The American Music Awards have little to do with merit -- the operative word is favorite, not best -- but they have a lot to do with television, not surprisingly since they are the invention of Dick Clark. Call it American Grandstand, a bottom-line populist corollary to the Grammys where jazz, gospel and classical music don't exist. Given the level of accomplishment evident during the 18th annual ceremony aired on ABC last night, musicians in those categories should count their blessings at not being drowned in the mainstream.

The American Music Awards are based on the charts of Cash Box, a trade paper of minor import, and consumer telephone polls, which explains a lot about predictable choices in obvious categories. M.C. Hammer won a quartet of R&B and rap awards, and took an larger posse to the podium with each succeeding award. An absent Janet Jackson won awards in the dance, R&B and pop/rock categories, and Vanilla Ice was rewarded twice, as were Aerosmith, Phil Collins and Reba McEntire. In all, 27 awards were given out, most of them so quickly and clumsily that you'd have been hard pressed to identify any of them an hour after the show. Or into it, for that matter.

This is simply a lousy awards show, unless you're counting heads.

A parade of presenters frequently muffed nominees' names and song or album titles. With the exception of a balcony full of screaming boppers, the audience at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles often seemed bored or indifferent. (Sinead O'Connor looked particularly cold when Hammer was accepting one of his awards.) Whenever New Kids on the Block were mentioned, hearty boos mixed with buoyant screams, as they did when Vanilla Ice was named favorite new pop rocker and rapper on the basis of a single hit. Of course, neither Hammer nor Ice thanked any of the artists whose previously used hits they mined for their own platinum success; perhaps there was an awards show in a parallel universe for sampled artists such as Rick James, David Bowie and James Brown.

For a show that was supposedly live, there were curious cuts in the middle of acceptance speeches, and for the most part the live performances made one long for MTV and BET. Gloria Estefan made her first public performance since her back was broken in an accident last summer, while Mariah Carey made one of her first (possibly live) appearances. New Kids on the Block aimed for -- but missed -- credibility with a positivity rap enlisting Public Enemy's Flavor Flav. Ice's appearance suggests that he's a one-trick pony, and a lame one at that. Even a tribute to Merle Haggard, who was given an Award of Merit, seemed little more than singing heads, and you had the feeling that most folks in the audience had no idea who Haggard was.

It was the kind of night when the best moments came from the splendid Nike and McDonald's spots unveiled the night before on the Super Bowl. The night's best line belonged to host Keenen Ivory Wayans. After the Nelsons had given some award, Wayans asked incredulouly: "Is it me or are they the whitest guys you ever saw in your life?"