Grammy Awards weather firestorm of controversy, as host Alicia Keys executes a deft balancing act
It was a night of major intrigue and drama, as host Alicia Keys expertly walked a tightrope
The Grammy Awards have never had a category for Best Balancing Act on a Tightrope. But if it did, Alicia Keys would easily have won for her gravity-defying performance as the host of Sunday night’s telecast of the 62nd edition of the annual awards show, where `18-year-old Billie Eilish became only the second artist in Grammy history to sweep the Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year categories.
Keys’ unenviable task was to handle an exceptionally challenging and vexing situation. Namely, how would the Grammys try to start to recover from the worst 10 days in the event’s seven-decade history, as a dramatic firestorm of controversy threatened to engulf the event?
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The controversy ignited less than two weeks before Sunday’s telecast, which aired live from the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. On Jan. 16, the nonprofit Recording Academy — under whose auspices the Grammys are presented — ousted its new CEO and president, Deborah Dugan, who had only assumed her position five months earlier.
The academy did so, it announced, because Dugan had created a “toxic and intolerable” environment and had exhibited “abusive and bullying” behavior toward her staff. Dugan responded Tuesday by filing a lawsuit that alleged discrimination against her and sexual assault against her by the academy’s former board chair.
Dugan said her firing was in retaliation for her in-house allegations that the Grammys are marred by corrupt voting practices, financial improprieties and other irregularities. She went public with those allegations after being removed from her position at the academy.
Dugan also said that outgoing Grammys’ telecast producer Ken Erhlich manipulated the performance slots on the show, a charge Ehrlich strongly denied. The academy then alleged that Dugan had demanded a $22 million pay-off to quietly step down. By this weekend, her attorneys issued a demand that she be reinstated as CEO and president.
To further compound matters, hip-hop veteran Sean “Diddy” Coombs blasted the academy in his Saturday night acceptance speech as the recipient of its annual President’s Merit Award.
“Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys,” said Combs, who drew cheers and applause. “Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be … and that stops right now. I’m officially starting the clock. You’ve got 365 days to get this sh-t together.”
All of these developments put Grammys host (and new La Jolla resident) Keys in a very prickly position, as she only months ago had publicly hailed Dugan’s appointment to head the academy. On Sunday, Keys was the academy’s very public face for millions of TV viewers across the nation and around the world.
Keys obliquely acknowledged all the controversy shortly after the nearly four-hour telecast began. “It’s been a hell of a week,” she told the star-studded audience, without elaborating.
“There’s been a lot going on. But you know what? I’m proud to be standing here and proud to be here as an artist, for the artists, with all these amazing people. Because it’s a new decade, It’s time for newness. And we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems. You feel me on that?
“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.”
It is unclear how many viewers knew what “old systems” Keys was referring to, but no matter. By any standard, let alone under such trying and conflicted circumstances, her balancing act was deftly executed. And she addressed the Sunday death of Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball icon Kobe Bryant with sensitivity and genuine emotion, as thousands of fans gathered in a plaza across from the Staples Center — the Lakers’ home court — and chanted: “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”
Keys, a 15-time Grammy-winner, was hosting — and doing damage control — for the second year in a row at what has long been accurately billed as “Music’s Biggest Night.”
In 2019, she was the first female Grammys host since Queen Latifah in 2005. Keys was chosen to head the telecast in the wake of now-former Grammys honcho Neil Portnow’s unfortunately worded suggestion after the 2018 edition that women could have better representation at the show (and in the music industry at large) if they just “stepped up.”
In response to the ensuing furor, Pornow announced he would step down in 2019 and a search began for his successor. But that controversy now almost seems like a relatively minor incident — which it certainly was not — compared to what some are dubbing"Dugangate.”
Yet, for all the controversy and charges of rigged nominations, the winners at Sunday’s telecast — and during the pre-telecast, when the victors in 75 of the 84 categories were announced — seemed uniformly thrilled to be honored, including Eilish, the night’s biggest winner, who said: “I grew up watching the Grammys. I never thought this would happen in my life.”
For all the justifiable controversy, no other major annual music award is nearly as prestigious, or as stylistically diverse, as the Grammys. From jazz, classical and world music to awards honoring achievement in audio engineering and album liner notes authorship, it cast an admirably wide net.
Accordingly, winner after winner Sunday responded with palpable excitement and gratitude. A number thanked the Recording Academy by name.
The only notable exception was Best Rap Album winner Tyler, The Creator. But he only expressed his pronounced ambivalence abut the Grammy nominating and voting process backstage, not during his acceptance speech.
“I’m half and half,” said the envelope-pushing Los Angeles rapper.
“On one side, I’m very grateful that what I made could just be acknowledged in a world like this. But also, it sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category. … I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be in (the) pop (category)?
“Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment, like: ‘Oh, my little cousin wants to play the game, let’s give him an unplugged controller so he can shut up and feel good about it.’ That’s what it felt like a bit. Another half of me is very grateful that my art can be acknowledged on a level like this when I don’t do the radio stuff. I’m not played in Target. I’m in a whole different world than what a lot of people here listen to. I’m grateful and I’m like: ‘Eh’.”
The last word went to Keys as the show ended. “We got a lot to change,” she said, “we got a lot to do.”
Indeed, they do. Here’s hoping that process is already underway.
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