Tonight, we come together — virtually — for the Grammy Awards, “Music’s Biggest Night,” and do our best to celebrate the music of the worst year of so many people’s lives. It’s finally spring, and as much as the season will bring back horrifying memories of what happened at this time a year ago, there’s also the pride and cautious elation that we’ve gotten through it, so far.
With a similar sense of cautious elation, we can feel pride that the music industry has largely survived the tragic past year, so far. Based on what Variety has learned from Grammys executive producer Ben Winston, CBS EVP Jack Sussman and Recording Academy chief Harvey Mason jr., tonight’s show will be celebratory but respectful, COVID-conscious but unifying, traditional but something new, a celebration of human achievement and endurance that will also be primetime, network-TV entertainment. Tonight’s show will be different from previous Grammys in truly countless ways, and we’re so excited to see it.
But sadly, one thing that is not different this year is scandal; there’s been a major one in nearly each of the last five Grammys. In 2018, it was then-president/CEO Neil Portnow’s misspoken yet inflammatory comment that female artists and executives needed to “step up” to advance in the industry. Racial diversity is always an issue, but particularly in two of the last four years, when Beyonce, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar were shut out of the top prizes. And last year, there was the ugly ouster of new president/CEO Deborah Dugan, who was abruptly placed on leave — just days before the show — after attempting to reform many of the Academy’s less-egalitarian practices, which were outlined in a legal complaint she filed after her dismissal. Dugan, who served only eight months in the role, may not have been an ideal fit for a sprawling non-profit like the Recording Academy, which functions under many of the same cumbersome processes as government organizations. But she also allegedly tried to call bullshit on much of the back-room dealing and deeply entrenched special interests that are symptomatic of government organizations as well as the music business, and paid the price for it.
In the year since, interim president/CEO Harvey Mason jr. has both toed the company line and worked to advance a diversity-based agenda that is actually not that different from the one that Dugan advocated (he’s just doing it more bureaucratically and/or diplomatically) — all while overseeing MusiCares’ distribution of $22 million in COVID relief to the music community and trying to figure out how to stage the Grammys during a pandemic.
But along with the 2021 Grammy nominations in November came yet another scandal: The Weeknd, one of the most successful artists of the past decade — whose “Blinding Lights” single and “After Hours” album have shattered multiple chart records and achieved Adele-Beyonce-Taylor Swift levels of commercial and critical success in the past year — inexplicably received no nominations whatsoever. None. Usually artists with comparable achievements walk away with four or six or eight wins. What the hell happened? Without rabbit-holing on the countless theories and explanations about how and why and who, it comes down to two possibilities that are not mutually exclusive: corruption and/or dysfunction.
The “secret committees” of professionals, executives and insiders that determine some — but not all — of the nominees for the top Grammy categories were originally instituted to provide a layer of expertise after the withering embarrassment of Jethro Tull defeating Metallica for the best hard rock/metal award in 1990, and also because worthy recordings released late in the eligibility period were being overlooked by a large percentage of the thousands-strong Grammy voting body. But as with government agencies, the people qualified to be members of small decision-making groups are also insiders, and all the bylaws and motions in the world can’t overpower that basic human instinct of self-interest. Dugan’s complaint and multiple sources allege that it is rampant in the nominating committees. The Weeknd stated on Thursday that he will no longer allow his label to submit his music for Grammy consideration until the secret committees are addressed. The Weeknd already won three Grammys in the past, but issue now is not about an artist’s hurt feelings, angry fans or one’s opinion of his music; it’s about serious problems in the nominating process.
Asked about the Weeknd’s shocking snub, Mason has said multiple times that “no one is happy” with the result of a process that he defends as a legitimate recognition of “excellence,” determined by a small group with the purest of motives whose identity is nonetheless kept secret. But even setting aside musical excellence and commercial success to look strictly at the rulebook, some of the 2021 nominations are questionable: One of the nominees for Best Album is the expanded edition of an album that was originally released in June of 2019, well outside of the Grammy eligibility period, but was re-released a few months later with a new song, some live tracks and covers thrown in and thus technically qualifies — and was selected over “After Hours.” How could any unbiased group even as small as a secret Grammy-nominating committee, which Mason told Variety is around 20 people, think that was a fair thing to do?
Sorry for the shade, Black Pumas, it’s nothing against your music or its worthiness to be nominated for Best Album. But it’s ultimately the Academy’s fault and shame that so many 2021 Grammy winners will have an invisible asterisk next to their win(s) that reads “Could have been the Weeknd.” And yes, it’s just an awards show, but the Grammys mean something — for countless millions of musicians and non-musicians, they represent the apex of greatness, deservedly or not. Even after Ariana Grande famously boycotted the show after a disagreement with producers over which song she would perform — one of countless mini-scandals over the years — she posted a video of her joyful dance around her bedroom after she won her first-ever Grammy that night.
Hopefully, the 2021 Grammys will be an uplifting event for the music industry and even the world, a moment where we honor what we’ve lost and also celebrate survival, the achievements of the past year and the future. Is it too much to ask for it also to be a moment of transformation? In its worst possible light, the Weeknd’s exclusion is a defiant, hubristic, Trump-like show of power and spite; in its best possible light, it’s a perfect storm of bureaucracy. But either way, it’s the biggest snub in Grammy history, and whatever or whoever caused it needs to be corrected. It’s bad for every recording artist, because the same thing could happen to them: If the Grammys can shut out the Weeknd in 2021, they can do it to anyone.
Or can they? Mason has always said he would be an interim CEO and expected to step down in May, when the Recording Academy’s next board meetings take place. He also said, “This year, as in past years, we are going to take a hard look at how to improve our awards process, including the nomination review committees.”
But even though Mason has gamely taken on the role as the lightning-rod for the Academy and defender of many of its undeniably questionable practices — and the degree to which he is involved in those practices is unclear — he is representing decisions made by many people and does not have the power to make change all by himself. Even if he were to try, there’s the specter of Deborah Dugan standing across a silent chasm of legal muzzling and a sabotaged career, mouthing, “You wanna end up like me?”
But with the Academy’s corruption and/or dysfunction at yet another all-time high — and with no worries about keeping his unpaid job as interim president/CEO — he also has a rare opportunity to help affect real change. To paraphrase something an earlier leader of a corrupt and/or dysfunctional institution said to another: “Mr. Mason, tear down this wall.”
The Grammy Awards air live on CBS from the Los Angeles Convention Center tonight (March 14) at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.