Last night's American Music Awards ended on stage the way last year's show wound up after hours, with an all-star rendition of "We Are the World." The pop song that mattered most in 1985 was recorded by one all-star cast immediately following last year's ceremony, and if the lineup was a little different from last year's (Elizabeth Taylor, who came with Michael Jackson, got to sing last night and did all right), the emotion was certainly well-directed.
If the Grammys are an award show with entertainment, the American Music Awards are an entertainment interspersed with awards. In fact, what seems to be rewarded is less the specific art than the general ambiance (the awards are, after all, for being the favorite, not the best). During last night's 13th annual awards, televised by ABC from Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, you had to work hard to remember whether it was musical talent or video presence that was being rewarded. The fuzziness of the categories didn't help.
Then again if you listened closely, you picked up some choice quotes:
Host Diana Ross on charity rock: "It made all of us in the music business proud to be a part of the world" (and you thought they were the world) . . .
Julian Lennon, presenting the Award of Merit to Paul McCartney: "My father would be as happy as I am to see you honored this way tonight."
And Bob Geldof, honored for getting the charity bandwagon rolling, used the occasion to refocus attention on the unresolved issue of world hunger: "I got this because people were dying and we did something about it. That's a terrible thing to win an award for."
Prince, announcing the favorite pop/rock single, managed not to say anything beyond the category and the nominees but, tuxed and slick-haired, he looked marvelous, as if he'd just stepped out of the Cotton Club. He was positively sweet and genial, a turnaround from last year, when the people sitting around him were warned by his bodyguards to look away.
The American Music Awards don't really matter much to anyone except television programmers, and last night's three-hour edition had little to recommend it, unless you like parades. In fact, the most exciting moment came in the opening credits, when the folks at home could try to guess from what direction the names of participants would flash onto the screen (a highlight was the one where the names seemed to hit a diving board just off screen left before doing a back flip to the center).
Other than the reprise of "We Are the World," the most emotional moments came with another live performance by Teddy Pendergrass, a quadriplegic since a 1982 car accident, and a soft-spun tribute to the late Rick Nelson by his twin sons, though the quick cut at the song's end seemed insensitive.
As so frequently happens at these awards shows, there were a number of multiple winners, but no dominant personalities. Whitney Houston, who had been nominated for eight awards, looked absolutely ravishing accepting her two awards for soul/R&B single ("You Give Good Love") and soul/R&B video single female ("Saving All My Love"). Her live performance showed that she has all the tools but still needs better material.
The only triple winners were Willie Nelson (country male, country single and group video for being one quarter of "The Highwaymen") and Bruce Springsteen (pop/rock album, pop/rock male, pop/rock video male).
Double winners included Aretha Franklin (soul/R&B single female and soul/R&B video); Huey Lewis and the News (pop/rock video single and pop/rock single); Crystal Gayle (country video female and country female); Stevie Wonder (soul/R&B male and video male); Kool and the Gang (soul/R&B album and soul/R&B group); and Alabama (country album and country group).
Other familiar winners were Tina Turner (pop/rock female performer), the Pointer Sisters (soul/R&B group video) and Pat Benatar (pop/rock video female).
The show took note of the year of giving generously, which stretched from Band Aid to "Sun City," events that raised money as well as consciousness. Honored with special Awards of Appreciation were Harry Belafonte (for his work combating hunger and pulling together U.S.A. for Africa), Bob Geldof (for getting the rockers rolling) and Willie Nelson (for his Farm Aid project).
While the show moved quickly enough, the Satellite Effect is now getting out of hand, with producer Dick Clark flipping from Los Angeles to London and making pit stops in Detroit and Tucson. At times, awards presenters were separated by a continent and an ocean, which was cute, once.
Diana Ross was sufficiently enthusiastic as emcee, though her opening performance of "Eaten Alive" will do nothing to stop that album's downward dive on the charts.