A Good--and ‘Bad'--Night

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Whoever thought anyone would feel sorry for Michael Jackson--especially at a Grammy Awards show?

Moments after being bathed in applause for one of the most striking performances ever by a pop performer on national television, Jackson, an intensely private person, had to sit in full view of millions as he suffered one humiliating defeat after another.

This slender marionette of a man-child appeared ashen-faced as he kept hearing other performers called up to the podium at Radio City Music Hall to accept Grammys that he had hoped would be his. He couldn’t have looked any more heartbroken if someone had just run away with his pet chimp.

The last time he had come to the Grammys with a hit album, Jackson was rewarded with more statuettes (eight) than anyone in the history of the record industry awards competition.

On Wednesday, however, the fiercely competitive Jackson walked away empty-handed. He tried gamely to muster a smile when Smokey Robinson, a hero from the Motown days, got the nod over him for best R&B vocal. But most of the time he seemed simply crestfallen.

It was a repeated picture of disappointment that few in the theater or TV audience will soon forget.

Yet there is another picture of Jackson on Wednesday that may be even more firmly fixed in the public’s mind: the picture of a supreme pop performer whose dynamics on stage were, in part, fueled by his vulnerability.

Vulnerability isn’t the word most often associated with Jackson. More common terms are eccentric and, if you will, strange. But there is a delicate quality that surfaces in his most compelling records--including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

It’s the same delicate edge that also infuses Jackson’s live performance with a hunger and desire that is as absorbing as it is electric.

Jackson deserved at least one of the vocal Grammys, but he didn’t deserve to win the award that he most coveted--the one for best album. U2 won that for “The Joshua Tree.”

And it is a sign of the growing maturity of Grammy voters that they didn’t let Jackson’s enormous commercial success and celebrity seduce them into giving him their top award.

The problem with Jackson’s “Bad” album--for all its studio sophistication and commercial sheen--is that is lacks intimacy.

The LP abounds with strong, hit elements, but it is--with a couple of notable exceptions--almost frightfully devoid of human emotions.

When accepting the best album award for “The Joshua Tree,” U2’s Bono Hewson defined soul music as something beyond matters of race or musical style. It is, he suggested, music that “reveals” rather than “conceals.”

Unfortunately, “Bad” mainly conceals. Jackson sometimes mistakes fame and chart position for artistry, and too much of his latest album simply aims for more fame.

But Jackson’s performance at the 30th Grammy Awards Wednesday night was an altogether different experience. For more than nine minutes of prime-time television, he revealed himself. Jackson moved with a sensual resolve and urgent desire that pleaded for approval and respect. Even what appeared to be occasional lip-syncing didn’t disguise the boldness and passion of his performance.

A national pop audience got a chance to watch Jackson’s boldness and artistry and to see that there’s more to his superstardom than what some may perceive as a peculiar life style or obsession with facial appearance.

In agreeing to perform on the Grammys, Jackson most likely was hoping to regenerate the spark that he exhibited in 1983 when he sang “Billy Jean” on a Motown Records anniversary special. His performance that night was so electrifying that many industry observers feel it single-handedly added millions of sales to the “Thriller” album.

Whether Wednesday’s performance will do the same for “Bad” is a question, but--after months of letting tabloids shape his public image--Jackson finally faced the public again, head-on, no strings attached. The result was a dazzling and ultimately triumphant moment in Grammy history, one that overshadowed everything else on the program--even his string of four defeats.

If Jackson was the evening’s main news, the Grammy process itself came out a winner. U2’s victory in the best album competition continues the recognition of excellence established by last year’s selection of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” in the same category.

Both are distinguished works filled with graceful textures and purposeful, socially conscious themes--remarkable picks by the 6,000 members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences who just a few years ago gave its top award to such visionless talents as Christopher Cross, Toto and Phil Collins.

There’s bound to be a quarrel with several selections when 73 categories are involved--and you could easily start quarreling with such disheartening judgments as naming the commercially grounded Jody Watley best new artist over the far more artistically arresting Terence Trent D’Arby and the middlebrow song “Somewhere Out There” over U2’s gallantly inspiring “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Still, the overall momentum appears to be headed in an encouraging direction.

Instead of patting itself on the back, however, the Grammy board of trustees needs to review some of its rules.

Among the areas of concern:

--The rule that allowed Paul Simon to win best single honors Wednesday for a recording that was included in an LP that was honored as best album last year. While philosophically defensible, the practice is confusing and unsettling to both the general public and much of the industry itself.

Anytime an artist wins a best album award, tracks from that work should be ineligible in future Grammy years. Under present rules, it is altogether possible to win a Grammy for best album one year and best single for tracks from that album for the next 10 years.

--The rule concerning the eligibility of new artists. Technicalities now overrule good sense. Why should Whitney Houston have been judged ineligible a couple years ago because she once did a duet with someone, while Jody Watley was eligible this year even though she had been recording (as part of the group Shalamar) for almost a decade.