AMA Preview: They Won For What?!!

Paul Grein
Yahoo Music

Let's stipulate that it's not easy to put music into categories. Even so, the AMAs have had some real doozies over the years. Donny & Marie Osmond once won for Favorite Country Duo/Group (well, Marie is "a little bit country" after all!). P!nk was nominated for Favorite New Artist in Soul/R&B (everybody likes P!nk, but that's a stretch). Alternative rock titans Pearl Jam and Nirvana both won for Favorite Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Artist. The pop creation Milli Vanilli won for Favorite New Artist in Soul/R&B.

Let's try to unravel these perplexing outcomes, and then look at how the AMAs has evolved over the years. This year's show airs Nov. 24 on ABC.

Donny & Marie's 1974 pop hit "I'm Leaving It (All) Up To You" had been a top 20 country hit. In 1975, their version of Eddy Arnold's "Make The World Go Away" had climbed to #71 on the country chart. And Marie had had a few Top 40 country hits on her own—and would go on to have many more. Even so, their win on the 1976 show is hard to fathom. Donny & Marie interrupted what would have been a four-year lock on the award by Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, who were more than "a little bit country."

P!nk's 2000 hit "There You Go," with Kandi on a backing vocal, was a top 15 R&B hit. Her follow-up, "Most Girls," also made the R&B chart. Still, P!nk has always been primarily a pop star. (Oddly, she wasn't nominated for Favorite New Artist in Pop/Rock in 2001.)

Milli Vanilli won for Favorite New Artist in both Pop/Rock and Soul/R&B in 1990. They are viewed today as a fabricated pop act, but at the time, R&B radio was also on board. "Girl You Know It's True" and "Baby Don't Forget My Number" both made the top 10 on the R&B chart. "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" and "Blame It On The Rain" both made the R&B top 20.

Alternative rock titans Nirvana and Pearl Jam took the award for Favorite Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Artist in 1995 and 1996, respectively—even though the show had an Alternative category by that point. Oddly, Nirvana wasn't even nominated for Favorite Alternative Artist in 1995. (Pearl Jam doubled up and also took the award for Favorite Alternative Artist in 1996.)

The Bee Gees-dominated Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, George Michael's Faith and Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds all won as Favorite Soul/R&B Album. That in itself isn't so surprising. All three albums were embraced by both pop and R&B audiences. What is surprising is that none of them won for Favorite Pop/Rock Album, which, was, in each case, their "home base." Fever lost to the Grease soundtrack, Faith to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and FutureSex to Daughtry's Daughtry.

While there have been a few perplexing categorizations and/or outcomes, that's to be expected in a show that has distributed between 15 and 30 awards for the past 40 years.

Dick Clark's idea for a music awards show couldn't be simpler: Hand out five awards (album and single; male, female and group) in each of three big fields: Pop/Rock, Soul/R&B and Country. Let the Grammys contend with classical, jazz and other specialized genres, Clark seemed to be saying; we'll focus instead on the three broad categories that most people care about.

Alas (or happily) music isn't that simple. It's constantly changing. And the AMAs have added and dropped categories over the years in an attempt to keep up with those changes. The way they've done that says a lot about the currents that have swept through popular music over the past 40 years.

In its first five years (1974 through 1978), the AMAs did give out just the 15 aforementioned awards. In 1979, with disco dominating the charts, it added five awards for disco, giving it parity with the three other fields. (The red-hot Donna Summer won three of those five awards.) A backlash against disco erupted in the summer of 1979. The disco categories were dropped before the 1980 show.

Of course, the overhyped "death of disco" didn't mean the end of dance music. The AMAs have brought dance back into their menu of categories twice. From 1990 through 1992, there were three "Dance" categories. Last year and again this year, there has been an "EDM" (Electronic Dance Music) category.

MTV premiered in 1981, resulting in the next big wave to hit the music industry. In 1984, the AMAs added three video categories (one in each of the three fields). Michael Jackson's "Beat It" was named Favorite Video in both Pop/Rock and Soul/R&B that year. From 1985 to 1987, remarkably, there were 12 video categories (four in each of the three fields). In 1988, the AMAs reverted to one video category in each of the three fields. In 1989, video categories were dropped altogether, never to return. But for awhile there, video was really hot.

In 1989, the AMAs added two categories each for Rap/Hip-Hop and Heavy Metal/Hard Rock. D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince won the first two awards for Rap/Hip-Hop. Def Leppard won the first two awards for Heavy Metal/Hard Rock.

Rap/Hip-Hop has been part of the AMAs ever since, except for a brief experiment in 1993 when Hip-Hop was combined with Soul/R&B.

Heavy Metal/Hard Rock had one or more categories for nine straight years, but was quietly dropped before the 1998 show. It's probably too narrow a niche of for a show that aims for the broadest possible audience.

Three Adult Contemporary categories were added in 1992. Natalie Cole won two of the three, in recognition of her #1 album Unforgettable With Love. There has been at least one AC category ever since. The category is a natural for TV. It's surprising that it took so long to add it.

Favorite Alternative Artist was added in 1995. Counting Crows were the first winners. Their album August And Everything After was among the top-sellers of 1994.

A soundtrack category was added in 1996. The Lion King was the first winner. This category has been dropped twice (after 2003 and again after 2010), but was re-added this year.

Favorite Latin Artist was added in 1998, a year before the Latin music explosion made the cover of TIME. Julio Iglesias was the first winner. His son Enrique Iglesias was the second. (Ricky Martin, who was on that TIME cover in May 1999, won in 2000 and 2003.)

Favorite Contemporary Inspirational Artist was added in 2002 and has been given out ever since. Yolanda Adams was the first winner. (The music is usually called Contemporary Christian in the music industry.)

The total number of awards reached a bloated 30 in 1992. That year, there were six awards each in Pop/Rock, Soul/R&B and Country and three each in Rap/Hip-Hop, Heavy Metal/Hard Rock, Dance and AC. Clark, who had a penchant for brisk efficiency, trimmed it to a more manageable 24 categories the following year.

Fourteen of the 15 initial awards will be given out on this year's show, at least in some form. The AMAs dispensed with separate awards for Favorite Single in the three major fields after 1995. This year, it is combining them into one category, Favorite Single. The show dropped the award for Favorite Band/Duo/Group in Soul/R&B after 2003, because of a dearth of R&B groups.