The 62nd annual Grammy Awards started in a rough spot. In the 11 days leading up to the ceremony, the Recording Academy, which is responsible for the Grammys, went through a series of very public, very disheartening scandals. CEO and president Deborah Dugan, who had been appointed to her position just last year, was placed on leave following an allegation of workplace bullying. But what threatened to be a controversy looming over the red carpet and show was overshadowed by the surprising death of former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Bryant’s legacy loomed large over both the city of Los Angeles and the Staples Center, the informal “house” of the former Lakers star player, as fans gathered there to remember him. Some called for the cancellation of the awards entirely.
Before the shocking news of Bryant’s death, people who had been following the controversy were waiting to see how the Grammys would address it. Following Dugan’s suspension, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that included some stunning allegations. Among them was a report that former CEO and president Neil Portnow had faced an accusation of rape by an artist who is an Academy member that was hidden from the public and reportedly not shared with the full Academy board. In a statement, Portnow revealed that he had been exonerated by an independent investigation and denied the allegation. It is unclear if Academy leadership felt it was necessary for Portnow to go on leave while that investigation happened, as they did with Dugan. There are also allegations that Joel Katz, who serves as outside counsel for the Academy, invited Dugan to a dinner where he sexually harassed her and tried to give her an unwanted kiss. He denied her allegations, characterizing it as a “productive and professional meeting” via his attorney. The alleged incident that really had people talking were accusations that the Academy board manipulated the nominations for personal gain, to benefit artists they represent, or to support acts that longtime Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich wanted to book to perform on the show. The latter cast doubt on the integrity of the entire awards system, threatening the relevance of the Grammys.
There will, for certain, be new leadership at the helm of the Grammys telecast next year, giving the show a much-needed new point of view. If the Academy’s membership — which is primarily artists, producers, and executives — and the Diversity Task Force continue to hold leadership accountable, protesting publicly when the Academy refuses to be transparent and continuing to call for reforms in order to keep the integrity of the awards in order, change is possible. We’ve already seen it this week, with the Diversity Task Force publicly demanding that the Academy institute all their recommendations from a December 12, 2019 report on diversity and inclusion, and the Academy acquiescing in an announcement to the entire membership.
It’s time for newness. And we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems.
Host Alicia Keys addressed both of the clouds hanging over the night at the top of the show. After offering everyone a moment of cathartic reflection on Bryant’s death, she spoke to the thus-far unspoken shadow that was sullying this year’s awards. “It’s a new decade,” she said. “It’s time for newness. And we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems.” Keys asked, seeming to reference so many problems plaguing the Recording Academy. “We want to be respected and safe in our diversity. We want to be shifting to realness and inclusivity. So tonight, we want to celebrate the people, the artists that put themselves on the line and share their truth with us.”
Later she sang: “It’s just too many lies / Too much hate too much spin / It’s when good people do nothing that the bad guys win.” Smartly, she said, and sang, all of this while playing Lewis Capaldi’s Song of the Year nominated “Someone You Loved,” ensuring it was difficult for the show’s production team to cut away from her or chop it up in the future without massive continuity issues.
It was something you’d have to read between the lines to understand, but trust me: Nearly every musician in the room last night understood what Keys was talking about. The New York Times asked a question before this year’s awards: Can the Grammys be trusted? Right now the answer is no — but that’s really down to the actions of the board and leadership of the Academy.
For those who have been following the power struggle in the Recording Academy, Keys’ words shed light on some extremely dark places, it felt like a much-needed moment of acknowledgment. And while she made strides in the minimal time she had (which was probably planned and closely monitored by the Academy), there was never going to be enough acknowledgment of what’s happening at the ceremony. Women and people of color have been frustrated by their underrepresentation at the Grammys for more than 20 years. The changes the Academy needs to make to right those wrongs may feel like it’s happening too fast to the board and leadership team members who seem to be avoiding it.
There was a surprising light at the end of the tunnel at the end of the Grammys. The final performance was a tribute to Ehrlich, who executive produced the telecast for the last time after a 30-year career running the show. It was a bloated, overdone number orchestrated by him to himself — and when it was over, there was a sense of a door closing as 18-year-old Billie Eilish, a first-time nominee, swept all four of the major categories. It felt very out with the old and in with the new. It felt like an opening into the possible future of the Grammys.