And the real winner is . . . television.There are 67 Grammys being given out this year, but only a mere dozen or so will be presented on camera during CBS' Tuesday night telecast of the 27th Annual Grammy Awards (8 to 11). If it follows form -- and there's no reason to expect it not to -- this Grammy show will bow to pop, rock, country and rhythm and blues, and the new god, video. Maybe, just maybe, there will be some attention paid to jazz or classical or gospel music, but not much; most likely an all-star medley.
It's the high-profile, star-glitz turns, the ones that bring out the big guns to mumble their thanks (producers and God are most often mentioned), that make the Grammys the second most-watched awards show on television after the Oscars, so what you get is Julio and Herbie and Cyndi and Huey, Donna and Tina and Kenny (Loggins, not Rogers, who bowed out of hosting duties to hit the road with Dolly).
About 15 minutes into the show, after an alphabetical rundown of everybody-who-is-anybody in the audience, and probably a half-hour before the first actual on-screen award, you may well begin to wonder: who needs the Grammys? Who needs any of the plague of music awards shows that infests the airwaves? Television, more than anyone else. That's why Dick Clark started the American Music Awards, a show totally tailored to television, including only the most obvious categories and basing the competition on sales surveys, not artistic merit. Dick Clark, you remember, is the man who said, quite proudly, "I don't make culture, I just sell it."
Then there are the three interchangeable country music award shows (usually starring Alabama and/or the Oak Ridge Boys) and the MTV Awards (which seem to celebrate the existence of MTV rather than the artists who appear there). There is no prime-time black music awards show, though the American Music Awards have "black" as the category for one third of their honors.
The recording industry appreciates these awards shows mostly as a chance to dress up and party, but for the most part even an allegedly prestigious Grammy doesn't translate into dollars, certainly not on the level that an Oscar can. Few major companies get around to stickering their albums with "Grammy Winner" or "Winner of 3 Grammys!!!!" and though some stores report three or four days' worth of across-the-board interest right after the telecast, Grammys don't boost winners' sales to any significant degree. The stickers show up mostly on the jazz, classical, folk and children's albums that derive no particular advantage from the telecast itself. Being mostly on small labels, they must seek any advantage available, no matter how slight.
Moviegoers are more apt to be swayed by awards, and since so many Oscars (and all the other film awards) go to films that are not broad-based commercial successes, they are rapidly incorporated into advertising campaigns aimed at the great unconvinced. The same holds true for Broadway's Tonys. Such a boost makes commercial sense, providing the shows haven't closed or the movies been pulled by the time the awards are made.
But there's no similar carryover in the record industry, where records will be in the bins until many of the artists are has-beens. By Grammy cutoff time (five months before the show), most nominated records have run their course, and since it doesn't really matter, there is none of the "for your consideration" advertising that inundates movie industry magazines before the Oscar deadline.
If comedies get short shrift from Oscar, then Auntie Grammy has her own black sheep. The hardest that rock ever gets here is Pat Benatar; forget heavy metal, which may be sordid but is one of the industry's important moneymakers. Forget funk, too. Stevie Wonder may have 15 Grammys, and Aretha Franklin 11, but you haven't seen George Clinton, Sly Stone or Prince in the winner's circle.
For the most part, the Grammys are as dreadful as all the other awards shows. Producer Pierre Cossette's idea of clever is to have certain nominations sung rather than read or to see what kinds of celebrity odd couples he can conjure up -- last year's winner: a dazed Rodney Dangerfield and a dizzy Cyndi Lauper. The musical segments are seldom inspired, but then live television, and all its attendant limitations, is hardly a sensible medium for most of the music that ends up on the Grammys.
There's also the fashion factor. It's hard to decide whether it's a goof or an insult to see your favorite stars dressed to the nines in the kind of clothes that are utterly at odds with their images. Then again, these days anybody can look like a rock star, so maybe the stars need to look different.
If you judge the Grammys historically, they're lacking. In the rock category, for instance, the Beatles, who thoroughly changed the sound of music, garnered six Grammys, the same as the Fifth Dimension. Chuck Berry never got one, but the Chipmunks got three. Bob Dylan got one, for his 1979 gospel album. Elvis Presley got three, also for his gospel albums. Others who have never been honored include Bruce Springsteen, The Band, Buddy Holly, Smokey Robinson, the Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Steely Dan. Similar oversights occur in just about every category.
Part of the problem is the inherent conservatism of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), whose 6,000 members -- recording artists, producers, technicians, songwriters -- vote on nominees chosen in a series of secret ballots for their "outstanding artistic and technical achievements." All NARAS members can vote for the Big Four (record, album and song of the year and best new artist), as well as in eight of 13 specialized fields. Ten awards honor the craft side of the industry (production, engineering, arranging, packaging and so on) and have little interest to those outside the business.
If Oscar voters deal in a relatively small universe of films, Grammy voters are inundated with more than 4,000 albums to chose from. Little wonder that both the major and minor categories are dominated by familiar names: votes are hopefully based on performance, but just as often on reputation and hearsay. There is a bit more integrity in the classical and jazz fields, where steering committees help to correct the oversights that are so glaring in the rock, pop and r&b categories.
To confuse matters further, singles are pitted against albums in a single category of best record, so that a mediocre album with a hit single on it can beat out a much better album. The most glaring oversights this year: Prince's "When Doves Cry," the best-selling and most eclectic and visceral single of the year, which was left out of both record and songwriting categories, and Pretender Chrissie Hynde's absence from the best female rock performance category despite the brilliance of her "Learning to Crawl" album.
Of course, the awards aren't always given for the particular work that's cited in the nomination. Part of Michael Jackson's eight-Grammy sweep last year can be attributed to the fact that his previous album, "Off the Wall," failed to garner a single Grammy nomination despite being that year's best-selling record, and the voters were making up for their oversight.
This year, no single artist is expected to dominate, but there's a very good chance that all of the winners in the pop categories will be American. Only three of the 20 potential nominations in the Big Four went to non-Americans (two in the song of the year category). A year ago, all five Best New Artist nominees were British. This year, only the dreadful Frankie Goes to Hollywood made it, and, despite their name, many people are still trying to figure out just how they got on the ballot.
A long shot here: The Judds, the phenomenal mother-daughter country duo, and also the first country act to be nominated here in 17 years. However, most of the nominees will be familiar from previous Grammy presentations. Nowhere to be seen: any representatives from the "Amerindie" movement of independent labels and bands. If you want to see the discrepancy, compare the recent Village Voice national critics poll and the Grammy nominations. Of the top 50 albums and EPs honored in the Voice, only five made the Grammy list (Prince, Springsteen, Turner, Van Halen and Lauper). Los Lobos, which came in third in the critics poll, is relegated to the best Mexican/American category.
Still, this may be the year for Springsteen, Prince and Tina Turner, all longtime critical favorites who have been overlooked in the past. It's too bad the Grammys don't have a comeback award, because Turner would certainly cop that. As a sentimental favorite, she may end up the night's big winner with a good shot at the five awards she's been nominated for: record of the year, song of the year and best female vocal for "What's Love Got to Do With It"; best female r&b vocal performance for "Let's Stay Together"; and best female rock vocal performance on "Better Be Good To Me" (where she's up against Pia Zadora and Wendy O. Williams).
Springsteen and Prince may have, in the past, made NARAS' conservative membership nervous, Springsteen for the unyielding socio-political edge and personal vision in his music, Prince for his proto-sexual stance and unconventional production. Both are coming off the biggest albums of their careers, but NARAS is notorious for disregarding artistic evolution and celebrating centrist tendencies. Look for Springsteen to cop best male rock vocal performance (for "Dancing in the Dark"), with a long shot at album of the year. Prince should win the original soundtrack for "Purple Rain" (if he doesn't, somebody should demand a recount), with a shot at rock performance by a duo or group.
Lionel Richie, who dominated the American Music Awards, will cop one or two Grammys and Cyndi Lauper should win Best New Artist hands down. Then again, she may not want it: last year's winner, Culture Club, has had a terrible year and a list of winners over the last decade (Natalie Cole, Starland Vocal Band, Debby Boone, A Taste of Honey, Men At Work) suggests that this award may in fact be an albatross.