The Grammys, always unpredictable, face new surprises

This should be the year the Grammy Awards went back to normal. In 2021, the pandemic delayed the ceremony by six weeks, prompting organizers to stage a stripped-down outdoor show without an audience that charmed critics with its intimate looks but had anemic reviews.

This year, after another delay – this time caused by the Omicron variant – the 64th annual Grammys has headed to Las Vegas for the first time, being broadcast by CBS on Sunday nights from the MGM Grand Garden Arena. But a spate of further complications followed. Kanye West has been banned from performing over his disturbing online behavior. Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, who was scheduled to perform at the ceremony, died while on tour.

And then, at the Oscars on Sunday, Will Smith punched Chris Rock onstage, an incident that grabbed headlines around the world and sparked new scrutiny about how organizers of major awards shows handle disputes between stars on live television should.

Despite those surprises — and after years of controversy at the Recording Academy, the nonprofit organization behind the Grammys — the producers say they’re up for anything and have been working to create a fresh look for the show. The ceremony will again have an arena audience and will feature full performances by the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Silk Sonic, Billie Eilish, J Balvin, Carrie Underwood, John Legend and Lil Nas X. Other highlights include a tribute to Stephen Sondheim and a moment observing the war in Ukraine. Trevor Noah returns as host.

The most watched competition is whether Rodrigo, the 19-year-old singer-actress whose song “Drivers License” caused a sensation last year, can win the top four awards of Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Her competition ranges from meme champion Lil Nas X to 95-year-old Tony Bennett, who’s ready for Love for Sale, an album by Cole Porter featuring Lady Gaga. The top nominee this year is Jon Batiste from The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, who has 11 nods.

Last year, Ben Winston, who was taken on by Ken Ehrlich after four decades as the Grammys’ producer, won praise for new touches like in-the-round performances and video segments that built up the backstories of the nominees for recording the year, which has quietly replaced Album of the Year as the Grammys’ most coveted award.

Some of these production decisions were necessities of television in the pandemic era. But in an interview, Winston said that even in an arena, he wanted to maintain a sense of intimacy and storytelling from last year. Sunday’s show will highlight the behind-the-scenes workers of the revived concert industry, and nominees from some of the dozens of Grammy categories rarely seen on television will be presented on the roof of the MGM Grand. (Of the 86 awards, all but eight or nine will be given during a rapid-fire ceremony earlier that day.)

“I hope that the lessons we learned last year,” Winston said, “of trying to construct a TV show that touches on issues and isn’t just a concert of one song followed by another, apply to this one as well.” year.”

Raj Kapoor, this year’s showrunner, said that even the position of the stage – it’s been lowered by about a meter – will encourage a closer connection with the audience. (Kapoor is an executive producer on the show along with Winston and Jesse Collins.) Still, some Covid measures will be apparent to viewers. The nominated artists will be separated in a bistro-style seating area and the number of people taking the awards at the microphone will be reduced.

With just days before the show, uncertainties remain as to who will be performing and even which stars could be attending. Since Hawkins’ death on March 25, producers have struggled to put together a tribute to the drummer. Two members K-pop group BTS recently tested positive for Covid-19, raising questions about whether or how the group would go through with their planned gig.

The Recording Academy has not commented on BTS, and representatives of the group did not respond to questions about their plans. The three-award-nominated Foo Fighters have canceled their scheduled performance.

The biggest joker might be West, whose invitation to perform was canceled after a spate of troubling online behavior targeted at his former wife Kim Kardashian and at Noah. But West still has five awards for “Donda,” including album of the year. A Recording Academy representative said that after the episode at the Oscars, “there are plans for a variety of scenarios.”

A smooth ceremony is particularly important for the Academy after years of complaints from artists and industry insiders about the awards process and the Academy’s own governance. Stars like West, Drake, The Weeknd and diddyhave criticized the Grammys for their poor record of rewarding black artists in the top categories and opaque voting procedures.

The Academy has taken steps to address these issues, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to quell dissent. Last year it scrapped its longstanding use of anonymous selection committees to determine many nominees, which The Weeknd and others have called unfair. But just a day before this year’s list was announced in November, the academy’s rules were changed to add two spots in the top 4 categories, allowing stars like West, Taylor Swift and Lil Nas X to be nominated. Days later, Drake withdrew from competing in the two rap categories in which he was nominated, although he did not provide a statement.

Harvey Mason Jr., the academy’s executive director, said in an interview that the academy is working to regain the trust of its members. “My hope,” he said, “is that we’ll earn the trust of those who were suspicious.”

So far, the music world seems to be willing to agree with the academy when in doubt.

“The problem with institutions like the Grammys is that there’s always a sense of nostalgia and tradition, so change is generally a bit slower,” said Ghazi, founder of independent music company Empire. “But some of the conversations we’ve had have been encouraging.”

Willie Stiggers, known as Prophet, an artist executive and co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition, said he takes Grammy executives at their word when it comes to the commitment to promoting diversity within the organization. “The Recording Academy is a reflection of American society,” he said. “It’s going to take more than a year or two to unpack all of that.”

One area in which the Grammys, and the music industry as a whole, has shown a persistent lack of progress is the empowerment of female creators. This week, the latest edition of an annual study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that the creditworthiness of women in pop has remained essentially unchanged over the past decade. Last year, just 23.3 percent of recognized artists among the top 100 songs were women, while a 2019 Grammy-sponsored pledge to hire more female producers and engineers had almost no impact, the study found.

“Despite industry activism and advocacy, little has changed for women on the popular charts since 2012,” Stacy L. Smith, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

A major debate in the music industry looms over the value of the Grammys – and all awards – in an era of fragmented viewership and falling ratings. Last year, the Grammys drew just 8.8 million viewers, the worst show ever, and the sales benefits artists and record companies used to enjoy from a prominent Grammy appearance have all but disappeared.

According to Will Page, an economist who studies the music industry, the two-week sales gain after Adele won 2012 Album of the Year for “21” was worth an estimated $1 million in artist royalties, while Swift’s gain last year for “Folklore” only brought her $50,000. “Today’s harsh reality is that winning judges doesn’t necessarily convince consumers,” Page said.

However, keeping the event fresh is imperative for the producers of the TV show. And they say they’re up to it.

“Things can get stale,” Winston said, “if they stay the same.” The Grammys, always unpredictable, face new surprises

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