Entertainment industry awards shows are, almost by definition, public orgies of televised backslapping. Still, TV viewers stick with them, not so much to discover what the best movie, TV show, or record is—for each viewer already knows what’s best—but in order to see personalities in environments that put them out of character and in competition with other celebrities. During, say, the telecast of the Miss America pageant, there’s no panning the audience. But during an awards show, audience shots are often a highlight of the presentation.
These thoughts were engendered by a viewing of the Dick Clark-produced American Music Awards. The AMA (and let there be no confusion with the medical organization—although the aid of a few physicians could have been helpful to an industry suffering from outsized egos) has been around for 14 years. It’s not quite the Grammys. Still, it had a contingent of performers that will rival the show that results in little gold stickers on album jackets.
This year’s hostess was Diana Ross. Diana has gone from being the lead singer in a popular soul trio to a lonely mainstream voice looking for a style. In her opening number, Ross spent an inordinate amount of time with her skirt being blown up around her waist a la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Later in the show, Ross did a tribute to Billie Holliday, whom she portrayed several years ago in Lady Sings the Blues. Perhaps some day Ross will play herself as a member of the Supremes, which is the best thing she could do, next to retiring.
The entertainment segments between the presentations were, by and large, so poorly done that it is amazing to think that the entertainers would be willing to put up with such shoddiness. American automakers aren’t the only ones with quality problems. For example, Robert Palmer, the man who spent over a decade making good music and being ignored, performed his “hit single” “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” Palmer wasn’t singing; only his lips were moving. Even he seemed embarrassed. Janet Jackson, who resembles brother Michael to a degree that brings cloning or crossdressing to mind, also did a lip sync, but in her case, there was so much aerobic dancing involved that no one would have wanted to hear her huffing and puffing, anyway. The best live performance came from the country side of the awards triumverate (i.e., pop-rock, soul-rhythm & blues, and country), with the likes of George Strait and the Judds. The Judds’ performance of Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”—part of a ceremony marking the 10th year since the passing of the King—had the Jordanaires, El’s backup singers, standing mute behind Wynona and Naomi. I think they wished they were somewhere else.
But there were more fundamental problems to the AMA. As one who grew up in Motown, it is difficult to watch Diana rise only to mediocrity and to hear Marvin Gaye praised for such trivialities as “Sexual Healing” (cf “Ain’t That Peculiar”). What is worse is that the music industry seems incapable of defining the differences between pop-rock and soul-R&B. It’s really not that tough to hear the difference. For example, when the late Otis Redding did “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay,” that was what would now be called a pop-rock song. Lionel Richie could have—and may have—patterned himself after that. Virtually all the rest of Redding’s music is soul-R&B. James Brown also continues to create soul-R&B. The test is whether the music can cause even a tone-deaf listener to break out in a cold sweat.
Perhaps it is the effect of the late, unlamented Great Disco Boom of the late 70’s. Former soul-R&B performers found that they could reach a bigger audience through the disco sound, which translated into record sales. When the boom became a bust, these performers had to take the edge off of their music if they were going to retain their mass appeal. This should not be considered a phenomenon restricted simply to soul singers hustling after the disposable income of the mainstream white middle class. In much the same way, there were (and are) the country music crossovers, including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers.
But at least the country contingent at the AMA kept its ranks in order. Perennial favorites Alabama and the new dynamic duo, The Judds, picked up their share of plexiglass pyramids.
But consider these results. In the pop-rock category, the favorite album was “Whitney Houston” by Whitney Houston; the favorite female vocalist was Whitney; the favorite video single was “Dancing on the Ceiling” by Lionel Richie; Lionel was also named favorite male vocalist. Meanwhile, over in the soul-R&B area we find these results: favorite album, “Whitney Houston”; favorite video single, “Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston; favorite female vocalist, Whitney; favorite male video artist, Lionel Richie; and, outrageously enough, to borrow a turn of phrase from Mr. Richie, he also picked up the favorite male vocalist award. Of the total 18 awards given in the combined pop-rock and soul-R&B categories, those two received nine.
This is not a case of enlightened liberal listening by those who determine the winners. It is, rather, evidence that we may be losing the soul-R&B form to a type of music with all the edge of a slug of Maalox.
Presently, we have Tina Turner back, though it’s her Rod Stewart-inspired hairdo and still-extraordinary legs that put her where she is (but where are the Ikettes?). Even Aretha Franklin is being recycled as something other than she once was; I’m awaiting—with fear—a duet with Phil Collins.
Perhaps the lyric on a 1980 Steely Dan tune, “Hey Nineteen,” an ironic examination of rapid intergenerational changes, best sums up my position vis-a-vis the eviseration of soul:
Hey Nineteen / That’s ‘Retha Franklin / She don’t remember / The Queen of Soul / It’s hard times befallen / The sole survivors / She thinks I’m crazy / But I’m just growing old. (Becker and Fagen)