Despite Improvements, the Grammys Still Have a Lot of Catching Up to Do

Even after a Grammy Awards show that was judged to be the strongest in years — one that addressed many long-standing issues regarding female and minority inclusion — a top-level Grammy executive once again sowed discord.

While the Feb. 10 telecast featured many dynamic moments and a nominee list filled with female and minority artists, a public spat between Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich and Ariana Grande over song choice for her proposed performance undercut the goodwill. After discussions broke down, Ehrlich told The Associated Press that Grande “felt it was too late to pull something together”; she accused him of lying about the situation and stifling her creativity. Adding insult to injury, the Grammycast rushed or cut off acceptance speeches by three major artists — Drake, Dua Lipa and Kacey Musgraves — while dedicating several long minutes of airtime to Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow’s farewell speech and video.

Ehrlich tells Variety that the speeches were cut short either because it seemed the speakers were finished or because the show was running late. But a year after Portnow’s unfortunate comment that female artists and executives need to “step up” in order to get ahead in the music industry — a statement that sources say played no small role in his decision to step down from his post in July — such seemingly heavy-handed moves toward young female artists did little to improve the perception of the embattled duo as being out of touch with contemporary culture.

“Ariana is the hottest artist in the world right now,” says one music business insider. “She’s got an online army [of 145 million Instagram and 60 million Twitter followers], and she gives zero f—s [about the Academy]. How do you think you’re going to win that fight? Just let her do the song she wants, and if you get s— from other artists, just say, ‘When you’re that hot, you can pick your song too.’”

Ehrlich insists he doesn’t dictate which songs artists perform. “This is known as a show where an artist doesn’t have to play their biggest single,” he tells Variety. “We do plenty of hits, sure, but I keep an open mind, and we continue to talk — which, by the way, was the case with Ariana. There were conversations about other songs.” Ehrlich says Grande’s claim that he lied to her is “inaccurate, because I never talked to her. We made an offer, and there were multiple conversations with her management, and at the end of the day, we did not come to terms.”

Grande declined to comment for this story.

The optics around the incident have amplified long-standing calls for change. But with Portnow, 71, on his way out and Ehrlich, 76, with a year remaining on his contract — the pair have been running the Grammys for 17 and 39 years, respectively — change is coming no matter what. Sources tell Variety that “The Late Late Show With James Corden” producer Ben Winston, who was upped to an executive producer role at the Grammys this year, is the front-runner to take the job after a gradual transition. Ehrlich and Grammy network CBS declined to comment on the succession.

The next leaders will inherit an awards ship that’s taking on water. In recent years the Grammys have alienated many of music’s biggest stars, largely due to voters’ failure to recognize culture-shifting work by artists of color in the biggest categories: 2019 nominees Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino — all of whom lost in the album of the year category to non-hip-hop titles over the past four years — elected not to attend.

“I think the Grammys suck,” hip-hop radio and TV personality Charlamagne tha God tells Variety. “I don’t think anybody in hip-hop culture needs validation from a bunch of culturally clueless, usually Caucasian people who don’t know anything about our culture or music. I get it — if you’re a music artist, the Grammys are like the Super Bowl, so it makes your stock go up and you can charge more for shows. But for cultural and artistic reasons, it doesn’t mean nothing.”

Ehrlich acknowledges the Grammys’ poor relationship with the hip-hop community. “I wish Gambino had come, I wish Kendrick had come, and we wish Drake would [perform],” he says. “But because of the history, I think there’s a lack of trust in the way we deal with hip-hop. I would love to do more.”

Although the 2019 Grammy telecast registered a small uptick from 2018 in total viewers, to about 20 million from 19.7 million, it still fell to a record low in the vital 18-49 demographic (a 5.6 rating this year versus a 5.9 in 2018).

Some Academy detractors tell Variety they were impressed with the 2019 show and its move toward gender and racial parity. But the absence of certain top performers was glaring.

“Childish Gambino won two of the biggest awards [song and record of the year] — how do you not have him on that show? How do you have a conversation with him that gets him on that stage?” an insider asks. “I understand what they’re up against — just imagine the calls CBS got about Cardi B twerking on that piano — but sometime soon, they’re going to have to decide if it’s a show for the kids or their grandparents.”

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