Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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For Rock, a Brief Stop at Grammy's House

Mod crooner Andy Williams summed it up perfectly. He probably didn't come up with the line himself, but neither does Bob Hope.

Williams was emceeing the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' annual Grammy Awards show Tuesday night. He was about to present the Beatles with a Special Trustees Award. Basically, the special award was for changing the world--not something the academy customarily encourages. George Harrison, who is listed first these days, wasn't there to receive it, and neither were the others.

After mulling on about how weird they used to look, Williams came to the nub:

"It started off with the kids screaming, and it ended up with the adults applauding."

That's the academy analysis of rock. The academy accepts the rock that adults applaud. The stuff that makes kids scream--even if the kids are pushing 30--it ignores.

The academy comprises about 4,000 of the recording industry's creative professionals--performers, producers, engineers. Its bias, like that of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, is well-off and middle-aged.

Of course, the academy claims to be all for change, but it likes its change and its music safe. That's why the show featured a clip from the forthcoming film of Harrison's Bangladesh concert, the ultimate in Kids Being Idealistic. If young people want to try to change the world, the academy would just as soon they concentrated their efforts around rock concerts.

The clip occasioned passing mention of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell, but rock's other artistic leaders--Rod Stewart, the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, the Who, the Rolling Stones--went completely unrecognized. So did teeny heroes like the Jackson Five and the Osmonds and heavy bands like Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath.

The rhythm-and-blues awards made the bias obvious. Lou Rawls, a nightclub singer who has been having career troubles, won over Marvin Gaye, whose "Inner City Blues" was one of those unanticipated breakthroughs that Gaye seems to achieve every three years or so. "Bridge Over Troubled Water," one of Aretha Franklin's soppiest performances to date, beat out Janis Joplin's "Pearl" and "Mr. Big Stuff," a funky rock-and-roller from Jean Knight.

Not that the Grammies were a shutout for rock 'n roll. On the contrary, the big winner was Carole King, who began her career more than a decade ago as coauthor of such songs as "The Locomotion" and "He's a Rebel," and whose second solo LP, Tapestry, began its Grammy run with airplay on FM rock stations.

She also won Grammies for best song ("You've Got a Friend"), best record ("It's Too Late") and best female vocal performance ("Tapestry"). Only a sorehead could gainsay these choices. It was Carole King's year, and her specialty was bridging the categories--honestly.

Her singing style shows black influences in intonation and phrasing, and a candid break-up song like "It's Too Late" is far from pop pap like Perry Como's "It's Impossible," which also was nominated. But her rhythms are so indirect they never offend, and even Perry Como sings her songs.

What Carole King proves, in fact, is that rock 'n rollers become adults, eventually, sometimes without sacrificing what is essential about their youth. What seems unlikely is that the academy members will ever become as children.

N'day, Mar. 17, 1972