Traditionally, the Grammys have been for the faint of art, and the 30th edition of the only musical awards show that matters (it will be televised by CBS on Wednesday starting at 8 p.m.) probably won't be much different.
What is allegedly celebrated here is "outstanding artistic and technical achievement," but the bottom line is mainstream acceptance. Which means that every year that season's obvious icons -- U2, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston -- get nominated, even if their work is self-derivative or not up to their own standards. It's not that these are terrible choices, or that these artists are unworthy of praise. But truth is that the list of neglectees is easily as impressive as that of nominees, and entire genres of popular music (or perhaps it should be called people's music) are not even represented.
Yes, we have a reggae award. Yes, we have a blues award. Also the hotly contested polka award. We do not have a rap award, or one for heavy metal or hard rock, or for funk, or for dance music in general.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammys, consists of 6,000 musicians, songwriters, producers, technicians and industry folk who have done little to shed their reputation as an inherently conservative constituency. Henry Mancini has won 20 Grammys, but the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Band, Smokey Robinson, Steely Dan, the Who, Elton John, the Grateful Dead, Sam Cooke, the Doors, Sly and the Family Stone, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elvis Costello and Creedence Clearwater Revival have won absolutely none among them.
And some of those folks were pretty popular, too.
Bob Dylan has two Grammys -- one for a gospel album, another for his appearance on the "Concert for Bangla Desh" album. Founding fathers like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Elvis Presley apparently couldn't make the grade at the first awards in 1958, when the song and record of the year were "Nel Blu dipinto di Blu" by future Hall of Famer Domenico Modugno. Not that 1958 was a terrible year for music; the Chipmunks picked up three Grammys, a number Presley would eventually match -- for his gospel albums.
Toto also has three. No, not the dog, the group (though come to think of it ... ).
All in all, the Grammys don't have much of a track record. But ever-larger numbers of people are tuning in: for several years now, the Grammys have been the second most watched awards show on television, right behind the Oscars. Usually, 12 to 15 awards are given on the show, and they tend to be the media-hypeable ones. The Big Four -- Record of the Year (for singles), Album of the Year, Song of the Year (for the songwriters) and Best New Artist -- are always saved for last, about three hours after the interminable scroll of performers and presenters that opens the show. Usually, the only excitement comes in seeing how the Grammy producer (Pierre Cossette) runs off those 200 names (and nobody gets left out) without boring us to death in those first, long 15 minutes. Also perennially intriguing: the presenter matchups, which are done with more sense of humor than just about anything else in the program, even if Billy Crystal is back as the host.
Well, now that we've got the griping out of the way, let's talk a little about this year's program and do some handicapping on the major awards.
Of course, the big news is the return of Mr. Excitement, Michael Jackson, who will be making his first live television appearance since the 1982 Motown special that seemed to fire him into, and beyond, world consciousness. Michael will be doing his current hit single, "Man in the Mirror." Of less import, except to Pepsi kingpin Roger Enrico and millions of stockholders, will be the world premieres of four (count 'em, four) new Jackson commercials for Pepsi-Cola. They're episodic and even have a title -- "The Chase."
Record of the Year The nominees here are Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again," Paul Simon's "Graceland," U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Los Lobos' "La Bamba" and Suzanne Vega's "Luka." You're feeling a little de'ja` vu, you say: Weren't Winwood and Simon big winners at last year's Grammys? Well, yes, but you see, these "singles" from their award-winning albums were apparently released during the eligibility period (Oct. 1, 1986 to Sept. 30, 1987). Forget them; they won't win.
"La Bamba" is a delightful song that didn't get much attention when Richie Valens recorded it 29 years ago (hey, he even died during the second annual eligibility period) but obviously benefited from being the title, inspiration and motivation of a hit movie. But unless NARAS feels guilty about overlooking Valens for almost three decades, this category's going to come to down a dead heat between U2 and Vega.
Vega's "Luka," a moving song about child abuse, has a '60s folkish sheen to it, which may attract the older vote (and one suspects that's a large portion of the NARAS membership). On the other hand, U2's keening, introspective ballad could be a first Grammy for the socially conscious Irish quartet (and a good way for the academy to make up for passing over Springsteen all these years, though he got a pop award in 1984 for "Dancing in the Dark"). The winner: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
Album of the Year The nominees are Michael Jackson's "Bad," U2's "The Joshua Tree," Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times," Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris' "Trio" and Whitney Houston's "Whitney." Jackson may be on the downside of a popularity swing. In 1978 he was snubbed for what many still think is his best album, "Off the Wall." In 1983, the Academy overcompensated, bestowing eight Grammys on "Thriller." But "Bad" is just so-so -- high-tech so-so, but so-so nonetheless. And public and professional perceptions of Jackson as an extreme eccentric may stifle popular support as well.
Prince, of course, is just a normal dude who keeps putting out intriguing albums. When it came out, "Sign 'O' the Times" didn't get particularly great reviews, and it still hasn't sold all that well (despite a supporting concert film). Okay, so it just won the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll (more on that later); you better believe that's a different voting constituency.
Country music, traditional or modern, usually doesn't make it to the medal round, and "Trio" didn't get the kind of reviews that would push it into this company. Chalk one up for star power and good intentions. Same with "Whitney," Houston's slick, calculated rehash of her multiplatinum debut.
Which leaves U2, whose "Joshua Tree" was a breakthrough album with great depth of emotion and intelligence. Again, NARAS may be balancing its own spiritual ledger here. Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno get the nod as nonclassical Producers of the Year.
Song of the Year The nominees are Houston's "Didn't We Almost Have It All" (by Michael Masser and Will Jennings), "Luka" by Vega, "Somewhere Out There" (the theme to the film "An American Tail," written by James Horner, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil), "La Bamba" (adapted by Ritchie Valens from a traditional Mexican folk song) and U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
This is a tough one, though you'd like to see "La Bamba" win just to see who gets to make the acceptance speech.
"Didn't We Almost Have It All" is a tad too formulaic, which should knock it out of the running. "Somewhere Out There," a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, is a slice of romantic gloss (or is that floss), but it was written by two Brill Building legends (Weil and Mann) and a fine composer who always seems to lose out to John Williams when it comes to film scores. On the plus side, there's not too much in the middle-of-the-road pop crossover for NARAS to cheer for, so this could have an outside shot.
Just as with record of the year, this one comes down to "Luka" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." What's most likely is a reversal, with this Grammy going to Vega, who has brought a breath of fresh insights into the songwriting genre.
Best New Artist A few years back, Whitney Houston was barred from this category because she'd recorded a single duet with someone. So here comes Jody Watley, who spent eight years in the dance band Shalamar, making eight albums. Go figure. This category tends to be the least interesting of the Big Four, and this year's nominees certainly don't help. Two are one-hit wonders -- Cutting Crew and Swing Out Sister. The beautiful Watley is a better dancer and fashion model than she is a singer. The Breakfast Club? Give us a break! This one goes to Terence Trent D'Arby, who seems to offer a middle ground between the passionate soul of the '60s and the kinetic funk of the '80s. Not only that, he's also one of the most charismatic new performers to emerge in the last year.
Critical Mass Still don't like your choices? Here are some alternative takes on the '87 music scene.
Just a week before the Grammys, two rock 'n' roll polls have come out, from Rolling Stone (which offers both a readers poll and the views of its own critics) and from the Village Voice (whose 15th annual Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll records the opinions of 226 critics around the country, 84 of them from around New York City). Not surprisingly, U2 dominated the Readers Poll, topping the field for artist of the year, best album, the three best singles, best band, best male singer, best producer, best video, best album cover, best live performance, best guitarist, best drummer, best bass player and sexiest male rock artist (we're not kidding). On the critics' side, U2 took artist of the year, best band, best producer and best guitarist, with perennial favorite Bruce Springsteen copping the best album and best single awards.
Michael Jackson won a few reader awards, too: worst album, worst single, worst male singer, hype of the year, worst video, worst album cover, most unwelcome comeback and worst-dressed male rock artist. Somehow, one suspects the cult of personality is at work here. The Rolling Stone critics also seem to perfectly embody the white male bias that's at the heart of most rock criticism.
Much more interesting, if only for its overview, is the Village Voice poll. In that one Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" was voted best album by the largest margin in the poll's history, followed by Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," the Replacements' "Pleased to Meet Me," U2's "Joshua Tree," John Hiatt's "Bring the Family," Los Lobos' "By the Light of the Moon" (a much better record than the sound track to "La Bamba"), John Cougar Mellencamp's "The Lonesome Jubilee," R.E.M.'s "Document," XTC's "Skylarking" and the just-disbanded Hu sker Du 's "Warehouse: Songs and Stories."
Of the top 40 albums in the Voice poll, seven got Grammy nominations. (Of the 25 singles, eight cross over; of the 12 reissues, none do.) Good showings by critical favorites like the Replacements, R.E.M. and Hu sker Du
are hardly surprising, but the critics show their openness by placing harmolodic jazzman Ornette Coleman's "In All Languages" in the No. 11 spot, hard rappers Public Enemy and their 'Yo! Bum Rush the Show" at No. 14, reggae masters Sly and Robbie's "Rhythm Killers" at No. 25 and the 32-year-old "Million Dollar Quartet" (a 1956 jam session featuring Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins now available for the first time in non-bootleg form) at No. 35.
The Voice's "Dean of Rock Critics," Robert Christgau, has provided his traditional passionate, stream-of-self-consciousness essay ("Significance and Its Discontents in the Year of the Blip"), much of which is impenetrable yet somehow provocative, and there are plenty of lists and excerpted comments from the critics themselves. Christgau is not above calling their bluff on certain issues, including sober-sided insularity, racial myopia (from both black and white critics), old boy conservatism, literary standards, antisong tendencies and the like. It all sounds like it was written in a single, long breath.
If nothing else, the Voice poll may provide some much needed overview and spur people to take a few of the risks missing from the Grammys. Like Coleman. Like Sonic Youth's "Sister" (No. 12), or Marianne Faithfull's "Strange Weather" (No. 16), or the Smiths' swansongs, "Strangeways Here We Come" and "Louder than Bombs" (No. 37 and 38, respectively). All too few of the Voice choices have benefited from exposure on the radio. They may not be everybody's cup of tea, and in fact, may not be anybody's except for these 226 critics, but they are the present and the future. And that's all, folks.