You Lie,” is up against Jay-Z’s duet with Alicia Keys, the New York anthem “Empire State of Mind.” Conservative Grammy voters tend to tick the boxes of the safe and uplifting, and many of them live in or love NYC, which gives Jay-Z an edge (plus, the industry adores corporate team player Alicia Keys). But Rihanna — whose infamous dust-up with former boyfriend Chris Brown occurred the night before the Grammys in 2009 — might add a strong sympathy showing, especially since her own recorded output since then has been pretty great.

The other stuff competition for record of the year, the top category that’s toughest to call, includes “Nothin’ on You” from B.o.B. and Mars (one helluva tune), “Need You Now” from Lady Antebellum (an impressive crossover) and “F— You” from Green (notorious and cheeky).

Miranda Lambert vs. Lady Antebellum

The non-Gaga Lady at this year’s Grammys has a good chance of winning at least one of the band’s six nominations. But don’t count out country’s other favorite lady, Miranda Lambert, who could make some of the country categories into a real catfight.

Lambert emerged from last fall’s Country Music Association awards with wins in the same top categories — album of the year and best female vocalist — that she won earlier in 2010 at the Academy of Country Music awards. In fact, she beat Lady Antebellum for both of those album of the year honors. She has five Grammy nominations this year.

But Lady A. is a returning winner to the Grammys, having picked up their first Grammy last year for best country performance by a duo or group. Plus, three of their six nominations this year are in top categories: album, song and record of the year. Grammy loves a crossover.

Rihanna vs. Chris Brown

The presence of this former couple challenges this year’s seating arrangements a bit. Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna, is still under a legal restraining order to stay 100 yards away from her. On Jan. 28, his attorneys were in Los Angeles Superior Court asking for a relaxation of the order’s rules, though his publicist later claimed the request was unrelated to his attendance at the Grammys. Brown is up for three awards.

Rihanna will win this bout, though. Since the altercation, her career has resurged mightily, with the acclaimed releases “Rated R” and “Loud,” while his has foundered. The two are competing in one category, best rap/sung collaboration. But again, if Jay-Z and Keys’ positive anthem doesn’t trump all, then Eminem and Rihanna’s powerful “Love the Way You Lie” will easily walk all over Brown’s tepid duet with Tyga and Kevin McCall, “Deuces.”

Katy Perry vs. critical respect

Katy Perry, for many critics, has personified safely slutty fluff in pop music. Despite the easy dismissals, however, the Barbie-like singer ruled summer radio in 2010 with “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls,” the latter of which was the best-selling digital song of 2010 (with 4,398,212 downloads in the United States), according to SoundScan. Her “Teenage Dream” album is nominated — pretty astonishingly, even to someone like me who didn’t hate the album as much as others — for album of the year, and Perry also is up for female pop vocal, pop collaboration with vocals and pop vocal album. “Without regard to albums sales or chart position”? Hmmm.

Four living people vs. one dead guy

The record industry is having trouble saying goodbye to Michael Jackson, who received a posthumous nomination this year in the category for best male pop vocal performance. The song, “This Is It,” the title track from the late icon’s final concert documentary, seems stacked against some equally weak competition: Michael Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet,” Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want From Me,” Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” and John Mayer’s “Half of My Heart.” Mars is the talent worth awarding here, but one more honor for Jackson will feel just as good as sending flowers to many voters.

Bruno Mars vs. Bruno Mars

Speaking of the tunesmith of 2010, Mars (born Peter Hernandez) had his hand in crafting so many of the year’s great melodies that he inevitably wound up competing against himself. In the record of the year category, Mars’ production and vocals on B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You” faces Mars’ production contributions to Green’s “F— You.”

Watch him at the after-parties, though. Mars recently cut a deal on a September arrest for felony cocaine possession, pleading guilty for a year of informal probation, a $2,000 fine and 200 hours of community service. Maybe he can stab litter in the parking lot following the show.

Real music vs. TV staging

It’s no surprise the fictional cast of Fox TV series “Glee” landed a nomination this year. Two, however, is a little surprising. The gleeks were expected in the category for best compilation soundtrack, for “Glee: The Music, Vol. 1,” but brows were raised when they got a second nod for duo or group with vocals, for their cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ (Regionals Version).” That song was just one of the whopping 77 singles (and counting) the teen stars have charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, a watermark higher than the Beatles.

Reality TV figures haven’t fared so well. “American Idol” finalists have never crowded Grammy nominations — one of the academy’s redeeming judgments — and this year only Adam Lambert’s previously mentioned nod represents the televised talent show. The only character from TV land who might stand a chance at Grammy gold, believe it or not, is “Britain’s Got Talent” phenom Susan Boyle, who’s up for pop vocal album. She competes there against Bieber, Lady Gaga, Mayer and Perry. If voters shy from Gaga’s antics, and if they ignore the daughters tugging on their sleeves about the Beeb, then Boyle might actually stand a chance.