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The 36th Annual Grammy Awards : Grammy's Sorry State, Frankly Speaking : Instead of rewarding mediocrity, the recording academy should focus on its strength--its salutes to pop legends. : Pop / Rock

March 02, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — It only took Whitney Houston 12 minutes to pick up the first of her Grammys on Tuesday night . . . and to trigger, most certainly, another round of complaints over the frequent irrelevance of an awards competition that prides itself on saluting recording excellence but often ends up fawning over mainstream mediocrity.

Maybe the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which sponsors the annual honors, should forget about handing out Grammys altogether and focus on its salutes to pop legends.

At least then we'd be focusing on greatness.

Where many of the awards Tuesday seemed either arbitrary and/or dumbfounding, the tributes to Frank Sinatra and Curtis Mayfield registered the evening's only truly involving moments.

How many times do you get a chance to see a man with Sinatra's tough-guy image reduced to tears by a passionate introduction?

U2's Bono, setting the stage for Sinatra's Grammy Legend award, described him as "a singer who makes other men (songwriters) poets."

He added: "People say Frank doesn't talk to the press. They want to know how he is, what's on his mind.

"But you know Sinatra is out there (on stage) more nights than most punk bands, telling his story through the songs . . . private thoughts on a public address system--boxer and painter, actor and singer, band man and loner, trouble-shooter and troublemaker . . . the champ who would rather show you his scars than his medals."

It was probably the best introduction Sinatra ever got--how ironic that it came from a rock 'n' roller, almost four decades after Sinatra virtually dismissed the revolutionary new sound as all but worthless.

And the master of phrasing didn't hide his feelings.

"That's the best welcome I ever had," he said. "This is like being in baseball, the bases are loaded and you're at bat (and) you don't know what you are going to do."

It was a marvelous moment in pop history: This celebrated public figure, a man of such command and grace on stage, almost speechless as he tried to find the words to express his feelings on this special night.

It's a shame that the moment of rare intimacy was destroyed by someone's decision to cut him off with some award announcements and commercials, then return to an awards show that seemed to have so little connection with the true heartbeat of contemporary pop.

We saw Houston and her cohorts step to the microphone time after time to thank their staffs, their bands, their fans, their parents. Meanwhile, only Digable Planets, the New York trio that was honored for best rap group recording, made any reference to the real world--reminding the black-tie crowd about the homeless people outside in the 30-degree cold and reaffirming their own goals of greater African American unity.

Few of the awards pinpointed the creative pulse of a pop music that is dominated, sociologically, by the anger and alienation of a new generation of rockers and rappers, and few of the performances also offered any sense of today's true pop energy.

Aerosmith representing rock in a year when Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and others altered the face of rock 'n' roll?

One way to measure the validity of an awards ceremony is to imagine a tape of it being put in a time capsule and opened up in 50 years. How much would Tuesday's ceremony tell someone then about the real heart of pop music in 1993?

Almost nothing--except, maybe, that they ought to check out the music of Mayfield and this tough guy named Sinatra.

Top Awards Album of the Year

"The Bodyguard"

Original Soundtrack

Record of the Year

"I Will Always Love You"

Whitney Houston, David Foster

Song of the Year

"A Whole New World"

Alan Menken, Tim Rice

New Artist

Toni Braxton

Female Pop Vocal

"I Will Always Love You"

Whitney Houston

Male Pop Vocal

"If I Ever Lose My Faith in You"

Sting

Rock Vocal

"I'd Do Anything for Love (but I Won't Do That)"

Meat Loaf

Rock Song

"Runaway Train"

David Pirner

Country Song

"Passionate Kisses"

Lucinda Williams

R&B Song

"That's the Way Love Goes"

Janet Jackson, James Harris III, Terry Lewis

Big Winners Chicago Symphony 4

David Foster 4

Alan Menken 4

Pierre Boulez 3

Whitney Houston 3

Tim Rice 3

Toni Braxton 2

Joe Henderson 2

Sting 2

Complete list of winners. F8

Robert Hilburn's Grammy report. A1

All-Time Winners Sir Georg Solti: 30

Quincy Jones (25)*: 26

Vladimir Horowitz: 25

Henry Mancini: 20

Stevie Wonder: 17

Leonard Bernstein: 16

Paul Simon: 16

Aretha Franklin: 15

John T. Williams: 15

Pierre Boulez (11)*: 14

Itzhak Perlman: 14

Ella Fitzgerald: 13

Leontyne Price: 13

Robert Shaw: 13

Sting (10)*: 12

David Foster (8)*: 12

Michael Jackson: 12

Ray Charles (11)*: 12

Denotes Tuesday night's winners, with their former Grammy totals in parenthesis.

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