At a time of rampant instability in the world, it’s comforting to ponder the thought of another Grammy awards telecast. Another night of pure show business: fatuous acceptance speeches, self-important performances, enough silly outfits and haircuts to outdo any installment of America’s Funniest Home Videos. A Lifetime Achievement award presentation to one of rock’s most enigmatic eccentrics, Bob Dylan, is bound to be surreal, especially since the man himself is set to appear and (as he’s done for the past few years in concerts) mangle one of his songs. The winners will occasionally be pleasant surprises (Bonnie Raitt’s left-field 1990 sweep comes to mind), but mostly they won’t — particularly in a year in which the major pop nominees are multiplatinum lite-pop favorites like Phil Collins, Mariah Carey, M.C. Hammer, and Wilson Phillips, and also revered industry war-horses like Quincy Jones.
Yet there is a shadow hanging over the Grammys and its 6,000-member governing body, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Actually, it’s two shadows, both with braided hair and speaking in stiff German accents. Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, better known as Milli Vanilli, confessed last November that they hadn’t actually sung a note on their multiplatinum debut album. A week later, NARAS officials stripped them of their Best New Artist award, presented only about 10 months earlier over the clearly more talented Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, the Indigo Girls, and Tone-Loc.
Looking back on the incident, NARAS president Mike Greene is as philosophical as anyone could be in the face of such a gaffe. ”The fact that it happened to such a high-profile act I believe is a great thing, because we’ll all have more caution in the future,” Greene says. ”The fact that our membership awarded them a Grammy was certainly a stupid move. Personally, I didn’t feel it was the caliber of nomination which deserved to win a Grammy. They were a frivolous act, and it was one of those Grammys that I winced at.”
Judging from the often cockeyed nominations for this year’s 33rd annual Grammy show, Greene’s wincing days may not be over. Continuing the tradition according to which ”Always on My Mind” won Best Country Song in 1983 — more than a decade after it was written — this year’s songwriting nominees include Prince’s ”Nothing Compares 2 U” (first recorded by the Family in 1985, but resurrected last year by Sinéad O’Connor), ”I’ll Be Good to You” (a hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1976, but remade in 1989 by Quincy Jones), and M.C. Hammer’s ”U Can’t Touch This” (barely a song, and blatantly based, though with due credit, on Rick James’ 1981 hit ”Super Freak (Part 1)”).
The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Voters failed to nominate Clint Black in the country category despite his barrier-busting success on the pop charts. But they did resurrect the late Roy Orbison as a Best Pop Male Performance nominee for a live version of ”Oh Pretty Woman,” recorded in 1987 for a cable-TV special. (The album from the show, A Black and White Night Live, was released during the 1989-90 eligibility period.) The late Leonard Bernstein received six nominations, proving once again that death is not forgotten at Grammy time.
A major omission, given its command of pop charts and media attention, was Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got as a choice for Album of the Year. But given the Irish singer’s sometimes abrasive personality and the controversy over her refusal to let ”The Star-Spangled Banner” be played at one of her concerts, O’Connor is hardly a Grammy-friendly nominee; to protest what she calls the ”false and destructive materialistic values” of the record industry, she even announced that she won’t attend the ceremony, and won’t accept an award if she wins. (Her album is one of the five nominees in NARAS’ latest overdue concession to modern musical trends — the first-ever Best Alternative Music Performance award.) The absence of O’Connor — and the likely triumphs of Mariah Carey, Wilson Phillips, and Bette Midler’s sappy ”From a Distance” — once again confirms the Grammys’ tendency to reward million-selling smiley-faced tunes over music that is distinctive, challenging, or just plain good.
None of this should come as a shock; throughout history, Grammy voters have been notoriously behind the times. There are, of course, a number of 1991 nominees who are worthy of that honor based on the actual content of their music. Among them are rockers Midnight Oil and Jane’s Addiction, rappers Queen Latifah and Digital Underground, and Tex-Mex legends the Texas Tornados. It’s unlikely many of these will win, but after 32 years of Grammy frivolity, why expect anything more? Just make some popcorn, turn on your set, and turn off your brain. Rob and Fab would want it that way. — Additional reporting by Roy Trakin in Los Angeles.