David Browne wonders how this sham of a show won acceptance among media and music insiders
Britney Spears
Credit: Britney Spears: Michael Caulfield/WireImage.com

Why take the American Music Awards seriously?

A few weeks ago, the music world was stunned when India.Arie snagged several major Grammy nominations even though her folk-R&B debut album had left only a mid-sized footprint on the pop consciousness. Trying to find someone who could even HUM her minor hit ”Video” became a game. Her anointment seemed bizarre ? until I watched the 29th annual American Music Awards last Wednesday, which makes the India.Arie selection seem like the work of noted scholars.

For decades, the AMAs have been the shallow younger sister of the Grammys. The rules were simple: Garner lots of radio play and record sales, get an award. Sure, the AMAs were cheesier fun than the lugubrious Grammys, but musical quality has never been the AMA’s calling card. At this year’s telecast, a segment of old clips featured more vintage footage of Helen Reddy, Barbara Mandrell, and Michael Bolton than video libraries should allow.

But for reasons even less explicable than Linkin Park having the best-selling album of last year, Dick Clark’s annual awards show is taken more seriously each time around, by both the media and the music biz. It’s truly baffling, as this year’s show again made clear.

The nominees in each category remain limited to three, which guarantees that only superstars will be nominated. It was hard to say which cohost was worse: The unnecessarily revived Jenny McCarthy, whose naughty-girl shtick wore out its welcome in 1994, or the entrepreneur formerly known as Puffy Daddy, who always managed to find the least appropriate moment at which to plug his acts and clothing line. Cher mouthed along to her forgettable new single, and Britney Spears looked and sang like a stiff, overdressed Miss America contestant. A year from now, we’ll look back at performances by Shaggy, Usher, and the sadly repetitive Kid Rock and wonder what we were all thinking.

True, there didn’t seem to be as MUCH lipsynching as in the past (although with technology, you never know), and the AMAs lucked out, since some of the major winners — Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keys — have talent. Keys, who walked away with best pop and R&B new-artist awards, should have been given extra plaques for schmooziest acceptance speech (she thanked Clark for having her) and most embarrassing banter (”I’m rockin’ with my dawgs ‘N Sync!”). Providing intentional humor was Justin Timberlake, who, taking the stage to accept the best pop group award over the Dave Matthews Band and U2, cracked, ”Aw, quit booin’ — U2’s gonna get Grammys!”

The capper, though, was a special ”Artist of the Century” award given to a spectral Michael Jackson. The reason, according to presenter Chris Tucker, was for being ”the biggest-selling artist of all time.” That said it all, now and forever, for the priorities of the American Music Awards.

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