BetteBack February 26, 1998: Bette Midler Presents At The 1998 Grammy Awards

The Boston Globe
February 26, 1998


Kelsey Grammer presided over last night’s Grammy Awards ceremony like a nervous substitute teacher. Wearing a broad white collar that threatened to swallow his head, he stiffy milked jokes out of his scant knowledge of today’s music, wrapping his mouth around phrases like “jiggy wit it” and “Wu-Tang Clan.” The live telecast’s returns from commercials were consistently ill-timed, and at one point we caught Grammer asking someone, “Do I look OK?”

But it’s not the host who makes a Grammy show worthwhile: It’s the performances, the fashions, the breathless speeches, the emotions, and, especially, the live moments — those unrehearsed exclamations and interruptions that are so rare in the age of meticulous music videos. On those counts, last night’s 40th annual celebration was a long stretch of very average variety-show fare punctuated by a bunch of weird and wacky highs.

The oddest and most compelling moment in the telecast had to be Bob Dylan’s version of “Love Sick,” from “Time Out of Mind.” In the middle of a wonderfully crusty, textured performance, with Dylan and his band surrounded closely by planted boho-looking fans, a man with “SOY BOMB” written on his bare torso ran out and stood convulsing next to Dylan. After half a minute, the unidentified man was removed, leaving a mystified Dylan with an ever so slightly raised brow.

Grammy chief Michael Greene was next up, and he derisively wondered if he should provide a mosh pit next year, “so they can get out all their frustrations in front of the stage.” Dylan, of course, provided one of the strangest and most transfixing Grammy moments ever in 1991, when he performed a bitterly incomprehensible version of “Masters of War” and then accepted a lifetime achievement award by citing his father’s very dark thoughts on defilement and God. This year, when he accepted the award for best album, he was overwhelmingly normal, thanking label executives and musicians, and noting that the spirit of Buddy Holly hovered inspirationally over the making of “Time Out of Mind.”

Another interruption occurred as Shawn Colvin and co-writer John Leventhal approached the podium to accept song of the year award for “Sunny Came Home.” Suddenly, rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan was beside them, apparently upset at having lost the best rap album award earlier in the evening. “Puff Daddy is good but Wu-Tang is the best,” he spouted. “I love you all.” He was escorted away, and later Grammer thanked “the gentleman from Wu-Tang” for his clarifications.

Some of the performances last night were marred by an excess of zooming cameras, flashing lights, and music-video images behind the stage. Hanson, in particular, did not benefit from all the activity, particularly since the bubble-gum trio appeared to be somewhat tired of their hit, “MMMbop.”

The genre medleys were consistently forced, particularly three abbreviated, back-to-back songs by Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, and Sarah McLachlan, singer-songwriters from Lilith Fair (two words Frasier Crane would not put in the same sentence, Grammer noted).

And a few singers — Lindsey Buckingham during a lackluster Fleetwood Mac medley, a barefoot Fiona Apple, and Paula Cole — seemed to be straining vocally.

Concert highlights included a rousing “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly, and a slow-building version of “How Come, How Long” by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Stevie Wonder, whose final “Open up your heart” exclamations were piercing.

Aretha Franklin had the audience spellbound when, a few minutes after singing “Respect” with the Blues Brothers, she delivered “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” to fill in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti.

The fashion gaffes were at a minimum this year (only Franklin’s Oriental rug of a dress was notable), even if production mistakes were a constant, beginning with the moment Vanessa Williams was swiped by a chunk of scenery.

Also at a minimum was attitude, with only one catty allusion to Barbra Streisand’s absence due to the flu, when Bette Midler said, “OK, Barbra, you can take your Nyquil now.”

Only Danny DeVito was met with ice, probably deservedly, when he jokingly asked co-presenter Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs if there was a breakfast cereal that didn’t have his name in it.

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