HITS Daily Double


There will be a lot of women onstage at the Grammy Awards this year, Ken Ehrlich promises, just like last year.

The uproar that followed the 2018 ceremony—largely over the lack of on-air women winners and the overlooking of hip-hop—ignored the socially conscious elements of the telecast that were planned: Janelle Monae speaking about the new women’s movement; Kesha’s performance of “Praying” surrounded by other female stars; the tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas concert shooting; Camila Cabello and U2 addressing immigration; and Alessia Cara joining Logic to close the show with their anti-suicide anthem.

“There never is a theme,” says Ehrlich, the Grammy telecast’s longtime Executive Producer, “but I like it when the show has a point of view. What got lost in the recaps was that last year’s show was the most socially proactive—granted, safe—issue-oriented show that I’ve ever done. I guess to some people it’s a plus, to others a minus.”

In the early announcements of Grammy performers, the focus appears to be highly female-skewing—Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, Cardi B, Miley Cyrus, Cabello, H.E.R.—which Ehrlich is quick to point out is a reflection of the year in music and not in any way a reaction to the Recording Academy’s recent actions to increase diversity in its membership and that of the music industry.

“There will be a lot of women onstage,” he says, “and that’s the story of the nominations to a great extent. Is that because we’re being reactive? I know it’s not on my part.

“There’s also a confluence—a historical confluence—not as the result from any pressure from the Academy or the network. Think about what happened this year. Aretha Franklin died. We just did a two-hour special [it airs 3/10 on CBS], so how could I not do something on Aretha, one of the most iconic women in music, on this show?

“I don’t always embrace the MusiCares honoree,” Ehrlich continues, “but the truth in this case is that we have a large country constituency because of Dolly Parton. When I think about the opportunities that affords us, why would I run away from that?”

Thirdly, the Grammys will be saluting Diana Ross, who started working with the women who would become The Supremes in 1959, the year Motown Records was founded. The Ross appearance will promote Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, which will be filmed at the Microsoft Theater two days after the Grammys. The Ehrlich-produced special will be telecast 4/21 on CBS.

With new stars paying tribute to legends, Ehrlich achieves one of his key goals in casting the show: marrying generations and genres. The first example announced to meet that criterion is the pairing of Red Hot Chili Peppers with Post Malone.

Speaking to HITS two weeks before the 2/10 Grammy Awards, Ehrlich knew that the recipients of the most nominations, Kendrick Lamar with eight and Drake with seven, would most likely not be performing on the show. Drake was a definite no; Lamar, who opened the 2018 telecast with U2 and Dave Chappelle, was a slim possibility. That left Ehrlich with a list of multiple nominees new to the Grammy stage, among them Carlile, Post Malone and H.E.R., to go along with the likes of Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, Musgraves and Monáe.

When he first saw the list of nominees, Ehrlich says, he was struck by “how young it was, how fresh it was. It’s a signal. The key for me is to recognize those artists and support them so they can really score. They have the capability of lighting up the stage and lighting up the screen. Then it becomes a matter of tempering that with our core CBS demo, which may not be familiar with some of those names.

“That’s one of the reasons why I resist the temptation to book too quickly. I need to see the shape of the show as it grows and allow other things to enter. Balance is the word. Balanced, to me, means genre, demo, age. Balance means diversity—pretty much everything.”

As always, Ehrlich won’t divulge any details about who is performing what, but he’ll drop hints along the lines of, “Kacey Musgraves had a couple of songs in contention. We chose one that might not have been the biggest hit, but in terms of performance, it’s the strongest song to do.

“Our show is about performance first and foremost. You can have the biggest track of the year, and if it’s not a performance song, maybe I’ll do it. But it has to be done in a way that 20 million-plus viewers can stay with it.”

CBS has the benefit of airing the Super Bowl a week prior to the Grammy Awards, providing the network with a promo platform to get its viewer constituency to tune in. The show was promo'd during the game with a commercial featuring this year's host, Alicia Keys, but no new names were rolled out. “We have five days to get the attention of at least the music community and the pop-culture community.”

Everyone knows the Grammys hand out fewer than 10 awards on air, and we were hoping for a little inside baseball from Ehrlich on how they decide which categories beyond the Big Four make it into the telecast, especially since there was a shortage of female winners last year. (That can partly be chalked up to the elimination of gender-based categories several years ago.)

The answer to the first question is to have an artist perform before the category in which he or she has been nominated is announced.

“In consultation with the Academy, we determine the award run of the show,” Ehrlich explains. “It’s not a science, but I always try to feel for the performer. I don’t want them to lose two awards in a row and then come up to perform. But if an artist is nominated for five awards, four of which are on air, unless I put them at the top of the show, I can’t avoid it. But it is something we have some control over.

“When we pick categories for the show, no one goes through and figures, ‘Oh, two men and three women are nominated here.’ We don’t have a clue until the envelopes are opened.”

Ehrlich’s most memorable “Grammy Moments” have generally had strong rock & roll elements, and as the producer of the show since 1980, he’s keenly aware that “we live in a hip-hop world.” With so many hitmakers coming from outside the core rock and pop worlds that have historically dominated the Grammys, we wondered if it’s becoming more of a challenge to make the show he envisions a reality.

“I might have to work a little harder booking some people, but there’s still the cachet of the Grammys and what it means, and the cachet of a performance on the Grammys.”

The Grammy Moments, he notes, will be “genre-based and generational. I feel really good about everyone on the show and what they’re doing.”