Booking Music's Big Night: Grammys Return With New Host, Young Performers & Less Social Commentary

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Keys and Portnow at the Producers and Engineers Wing Grammy.

With new host Alicia Keys and a return to Staples Center in Los Angeles after a year in New York, the 61st Grammy Awards on Feb. 10 are focused on presenting "the best three-and-a-half hours of live musical entertainment we can," says Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow.

This year, amid questions about the Grammys' relevance, the stakes are higher. But the first performers announced were relative newcomers; Cardi B, Camila Cabello, Kacey Musgraves, Shawn Mendes, Dan + Shay, Janelle Monáe, H.E.R. and Post Malone will be among those taking the stage. "There are some incredibly fresh faces [coming] to the Grammys this year," executive producer Ken Ehrlich tells Billboard.

Offers are still out, though bookings aren't confirmed, to leading nominee Kendrick Lamar, whose "All The Stars" (from Black Panther) and Lady Gaga, whose "Shallow" (from A Star is Born), are up for song and record of the year. Both tunes also received Oscar nominations for best original song on Jan. 22.  While the Academy Awards have reportedly discouraged potential nominees from taking part in competing shows, there's a big upside for the film studios to secure their song of the year nominees a big-budget performance slot two days before Oscar voting opens Feb. 12.

Keys, a 15-time Grammy winner, will be the first woman to host the show since Queen Latifah in 2005, and she says she's looking to uplift the young female nominees. Ehrlich says Keys' wish to do so will likely play a role in the telecast --"We're very much on the same page," he says -- but that she was hired for her charisma, not her views. "My primary concern for the show is somebody who can get out there and feel comfortable and make the audience feel comfortable," Ehrlich says. "Alicia is the perfect balance between a musical personality and someone who has the chops to make the show feel inclusive to the audience."

The show's producers also hope Keys can raise ratings. 2018's viewership was 19.8 million, down 24 percent from 26.1 million in 2017, according to Nielsen. Ehrlich attributes much, not all, of the decline to the decision to air the Grammys starting at 7:30 p.m. EST instead of the traditional 8 p.m. EST. The Grammys return to their usual 8 p.m. EST kickoff this year on longtime home CBS.

The performances were divided almost evenly across gender lines in 2018, but the Grammys were heavily criticized after only one woman -- best new artist winner Alessia Cara -- received a statuette onscreen. "You could've had a more diverse group accepting awards on the telecast [in 2018]," says Portnow. "But the fact is we don't know [who wins] until it actually [is announced]." This year's expansion of the "Big Four" categories and the invitation of 900 younger, more diverse voting members "broadened the ability for artists to be recognized," he says.

Last February, the Recording Academy announced the formation of a task force charged with examining issues of inclusion and diversity within the organization and broader music community. In conversations with the task force, Portnow says "we've certainly talked about the importance of presenting diversity and inclusion in every possible fashion that we can," but it was too soon to see how that might manifest itself in the broadcast.

Women will also figure into the telecast during a tribute for MusiCares Person of the Year Dolly Parton and a salute to Aretha Franklin. "There'll be one big tentpole every hour," says Jack Sussman, CBS Entertainment executive vp specials, music and live events. "It's an opportunity for us to bring special people into the building."

The 2018 telecast addressed a number of topical issues: Kesha referenced the #MeToo movement in a star-studded performance of "Praying"; Cabello spoke on her support for Dreamers when she introduced U2; and Hillary Clinton and other celebrities read from Michael Wolff's book on the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, in a taped segment.

While sources say winners can make any political statement they choose, the social commentary that seemed baked into the 2018 show will not be in this year's show. "Our job is to entertain the audience," Sussman says. "To quote an old movie theater slogan, 'Sit back, relax and enjoy the show.' That's our mandate."

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of Billboard.

2019 Grammy Awards