LOS ANGELES — In the age of social media and real-time Internet reaction, it’s trickier than ever to pull off a live awards show.
For longtime Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich, the new era has presented a balancing act — generating the sort of watercooler moments that can light up Twitter while heeding the musical mission at the heart of the Grammys.
“The tightrope you walk is: Are you doing it because you want to hit virally? Do you want the headlines? Do you want people to be talking about, ‘Should Shawn Mendes be sitting next to Camila Cabello’?” Ehrlich said. “I’d like to think that the field we play in is still musically rooted. And it probably doesn’t always wind up that way. I’ll be the first to admit that.”
Ehrlich, a Cleveland native, has captained the Grammy production since 1980 — a familiar figure with his headset and calm, twinkling-eyed demeanor. He’ll do it again Sunday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where “The 61st Grammy Awards,” airing at 8 p.m. on CBS, will feature performers including Lady Gaga, Cardi B, Katy Perry and Diana Ross, and a nominations list led by Kendrick Lamar (eight), Drake (seven) and Brandi Carlile (six).
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For all the changes in popular culture and the broadcast itself, Ehrlich said one plank of his approach hasn’t budged: There’s a cross-generational connective tissue to music, he said — “where it was, where it is, where it’s going.”
“The definition of the show is to celebrate and recognize musical achievements of the past year. So as (the musical landscape) changes, we change with it. There are people who would say we haven’t changed enough,” he said. “But I’ve always believed these things don’t exist in a vacuum. I can’t do Post Malone before sitting with him and having him tell me some of his influences, the artists who have meant something to him.”
And so you’ll get Post Malone with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Sunday night, together in the latest offbeat Grammy mashup arranged by Ehrlich.
Another big Grammy shift in recent years has been an emphasis on performances with social relevance, something that’s close to the heart of a TV veteran who calls himself a child of the ’60s.
“The world has changed,” Ehrlich said. “There’s no reason our show shouldn’t be a part of that.”
Think Kendrick Lamar’s fiery, theatrical message on criminal-justice reform in 2016, or Katy Perry’s highlighting of rape and domestic-violence issues in 2015. Or the 33 couples, including gay and lesbian partners, who wed during Macklemore’s performance of “Same Love” in 2014.
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“We’re reflecting what the artistic community is feeling, to the point where there have been a couple of times we’ve been criticized for going over the edge,” Ehrlich said. “But I think it’s become such a touchstone — the way artists perceive who they are and what they do — that I want my show to be part of it. You don’t see it on other shows — or if you do, they go to the dark side and it’s marketing.”
The producer is accustomed to his show being a lightning rod for controversy, but this week it was Ehrlich himself who wound up on the firing line. Following his remarks to the Associated Press that Ariana Grande wouldn’t be performing because “she felt it was too late for her to pull something together,” the pop star shot back via Twitter.
Grande accused the veteran Grammy producer of “lying about me” and said she pulled out because “my creativity & self expression was stifled by (Ehrlich).”
(The Detroit Free Press conducted this interview with Ehrlich in January, and did not receive a follow-up response after the Grande brouhaha.)
The 25-year-old singer isn’t the only one opting out of the Grammy show: The New York Times reported Thursday that Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino declined offers to perform — possibly a reaction to the perceived snub of hip-hop nominees through the years.
When Ehrlich came aboard in 1980, the Grammys faced competition from just a handful of music award shows. That field has expanded quite a bit since, but Ehrlich said his mission is the same: separating the Grammys from the pack.
These days, that might even mean including “artists that I don’t necessarily believe have great voices or make great music, but the spectacle is there,” he said.
“This is in no way directed at hip-hop,” he added. “I think some of the most relevant, cultural, artistic, musical statements are being made by hip-hop artists. And that’s what we gravitate toward there. I’d much rather go that direction with a Kendrick or a Childish Gambino or even a Cardi B — where it is spectacle, but, man, it’s thoughtful. That, to me, is much more resonant with my audience … than 2 Chainz.”
While the Grammy Awards ostensibly set out to honor recorded music — this is the Recording Academy’s event, after all — Ehrlich knows his mission is to create compelling live television.
“This is going to sound really bad: Steely Dan can make the greatest record in the world, but I’ve just never figured out a way to make a 4½-minute (Steely Dan performance) work on television,” Ehrlich said. “I love their records. I can sit there in an artificial or regular state and get a kick out of it. But, man, I’ve got to get these people (in the audience) to stand up. And I’ve got to get 20-plus million people at home to stay with it and not say, ‘I wonder what channel “Law & Order” is on right now.'”