Even in the years when the Grammys have seemed predictable, they rarely are — anyone remember Soy Bomb?
And in an era when all bets already seemed to be unprecedentedly off, in the past days we’ve seen Kanye West disinvited from performing — although sources say talks are still ongoing with him, as well as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and others — Foo Fighters cancel their scheduled performance due to drummer Taylor Hawkins’ tragic and untimely death on March 25; and of course Will Smith’s smack heard ‘round the world has changed how organizers approach major awards shows forever. Thus, we’re going into Grammy Weekend with a roll-with-it spirit that seems to extend to the organizers of the show as well.
“It’s live television. Anything can happen and usually does,” Jack Sussman, CBS’ executive vice president of specials, music and live events, told Variety earlier this week. “We’ll be ready.”
The headlines around the Grammys have at times overshadowed what will be happening on the show itself: Confirmed performers for the ceremony — which will be broadcast live on CBS from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT — include Olivia Rodrigo, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Silk Sonic, BTS, Jon Batiste, Lil Nas X with Jack Harlow, John Legend, Carrie Underwood, J Balvin with Maria Becerra and more. There will also be a tribute to Hawkins, although plans for it are still under way. “We will honor his memory in some way,” Sussman says. “We want to figure out what is the right thing to do that is respectful to everyone involved. We’ll be planning right up until the very end.”
Until early January, the Grammys were moving full speed ahead for an originally scheduled date of Jan. 31 at their longtime home of the Crypto.com Arena (formerly Staples Center) in Los Angeles, with every act but one booked and many production plans in advanced stages.
But then came the omicron variant, and sources say several nominated artists told organizers that they didn’t feel comfortable performing.
“We were excited about what we were planning, and we were ready to go,” says Raj Kapoor, this year’s Grammy showrunner (Ben Winston moves to an executive producer slot). “But then we were put into a similar situation to what happened last year.”
He’s referring to the unprecedented 2021 show, which also was originally scheduled for Jan. 31 with a full house, but ultimately had to be scaled down to a tastefully intimate, mostly outdoors ceremony in March at the L.A. Convention Center — with an audience consisting only of performers, presenters, crew and a handful of guests.
While the omicron wave receded rapidly, the show will essentially be a normal Grammys, with a live audience, and thus is a drastically more difficult and complicated operation.
Because the Grammys require a nearly two-week venue lockout, the busy sports and concert schedules at all Los Angeles arenas meant that the next available window wasn’t until June — an unworkably long delay for an annual show. So after considering multiple options, the Recording Academy made the decision to move 270 miles east, to the moderately smaller MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, which has been home to the Latin Grammys for many years.
“There was a lot of outreach between artists and labels and management,” Kapoor says. “But people moved heaven and earth to come — although they needed time to figure it out, because remember, it’s not just day-of: Our rehearsals start on Thursday and go all the way through dress rehearsal on Sunday. After everything that’s happened the past couple of years, everyone involved has a huge can-do energy.”
While the Grammys have a long-term deal with Crypto.com Arena, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. stresses that the venue and its owner, AEG, “were very cooperative — they’re longtime partners and understood the position we’re in.”
Finding the silver lining, Kapoor continues, “With two additional months to plan, we wanted to embrace being in the city, and some of the artists have residencies in Vegas,” most obviously multiple nominees Lady Gaga and Silk Sonic. “A couple of them are bringing the best of their Vegas shows into our room — and one very well-nominated artist decided to switch their song because of the show being in Vegas, a complete 180 of what had been planned.”
Kapoor also reveals that more niche musical genres will get airtime, via performances on a rooftop outside the venue, which will act as bumpers leading into commercials during the main show. And there also will be a moment similar to last year’s highly praised spotlight on shuttered music venues, which featured staffers at clubs across the country introducing awards — but this year, the focus will be the touring industry.
“We want to shine a light on the support staff who are so instrumental in putting and keeping shows on the road, and the vast number of people who have been out of work for the past couple of years,” Kapoor says. He declined to provide details, but said the spotlight will be different from last year’s. “We want to expose that it takes a village to create these amazing concert experiences.”
While moments during the show acknowledging the pandemic and Ukraine are possible, show host Trevor Noah insists that he doesn’t see the sort of commentary he makes on “The Daily Show” as part of his role. “I try to keep it as natural as possible — I’m not gonna try to crowbar anything into the show to try to leverage an issue to make it about the moment or me,” he tells Variety. “People think I live my life 24-7 only speaking about politics and news, but I love a multitude of things. Doing this show is not dissimilar to a race-car driver who gets to ride motorbikes for a weekend,” he laughs.
And of course, there’s the elephant in the room. Just two weekends before the Grammys, Kanye West’s team disclosed that, although he is up for five awards, he has been disinvited from performing on the show due to his “concerning online behavior.” Among West’s recent social media targets was Noah himself (West used a racial slur to describe the host) as well as Pete Davidson, who is dating West’s estranged wife, Kim Kardashian. These alone provide cause for reticence on the part of a television network, not to mention a decade-plus of controversial incidents and statements that suggest a performance from such a wildly unpredictable artist would be prohibitively problematic, no matter what kind of ratings the show might draw with him. (Reps for the Recording Academy, CBS and Noah all declined requests for comment on the issue.) However, sources confirm to Variety that West has not been banned from attending the main show, the Premiere ceremony (the pre-show event where non-televised awards are presented) or the red carpet, so he may get his moment after all — with producers’ mute button at the ready — and sources say conversations about a performance have continued, even after the retracted invitation.
Ironically, West was one of the many artists who Mason and the Academy reached out to in recent months, in an effort to grow the organization’s diversity and relevance, especially in light of the ugly allegations about a “boys club” and insider dealings that arose after former CEO Deborah Dugan’s abrupt dismissal just before the 2020 awards, and after the Weeknd was shockingly excluded from all 2021 nominations. (Dugan and the Academy settled their lawsuit last year; the Academy quickly eliminated the “secret” nominating committees that were presumably responsible for the Weeknd’s exclusion.)
“I think there are a lot of things you’ll see on Grammy night that reflect the work that we’ve been doing — although I don’t think we’ll jump up and down and celebrate, because there’s still a lot of work to do,” Mason says. “I have talked to a ton of artists, and I’ve heard a lot of good responses to what we’re doing, and also a lot of people who are very critical. But remember, I can only do so much: If the members want things to go a certain way, that’s how our system changes. So when I hear 10 things from an artist that they think could be better, I ask, ‘Are you a member?’ And if they say no, I’ll say, ‘Would you be willing to join so you can help me fix these things?’ A few have said yes and have even written proposals and are actively and intentionally working to make changes that we spoke about — and that’s a direct impact from an artist to our Academy.”
While Noah posted a note on Twitter suggesting that he objected to the move to bar West from performing (“I said counsel Kanye not cancel Kanye”), he praised Mason’s openness to change. “Harvey didn’t brush it off even when I [asked about the Weeknd last year],” he says. “He said, ‘You know what, Trevor, we’ve got to whip things up, man, we’ve gotta become better.’ I hope they keep continuing to improve the process of how people get nominated and vote.”
Mason concludes, “The new Academy looks different, it moves differently and it reacts differently, and I think you’ll see that reflected during Grammy week, onstage and elsewhere.”
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