The Grammy Awards--or the "Grandma Awards," as the Beatles dubbed them in the mid-Sixties--have been around for 35 years, yet they continue to be ridiculed by those who feel it's more important to reward excellence than commercial success. Among the most famous Grammy gaffes: Elvis Costello losing the Best New Artist Grammy to the execrable disco group A Taste of Honey, and Jethro Tull taking the first-ever prize for Best Metal Album, even though the nominated recording sounded about as metallic as Peter, Paul and Mary.

Recognizing that much of the music community has little or no respect for the industry's best-known prize, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which sponsors the Grammys, has lately been trying to rehabilitate the image of its signature creation. Nominations occasionally are being doled out to modest-selling discs--this year, Neil Young received a nod for the nonhit "Harvest Moon"--and critics' babies such as Billy Joel and Sting are seeing their miserable efforts given multiple acknowledgements. In addition, NARAS has hooked up with Atlantic Records to issue a four-volume series entitled Grammy's Greatest Moments. But while this lavish set, featuring fine liner notes by former Billboard staffer Paul Grein, has been assembled with great care, it remains a blatant attempt to rewrite history. The result, predictably, is strained and unconvincing.

Album programmers, for example, have made no effort to provide an overview of the Grammys since their inception. Of the 47 live performances culled from Grammy broadcasts that they've compiled, there are none from either the Fifties or Sixties, and only four from the Seventies (1974's "Midnight Train to Georgia," by Gladys Knight and the Pips; 1972's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," as performed by Aretha Franklin; 1979's "Hopelessly Devoted to You," by Olivia-Newton John; and 1973's "Vincent," from Don McLean). There is no jazz, unless you count Herbie Hancock's 1984 rendition of his Top-40 instrumental "Rockit" and a very pop take on "God Bless the Child" by Anita Baker and George Duke. Likewise, there are no folk or blues numbers, and only two ditties that come within spitting distance of country (Kenny Rogers's unbearably gooey "Through the Years," and "Constant Craving," k.d. lang's easy-listening breakthrough). Hard rock is severely underrepresented (Aerosmith's 1991 version of the Lennon-McCartney composition "Come Together" is made to suffice), and the tune closest to classical is Patti Lupone's vocalization of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice composition "Don't Cry for Me Argentina"--which, as those who've heard the song know all too well, isn't very close at all.

Thus, the vast majority of material here is contemporary work by radio stars of today and the very recent past, with an emphasis on lachrymose ballads and pap issued by this generation's most successful shlockmeisters. Even a partial list of the latter is frightening to behold: "Arthur's Theme," by Christopher Cross (one of the most honored performers in Grammy history, in spite of his almost complete lack of talent); "For Your Eyes Only," by Sheena Easton (her worst song); "One Moment in Time," by Whitney Houston (another Grammy favorite); "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," by Michael Bolton and Kenny G (together!); "Another Day in Paradise," by Phil Collins and David Crosby (together and balding!); and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond (together and terrifying!).

Because of the sheer quantity of swill presented here, those performers whose artistic credibility outstrips their sales successes seem strangely out of place. Los Lobos ("La Bamba"), Terence Trent D'Arby ("If You Let Me Stay") and Suzanne Vega ("Luka") clearly serve as window dressing. Moreover, the Grammy voters' idea of alternative music--exemplified by the presence of songs by the Eurythmics ("Sweet Dreams [Are Made of This]") and Billy Idol ("Cradle of Love")--is as mainstream as the Mississippi River. If not for a bare handful of remarkable performances (most notably Marvin Gaye's 1983 "Sexual Healing"), Grammy's Greatest Moments would be a complete washout.

Is there anything that could transform the Grammys into a viable and worthy production? Aside from the instantaneous deaths of the NARAS staff and the 8,000 people who vote for the Grammys each year, probably not. Other award programs have sprung up to fight the Grammys for media supremacy, and while most of them--including the MTV Music Awards--don't have a lot of credibility either, they're generally much more entertaining.

The Grammys, then, seem doomed to continue down their same stodgy path. And no amount of public relations of the sort exemplified by Grammy's Greatest Moments will make the slightest difference.


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