"Step up." That is the advice Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow suggested after women were sorely underrepresented at the 2018 Grammys. And though the blame rests not on the female performers, but the Academy itself, women did indeed step up, making some of the best albums of 2018.
But it sounds like someone didn't get the memo: the Grammy Awards executive producer, Ken Ehrlich. Following a report in Variety that Ariana Grande was pulling out of the Grammys (not only the performance, but also 100% not attending), he told the Associated Press on Thursday that she wasn't going to perform because she was not able to pull an idea together in time. Grande presented a wildly different series of events — and accused the executive producer of the Grammy Awards of lying about her in the press.
"As it turned out when we finally got the point where we thought maybe it would work, she felt it was too late for her to pull something together for sure,” Ehrlich told the AP. “And it’s too bad. She’s a great artist. And I’d love to get her in the show this year."
Grande countered, writing, "I’ve kept my mouth shut but now you’re lying about me. I can pull together a performance overnight and you know that, Ken. It was when my creativity and self-expression was stifled by you, that I decided not to attend. I hope the show is exactly what you want it to be and more."
She continued, saying that she offered to perform three different songs and that she wasn't "doing favors or playing games." Her tweets indicated there was a lack of collaboration and support in their interaction that was so objectionable that she pulled out of the show.
Look, I don't have Ehrlich's 40 years of experience, but I worked in the music and talent department at MTV on events big and small, live and not, for nearly a decade. I've been told not to make eye contact with the artist and asked to hang in the dressing room and get drunk when they celebrated. I've had to explain why an artist should do something they don't want to and it's never an easy conversation, but it's also one you have to do while walking on a tightrope. In the end, it's a question of who needs who more. In this scenario, as laid out by Grande, it seems like Ehrlich thinks he doesn't need her as much as she needs the Grammys — he's dead wrong.
This is starting to become a pattern for Ehrlich. Last year, after the shit hit the fan, he was asked if it was a mistake not to give Lorde her own performance — she was the only Album of the Year nominee to be denied the privilege and declined placement in a Tom Petty tribute. "I don’t know if it was a mistake," Ehrlich said in a press conference. "These shows are a matter of choices. We have a box and it gets full. She had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody."
Whether he meant it to or not, it comes off sounding like Ehrlich feels one of the Academy's most lauded performers (and the only woman in nominated in one of the top four categories) was expendable compared to all the men who performed. Was a Sting and Shaggy medley more important than giving Lorde time? It's subjective. What's not subjective is that women overall were not given anywhere near equal or even representation in the Grammys. After that fact became a major point of contention both with artists and the press, Ehrlich was unable to say he'd made a miscalculation and would let it inform his intangible booking calculations in 2019.
Instead, in 2019 Ehrlich apparently shut down the creative process of a woman who is coming into her own as a top tier pop star, who was one of the most talked about people of 2018, whose new album is as embraced by music nerds as it is the gossip industrial complex, and who has been a strident voice for feminism in music. It's not a good look.
There have been other key people missing from the Grammys for the last 20 years: the biggest rap stars in the game. Drake, Childish Gambino, and Kendrick Lamar all turned down opportunities to perform in the ceremony this year Ehrlich told the New York Times for a piece titled "Can The Grammys Please Anyone?" Portnow and Ehrlich both admit the Grammys still have a hip hop (which is code for race) problem, but want to present it with a lot of hand-wringing and shrugging, as if it is and has been out of their control.
It isn't. If they wanted to book Drake on the Grammys, they'd spend a full year working on it and do whatever it takes to make it happen. If they wanted Grande on their show, they would have compromised with her. The Recording Academy as an institution signaled it wants serious change this year by developing a Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, inviting some 900 new voting members from diverse backgrounds (unfortunately, only in time for less than 200 of them to join), and announcing an initiative for women in production. They bumped up the number of nominees in the top categories to broaden whose faces we see. However, their public face comes down to this awards show. Who performs on it matters just as much as who is nominated. Women everywhere are watching how Grande and Lorde got treated and the message is clear: The Grammys see us as disposable.
In a piece published by the Los Angeles Times, the paper lauds Ehrlich's career producing music specials for television. It also points out that he's got one more year, into 2020, on his production contract with the Grammys. We'll say what the L.A. Times doesn't: that should be his last Grammys. It's time for new blood who'll help create the change that critics of the Grammys are demanding.