LOS ANGELES — Intense drama hangs over the 62nd annual Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, but not in ways that the Recording Academy, the nonprofit behind the show, would like.
This year’s event, which will be broadcast live on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern, features a fresh crop of stars like Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X and Ariana Grande competing for the top awards. It was supposed to represent “a new era for the Recording Academy,” one that would be more attuned to pop’s current pulse after years of bruising criticism over the Grammys’ poor record in recognizing women and artists of color in the major categories.
That “new era” statement was made just two months ago, when nominations were announced, by Deborah Dugan, the academy’s new chief executive. She had been telegraphed as the bold new leader the Grammys needed, and came armed with an unsparing critique of the academy’s record on diversity by Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, the Time’s Up leader Tina Tchen.
But just 10 days ago, Dugan was removed from her position, stunning the industry and plunging the normally cheery pre-Grammy week into mudslinging and chaos that has threatened to overshadow the event itself.
Dugan claimed in a 44-page complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she had been retaliated against for uncovering misconduct including sexual harassment, vote rigging and rampant conflicts of interest. The academy, in turn, said that an assistant had complained about a toxic and bullying work environment, and that Dugan had demanded a $22 million payoff to leave quietly, a charge Dugan has denied.
Their battle may stretch on for months. For the academy itself — and the artists now rehearsing their performances and acceptance speech shout-outs — the show must go on. But the entire music industry will be watching closely for any sign of artist dissent or any crack in the academy’s facade of celebratory glitz.
While artists have largely remained silent, one of the few public comments from a major industry figure came Saturday night from the hip-hop mogul Diddy.
Accepting an award at Clive Davis’s glamorous annual pre-Grammy party, Diddy avoided mentioning Dugan by name but held the academy’s feet to the fire over its failure to recognize hip-hop artists and artists of color in the top categories. Over the last decade, for example, just one nonwhite artist — Bruno Mars — has won album of the year.
“Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys; black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be,” Diddy said. “For years, we have allowed institutions that have never had our best interests at heart to judge us. And that stops right now.”
He added: “You’ve got 365 days’ notice to get this [expletive] together.”
And in the lead-up to the televised show Sunday afternoon, the news that Kobe Bryant was feared dead in a helicopter crash at 41 led to gasps in the press room. The Grammys take place at the Staples Center, where Bryant played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers; championship banners he helped the team win hang from the building’s rafters.
“In Staples Arena, where Kobe created so many memories for all of us, preparing to pay tribute to another brilliant man we lost too soon, Nipsey Hussle,” John Legend wrote on Twitter. “Life can be so brutal and senseless sometimes.”
Flags outside the arena were lowered to half-staff as preparations for the event continued.
The Big Contests
For music fans, the Grammys are a television show about splashy performances and, oh yes, a handful of awards scattered across three and a half hours. There may be no mention at all of the academy’s behind-the-scenes crisis.
The biggest contests this year feature some of pop’s most dynamic young faces, many of whom went from obscurity to megastardom over the past year.
Lizzo, a charismatic and outspoken pop and R&B singer who has fascinated fans and critics alike, is this year’s most nominated artist, with eight nods. She and the 18-year-old alternative dynamo Billie Eilish, who has a total of six nominations, are each up in all four top categories — album, record and song of the year, and best new artist.
Lil Nas X, the internet meme virtuoso whose “country-trap” hybrid “Old Town Road” became a cultural phenomenon last year, is also up for six awards, including record and album of the year, and best new artist. If he wins big, it could be a statement by the academy’s voters that they want to shed their conservative reputation and fully embrace the most up-to-the-minute trends. That does not seem super likely.
Other big contenders include Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey, Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend. Taylor Swift is up for just one major award: song of the year for “Lover.”
Performances … and No-Shows
At the music industry’s schmoozy pre-Grammy parties last week in Los Angeles, the insider chatter has all been about Dugan versus the academy. But, for the most part, the events have been business as usual. Few people expect the show to be affected.
Still, a top musician signaling a position on Dugan’s claims could change the conversation entirely. Label executives and publicists have been wringing their hands over what their artists might be asked — and what they might say — on the red carpet or onstage.
And while the lineup of performers appears to be steady, the industry was riveted on Friday with reports that Swift would not appear. But why? Was Swift — always an outspoken backer of women — dropping out in protest, or was she simply unprepared or uninterested? Everyone, including fans and the most powerful people in music, was left to guess.
The performances planned for the show include tributes to Prince and the rapper Nipsey Hussle; an “Old Town Road All-Stars” segment with Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus, BTS, Diplo and Mason Ramsey, the so-called Walmart yodeling kid; and appearances by Eilish, Lizzo, Rosalía, Aerosmith, the Jonas Brothers and Tyler, the Creator.
A Producer’s Farewell
This year’s show will be the last for Ken Ehrlich, who has produced the Grammys telecast since 1980 and is largely responsible for the show’s signature presentation style — the “Grammy moments” strategy of pairing artists together for special appearances, going back to Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand doing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” 40 years ago.
Ehrlich has lived — and scrambled — through some of the Grammys’ most bizarre moments, like the “soy bomb” dancer crashing Bob Dylan’s performance in 1998. He has also frequently been the target of criticism that the show is out of touch and too often favors late-career stars at the expense of younger faces and more current nominees. Exhibit A: the 2018 show’s preponderance of Sting and absence of Lorde, who had been up for album of the year.
Ehrlich has always said that his mandate is to put on a varied and imaginative show, not simply to parade the current nominees. Viewers may consider that this year when he presents his swan song, a recreation of the ensemble performance of “I Sing the Body Electric” from the 1980 film “Fame,” featuring performances by Joshua Bell, Camila Cabello, Gary Clark Jr., Common, Misty Copeland, Lang Lang, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and others.