Anyone who feels the Grammy Awards can be stodgy today might want to consider how far the show has come since the 1990s.
Not only was it an utterly abysmal time for fashion — The hair! The shoulder pads! The big, stiff suits! — but the music industry was riding the CD boom, which took profits to hitherto-unimagined heights and made hubris balloon even faster: The titans of the industry thought, as they often do, “We have made it, we’ll just keep doing exactly the same thing over and over and the masses will give us more and more money!” The sounds of the future — hip-hop, alternative, heavy metal — got obligatory new categories as a patronizing pat on the head for “the youngsters” (as Ed Sullivan, the mainstream entertainment curator of the Boomer generation, used to call them). By the early 1990s, the Grammy voting body had become ever more out-of-touch, complacent, arrogant and, most of all, old.
This situation may have reached its lowest point 30 years ago at the 1992 Grammy Awards — which took place on Feb. 25 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, a venue that at the time was the same age that the average Grammy voter seemed to be (60 years old). As always, some things were great: R.E.M., L.L. Cool J, Metallica, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King all won awards. When accepting, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe made a brief plea for people to vote in the November elections and called for more attention to the horrific ongoing AIDS crisis.
Also that evening, a 22-year-old Mariah Carey absolutely crushed her performance of “If It’s Over,” earning a standing ovation from none other than her labelmate, Barbra Streisand (a TV moment that was probably as heavily orchestrated as the song). Next up, Seal, in his U.S. live-TV debut, nailed “Crazy,” and looked just as stunning as Carey. Metallica, one of the most potent live acts of the era, delivered a pummeling “Enter Sandman” (although drummer Lars Ulrich grandstanded when the band won the Best Metal Performance trophy, blasting the Grammys and the music industry for not “getting” his band — which was probably on-brand in 1992); Alan Jackson served up some sterling, authentic country.
Yet the awful was truly, truly awful. “Unforgettable,” Natalie Cole’s collection of songs made famous by her late father, Nat King Cole — with the title track being a posthumously overdubbed duet between the two — swept Album, Song and Record of the Year, beating out Raitt, Bryan Adams, R.E.M., Amy Grant and others. (Yes, a 40-year-old song featuring a man who had been dead for a quarter-century was deemed the best song and record of 1991.) Nirvana, who had skyrocketed from relative obscurity to global-phenomenon status in the previous seven months, weren’t even nominated for Best New Artist, which was won by Mark Cohn; they were up for Best Alternative Album but lost to R.E.M. (Nirvana would not win their first — and only — Grammy until 1995, after Kurt Cobain was dead and the band was over.)
The show got off to a suitably stodgy start, cold-opening with Paul Simon playing “Cool River” from his lauded, Brazilian-influenced “Rhythm of the Saints” album. However, as a show opener, let’s just say the song is no “Let’s Go Crazy,” and as a performer, Simon is no Prince-and-Beyonce duet (to make a totally unfair comparison with 2004, arguably the greatest Grammy opening of all time).
Michael Bolton followed, sporting what must be the most epic mullet in history, and delivered an equally over-the-top version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Hey! A cover of a song that was a hit 25 years earlier!), for which he won his second Best Pop Male Vocal Performance trophy. Throughout the night, there were strong performances from Bonnie Raitt, and Aretha Franklin duetting with both Michael McDonald and Luther Vandross, yet all were singing slow ballads that rarely played to their greatest strengths. Metal nominees Megadeth saw their name misspelled on the show chyron, and even though there was a second performance by a metal band — one from Seattle, no less — it was Queensryche doing their schlocky, orchestrated ballad (and biggest hit), “Silent Lucidity.” Elsewhere, the singers from “the Commitments,” a mostly forgotten hit film about a lovably ordinary (and white) Irish group of friends who played R&B, performed “Mustang Sally” (Hey!, a cover of a song that was a hit 24 years earlier!)
And although the show deserves props for featuring both Kenny Rogers and octogenarian country legend Roy Rogers, the tribute to the latter was a jaw-droppingly corny, red-white-and-blue-themed, Broadway-via-Iowa song-and-dance routine that seemed plucked straight from a Sunday matinee that many in the audience may have seen as children … during the 1940s. Amid the many crowd shots, the most endearing is of Best Heavy Metal Album nominee Motorhead’s Lemmy (a man who basically looked like he was seething at all times), wearing his worn demin jacket in the sea of tuxes and gowns, seemingly doing his best to suppress boredom, anger, pain, or all three.
And we’ve saved perhaps the most notable element for last. Master of ceremonies Whoopi Goldberg, the first Black person ever to host the Grammys, came out at the beginning of the show holding a light blue cut-out circle over her face, “because….” — oh my God is she really going to say it? — “I’m too sexy for this show, hoooo!” she said, referencing Right Said Fred’s novelty hit from the previous year. Still, she did well, delivering even the corniest lines convincingly, nailing the good ones, interacting with and reacting to the audience. She was topical — in a tragic-in-retrospect moment, she celebrated the fact that the show was being broadcast for the first time to countries that “used to hang behind the Iron Curtain,” including Ukraine — and even threw some shade Carey’s way about her legs-a-palooza outfit: “Nice dress, girlfriend! Better hope a stiff wind doesn’t come up!” The Grammys would not have another Black host for a dozen years.
Decades always take a year or two to shed the excesses of the previous one and develop their own characteristics, and in the months that followed, the ‘80s would be shown the door in emphatic fashion. Grunge rebelled against glamor; Sean “Diddy” Combs, a brilliant, burgeoning record executive, would transform both R&B and hip-hop with two seminal artists: Mary J. Blige and Notorious B.I.G. Even the country rebelled against the ‘80s: Bill Clinton would defeat George H.W. Bush in the presidential election several months later, completely changing the tone of America’s leadership.
Yet the Grammys brought up the rear. With so much change happening under their collective nose, they bumbled along obliviously and self-contentedly for much of the decade, awarding Album of the Year — an honor that ostensibly recognizes topicality as well as excellence — to “Unplugged” greatest-hits collections of decades-old songs by Eric Clapton and Tony Bennett, artists who were 48 and 69 at the time, as if the voting body were broadcasting, “We don’t know any of these other records!”
We say all of this with something resembling love because over the past 20-ish years, there has been change: The Grammys have broadened the genres, gender and ethnicity of their membership and nominees, although not always the winners — it remains a travesty that just two albums categorized as hip-hop, the most culturally and commercially dominant musical and cultural genre of the past three decades, ever have won that top prize. The past two years under Harvey Mason Jr. have seen him address, at least outwardly, some of the deeply entrenched self-interest and lack of diversity at the heart of the organization — although an enormous amount of work remains to be done. And to be fair, it’s very difficult to stage an awards show that covers multiple musical genres yet is also mainstream enough to avoid the click of death: the network-TV channel-change (another obsolescent concept that the Grammys are fully aware is rapidly waning).
Still, the next time you’re looking to lambaste Music’s Greatest Night, try making the glass half full, if only for as long as it takes to drink it — because things can be so much worse.