Grammys sometimes surprised, dismayed. Artistic merit: not always the yardstick

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Everybody agreed on one point about the Grammy Awards this year: It was great to be back in New York, for a three-hour ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, telecast live on CBS Wednesday night. But that's where the agreement ended. In the critics' quarters, there was quite a bit of dismay about some of the choices. Although the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences claims it doesn't lean toward popularity polls and record charts and bases its decisions on artistic and technical merit alone, the results sometimes contradicted that view.

For example: the Academy's unfortunate choice of Jody Watley as Best New Artist. Ms. Watley, who used to sing with the soul group Shalimar, is one of many ordinary vocalists who get over with snappy dance tracks and slick production. Contrast this with some of her talented contenders: Swing Out Sister, which has an original sound, some really creative and intelligent musical arrangements, and the resonant voice of Corinne Drewery; Breakfast Club, whose soulful style is instantly recognizable; and Terence Trent D'Arby, who, although he didn't distinguish himself in his Grammy performance, is a truly creative, original singer/songwriter.

Although practically everybody loves Paul Simon, it seemed odd that his ``Graceland'' won for Record of the Year, after winning Album of the Year for '86. It would be understandable if there hadn't been any serious competition, but with Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Steve Winwood, and U2 in the running, what gives? Oh, well, at least U2 won Best Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal for ``Joshua Tree.''

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But the biggest disappointment of the evening was Michael Jackson's not winning a single award, except for Best Engineered Recording for ``Bad.'' The unfairness of this seemed even more vivid in view of the singer's brilliant performance at the award ceremony. With no glitter and a minimum of fanfare, Jackson demonstrated his impeccable talent in a moving rendition of the self-revealing ``Man in the Mirror'' from ``Bad,'' despite its suggestive dance moves that reportedly prompted the gospel group the Winans to cancel its Grammy performance.

Whitney Houston's grip on the pop scene seems to have slipped a little, with only one award (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female), for one of the worst songs of the year, ``I Wanna Dance With Somebody.'' So much for artistic merit, especially when you consider that she was up against Barbra Streisand for a superb ``One Voice.''

On a brighter note, it was nice to see Smokey Robinson win Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male - not just because he's been around forever, but because ``Just to See Her'' is a really lovely song. And it was a good to see all the Winans get awards. Their appealing brand of gospel embraces both pop and soul and is bringing their message to the mainstream audience.

Strictly from the point of view of artistic merit, several people who were overlooked should have been nominees, if not winners: Soprano Jessye Norman (who has been virtually ignored since 1984); new comedienne Judy Tenuta one of the genuinely funniest people to come along in ages; the Force M.D.'s (best sweet soul group around); the Pogues (the world's only Irish folk/punk band); and Tom Waits.

The best quotes of the night came from Grammy winner Vladimir Horowitz: ``I'm so happy that classical music still has appreciation,'' and U2's lead singer Bono: ``Soul music is not about being black or white, or the instruments you play or whether you use a drum machine - it's a decision to reveal, or conceal. Without it, people like Prince would be nothing more than a brilliant song-and-dance man, and he's much more than that; people like Bruce Springsteen would be nothing more than a great storyteller, and he's much more than that.''

Among the top Grammy winners ... Record of the year: Paul Simon, ``Graceland.'' Album of the year: U2, ``The Joshua Tree.'' Song of the year: James Horner, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil, ``Somewhere Out There.'' New artist: Jody Watley. Pop vocal performance, male: Sting, ``Bring On the Night.'' Pop vocal performance, female: Whitney Houston, ``I Wanna Dance With Somebody.'' Rock vocal performance, female/male: Bruce Springsteen, ``Tunnel of Love.'' Rock duo or group with vocal: U2, ``The Joshua Tree.'' Pop duo or group with vocal: Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes, ``(I've Had) The Time of My Life.'' R&B vocal, female: Aretha Franklin, ``Aretha.'' R&B vocal, male: Smokey Robinson, ``Just to See Her.'' R&B duo or group with vocal: Aretha Franklin and George Michael, ``I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).'' Jazz instrumental, group: Wynton Marsalis, ``Marsalis Standard Time, Volume I.'' Soul gospel duo, group, or choir: The Winans, Anita Baker, ``Ain't No Need to Worry.'' Country vocal, female: K.T. Oslin, ``80's Ladies.'' Country vocal, male: Randy Travis, ``Always and Forever.'' Best classical album: Vladimir Horowitz, ``Horowitz in Moscow.''

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