NEW YORK — A night of questions new and old. By 11:00 or so Eastern time Sunday night, when the 60th annual Grammy Awards reach their finale, the music world will have some answers: Will Jay-Z or Kendrick Lamar score a big victory for rap? Will “Despacito” break new ground for Spanish-language pop? Is Bruno Mars the next Adele?
The Grammys, to be broadcast from Madison Square Garden by CBS starting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, are being held in New York for the first time in 15 years. To mark its return, Patti LuPone and Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”) will perform a Broadway-style tribute to Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But regardless of where the show is held, many of the big questions remain.
The Grammys, like most awards shows, have been wrestling for years with issues of diversity: ethnic, gender and, in the Grammys’ case, musical. Not so long ago, the show drew eye rolls for over-rewarding elder heroes at the expense of pop’s younger, more vital mainstream. (Think Ray Charles beating Green Day and Kanye West in 2005, or Herbie Hancock defeating Amy Winehouse and, ahem, West in 2008.)
The Grammys have generally gotten much better at recognizing the pulse of contemporary music. A diverse crop of nominees this year means it is very likely that the winners of the four most prestigious categories — album, record and song of the year, and best new artist — will not be white men.
At the same time, gender is very much still an issue. Lorde is the only woman up for album of the year, facing Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino. Julia Michaels and Alessia Cara have credits in the song of the year category (which recognizes songwriters). Michaels, Cara and the R&B singer SZA are nominated for best new artist. Otherwise, the top nominees are predominantly male. As a new report indicated, gender diversity at the Grammys — and in the music industry at large — has been abysmal.
The marquee categories have big stars
The top categories are stacked with popular and critically respected releases. Jay-Z, who has won 21 Grammys in his career — but never in the major fields — has a chance to sweep with his album “4:44,” a reflective and confessional work that may finally give him an edge with more traditional voters. But for album, record and song of the year, Jay-Z also faces Mars (“24K Magic”), whom the industry admires as an all-around, lovable entertainer.
For both record and song of the year, Jay-Z and Mars also face competition from “Despacito,” the flirty ballad from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (in a remix featuring Justin Bieber) that set streaming records; a win would be perceived as a triumph for the once-again-burgeoning world of Spanish-language pop.
Don’t forget Kendrick Lamar, the most respected rapper of his generation. Still, the dark horse may be Lorde, who emerged as a Grammy winner four years ago (“Royals”) and still has broad support in the Recording Academy, the organization that bestows the awards.
A #MeToo moment?
The #MeToo movement holding men accountable for sexual harassment and assault has come to Hollywood, politics and the news media, but its effect on the music world has been minimal. As the Grammys approached, it became clear that aside from a performance by Kesha — whose acrimonious battle with her longtime producer Dr. Luke has drawn considerable attention inside and outside of the business — the industry had no organized response planned along the lines of the Time’s Up campaign that was front and center at the recent Golden Globes.
That changed just days ago, when a small group of midlevel female music executives called for artists to wear a white rose to the show, as a sign of “hope, peace, sympathy and resistance.” By Thursday, a handful of stars including Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson had pledged their support. But it remains to be seen how strong of a statement the campaign will make.
A preshow controversy
Hours before the show began, it already had a Donald Trump controversy. On Saturday night, CNN aired an interview with Jay-Z as part of the inaugural episode of “The Van Jones Show,” in which Jay-Z commented on the president’s reported denigration of Haiti and African countries.
“It is disappointing and it’s hurtful,” Jay-Z said. “Because it’s looking down at a whole population of people and it’s so misinformed because these places have beautiful people and beautiful everything. This is the leader of the free world speaking like this.”
By 8:18 a.m. ET Sunday, the president fired off his response on Twitter. “Somebody please inform Jay-Z that because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!”
A little more than an hour later, Jones — who is managed by Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation — wrote on Twitter in response, noting that he did ask Jay-Z about the president’s record on reducing black unemployment, and Jay-Z responded that the issue was about treating people with respect and not, as he put it: “Treat me really bad and pay me well.”
If Jay-Z — the most-nominated artist this year, with eight nods — gets an acceptance speech, eyes will be on him for a response.
Performances are the focus
All but around 10 of the 84 awards this year will be given out in a nontelevised ceremony before the show. That will keep the show focused on perhaps its true purpose: being a big-tent TV variety program chock-full of performances.
This year’s show will feature Elton John playing with Miley Cyrus; Kendrick Lamar with U2; Lady Gaga; Bruno Mars with Cardi B; Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee performing “Despacito”; the rapper Logic performing his suicide-prevention hit “1-800-273-8255,” which is up for song of the year; the country singers Maren Morris, Eric Church and the Brothers Osborne in a tribute to victims of gun violence; and the best new artist nominees Khalid, Alessia Cara, SZA and Julia Michaels in various permutations.
For a year that saw the losses of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Malcolm Young of AC/DC and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, expect some notable “in memoriam” tributes. ( Absent from the stage
While many stars will pack the stage, the Grammys will also be notable for who is not there. Ed Sheeran, who was shut out of the top awards despite having one of the year’s biggest hits, is not expected to appear. Neither are Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
Jay-Z and Lorde should be in the audience but are not expected to perform.
Scheduling, limitations of time and space, and the whims of performers and producers may well account for many of these absences. But in recent years, the Grammys have also faced boycotts from some artists who feel that not enough of the top prizes go to black artists. Frank Ocean stated that in regards to last year’s show.
And while Drake has said that the reason he is not performing is that the Grammys asked him to cancel one of his own shows to appear, he also did not submit his latest “playlist” album, “More Life,” for award consideration.
New York, New York
The Grammys have not been in New York since 2003, when the city was still struggling to attract business and tourism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the awards’ home has been the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where its deep connections are visible from the bronze plaques on sidewalks around the complex commemorating past winners.
The New York mayor’s office lobbied hard to bring back the Grammys, which, according to some estimates, can yield as much as $200 million in economic benefits for their host city. But tensions have flared in recent weeks, with the Recording Academy accusing the city of not making good on millions of dollars in promised fundraising.
The show — which for a second time is being hosted by James Corden — is likely to make some use of New York as a backdrop, but the awards have already committed to the Staples Center for the next four years.