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Grammys sometimes surprised, dismayed. Artistic merit: not always the yardstick

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Everybody agreed on one point about the Grammy Awards this year: It was great to be back in New York, for a three-hour ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, telecast live on CBS Wednesday night. But that's where the agreement ended. In the critics' quarters, there was quite a bit of dismay about some of the choices. Although the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences claims it doesn't lean toward popularity polls and record charts and bases its decisions on artistic and technical merit alone, the results sometimes contradicted that view.

For example: the Academy's unfortunate choice of Jody Watley as Best New Artist. Ms. Watley, who used to sing with the soul group Shalimar, is one of many ordinary vocalists who get over with snappy dance tracks and slick production. Contrast this with some of her talented contenders: Swing Out Sister, which has an original sound, some really creative and intelligent musical arrangements, and the resonant voice of Corinne Drewery; Breakfast Club, whose soulful style is instantly recognizable; and Terence Trent D'Arby, who, although he didn't distinguish himself in his Grammy performance, is a truly creative, original singer/songwriter.

Although practically everybody loves Paul Simon, it seemed odd that his ``Graceland'' won for Record of the Year, after winning Album of the Year for '86. It would be understandable if there hadn't been any serious competition, but with Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Steve Winwood, and U2 in the running, what gives? Oh, well, at least U2 won Best Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal for ``Joshua Tree.''

But the biggest disappointment of the evening was Michael Jackson's not winning a single award, except for Best Engineered Recording for ``Bad.'' The unfairness of this seemed even more vivid in view of the singer's brilliant performance at the award ceremony. With no glitter and a minimum of fanfare, Jackson demonstrated his impeccable talent in a moving rendition of the self-revealing ``Man in the Mirror'' from ``Bad,'' despite its suggestive dance moves that reportedly prompted the gospel group the Winans to cancel its Grammy performance.

Whitney Houston's grip on the pop scene seems to have slipped a little, with only one award (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female), for one of the worst songs of the year, ``I Wanna Dance With Somebody.'' So much for artistic merit, especially when you consider that she was up against Barbra Streisand for a superb ``One Voice.''

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