A funny thing happened on the way to the Grammy Awards last year: The voters' taste improved dramatically.
Instead of the usual assortment of chart-topping fuddy-duddies, the Grammy winner's circle suddenly became a haven of hip. Bonnie Raitt, a veteran blues-rocker whose reputation had always been more impressive than her sales figures, led the way with four Grammys, including Album of the Year. Following close were a host of critically acclaimed performers, among them such first-time winners as Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Metallica, Living Colour, Peter Gabriel, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and John Lee Hooker.
Granted, it wasn't as if hiptitude completely swept the Grammys. Bette Midler's treacly "Wind Beneath My Wings" won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year, reaffirming that the voters of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences remain world-class schlock absorbers. And Milli Vanilli, a laughingstock even before the lip-sync scandal, was voted Best New Artist.
Still, last year's results represented a real step forward for the Grammys. That's good news for NARAS president Michael Greene, who has worked long and hard to make the Grammys less of a laughingstock. But for Grammy prognosticators, these flashes of hip make the guessing harder than ever.
Will the good guys win this time? Or will the Grammys go once again to the fogies and fuddy-duddies? Nobody will know for sure until Wednesday, when the awards show is broadcast live from New York, starting at 8 p.m., on CBS (Channel 11).
But here's what I'm betting:
RECORD OF THE YEAR: It would be nice if this Grammy went to a record as soul-baring as Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," as socially conscious as Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise" or even as novel as M. C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This," which would be the first rap Record of the Year if it won. But none stand a chance against Bette Midler's "From a Distance," which will win through its topicality (it has been the radio equivalent of a yellow ribbon ever since the start of the Persian Gulf war), its spirituality, and its not inconsiderable schlock value.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Quincy Jones' cast-of-thousands "Back on the Block" might muster a majority even if the only people who voted for it were those who played on it. (Don't laugh -- it worked for "We Are the World"). Even so, I'd give the edge to Phil Collins and ". . . But Seriously," in recognition of strong songs, solid musicianship and the fact that he's probably the nicest guy in the business.
SONG OF THE YEAR: Giving this to "Nothing Compares 2 U" would be a nice way of honoring Prince (who wrote the song) and avoiding the obstreperous O'Connor (who, as the singer, doesn't count in this category). But because Song of the Year frequently duplicates Record of the Year, count on Julie Gold to win for "From a Distance."
NEW ARTIST: Mariah Carey will win in a walk, for three reasons. First, as this year's Whitney Houston, she appeals equally to pop, rock and R&B partisans. Second, as the girlfriend of Columbia Records president Don Ienner, she's extraordinarily well-connected (and a likely beneficiary of Columbia's voting bloc). And third, she definitely doesn't lip-sync.
POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE, FEMALE: In any other year, Lisa Stansfield's "All Around the World" or Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight" would be the records to beat. But this year, it's strictly between Midler ("From a Distance") and Carey ("Vision of Love"), with Carey's exceptional pipes giving her the edge.
POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE, MALE: On a strictly vocal level, Michael Bolton -- who won last year -- ought to have the edge over Rod Stewart, James Ingram and the late Roy Orbison. But Bolton will likely be hurt by the fact that too many voters remember Ray Charles' version of "Georgia on My Mind" to be impressed by a remake. Which is why Bolton will be beaten by Collins and "Another Day in Paradise."
POP PERFORMANCE BY A DUO OR GROUP WITH VOCAL: Featuring what has to be the best-matched contenders on the ballot, this one is almost too close to call. Wilson Phillips' lustrous "Hold On" looks like the logical choice, if only for its superb harmony singing, but my gut feeling is that last year's winners -- Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville -- will triumph once more with ** "All My Life."
ROCK VOCAL PERFORMANCE, FEMALE: With a field as weak as the pop category is strong, the smart thing would be to expect the unexpected. Which means that instead of the obvious choice -- Tina Turner -- this boils down to a battle between Janet Jackson's showy, shallow "Black Cat" and Allanah Myles' heavy-breathing Elvis tribute, "Black Velvet." My money is on Jackson.
ROCK VOCAL PERFORMANCE, MALE: There's a lot of marquee value here, what with Neil Young, Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Idol all in the running. But Eric Clapton is more than merely famous; he's a rock legend, a great guitarist and a solid singer. Which is why "Bad Love" is a good bet to win here.