Alicia Keys, center, is hosting the Grammys this year.CreditMatt Sayles/Invision, via Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — The organizers of the Grammy Awards call it music’s biggest night.
The show’s three and a half hours of network television time certainly represents the music industry’s highest-profile media real estate. This year the top awards will feel a little bigger as well, with the slate of nominees extended to eight from five.
But as the 61st annual ceremony arrives at Staples Center, the Grammys are struggling more than ever to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving pop scene, and to meet demands for more equitable gender representation. Last year just one woman accepted a solo award during the broadcast, and public uproar after a remark backstage by the head of the Recording Academy that women in music should “step up” to advance their careers led to the establishment of a task force examining how the institution works.
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To no one’s surprise, women are well represented among the nominees this year. Lady Gaga, Cardi B, Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves will all compete in the most important categories, facing artists including Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone and Childish Gambino. And the performers include music greats like Dolly Parton and Diana Ross and rising stars like Camila Cabello, Dua Lipa and H.E.R.
But it wouldn’t be the Grammys without at least one dark-horse nominee. That spot belongs to Brandi Carlile, a critically respected singer-songwriter in an Americana-meets-alt-country idiom whose album “By the Way, I Forgive You,” while reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s chart, had far less impact on the culture than, say, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” or virtually any track on Drake’s blockbuster album “Scorpion.”
Will women make a big showing among the winners? Will Lamar finally win album of the year, after being shut out three times? (And if so, will he show up?) Will Carlile be this year’s Herbie Hancock? Here are some of the topics we will be watching.
Early wins for Carlile and Lady Gaga
All but nine of the Grammys’ 84 awards were given out in a nontelevised ceremony that was attended by few of the night’s big stars. Carlile led the pre-show portion with three wins in the American roots category, taking best American roots performance and song for “The Joke,” and Americana album for “By the Way, I Forgive You.” They were the first Grammys of Carlile’s career.
“Americana music is the island of the misfit toys; I am such a misfit,” Carlile said, accepting the second award. “It is the music that has shaped my life and made me who I am, and even given me my family.”
Lady Gaga and Kacey Musgraves each had two. Lady Gaga’s “Joanne (Where Do You Think You’re Goin’?),” a piano version of a song first released more than two years ago, took best pop solo performance, and “Shallow,” from the film “A Star Is Born,” took best song written for visual media. Ms. Musgrave’s “Butterflies” won best country solo performance and “Space Cowboy” took best country song.
Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” won best rap-sung performance and best music video, and Kendrick Lamar’s song “King’s Dead,” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack, tied Anderson .Paak’s “Bubblin” for best rap performance. (The score for “Black Panther” also won an award for its composer, Ludwig Göransson.)
The pre-show awards may be invisible to most of the general public, but they can set important benchmarks in the industry, and have the power to reshape careers among artists in genres far beyond pop radio.
One barrier was broken with the award for best engineered album, nonclassical, which went to Beck’s “Colors.” Among its winners was Emily Lazar, a studio veteran who became the first woman to win as mastering engineer in that category.
“I am so grateful to be one of the people,” she said, “that young women see and they can say: ‘I can see it. I can be it. That’s a cool career, I want to go do that.’”
And Claudia Brant, a seasoned songwriter for Latin artists who won best Latin pop album for “Sincera,” noted that for all the Grammys’ power, it is the daily studio work that matters the most.
“Of course it’s going to change my career, because it’s the biggest recognition I’ve ever gotten,” Brant said. “But tomorrow I’ll have a session in the studio with another artist that’s looking for good songs.”
The Grammys missed a chance for another milestone in the producer of the year category. The award went to Pharrell Williams. Had it gone to Linda Perry, she would have been the first woman to take home that award.
Plenty of nominees to choose from
The expansion of nominees in the top four categories — album, record and song of the year, and best new artist — has made the field more diverse. But it has also made it trickier to predict who will win.
In record of the year, for example, five songs are, more or less, hip-hop: Drake’s “God’s Plan,” Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars,” Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Cardi B’s “I Like It.” They are up against “Shallow,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s torch song from “A Star Is Born”; “The Middle,” a country-pop mashup sung by Maren Morris; and Carlile’s piano ballad “The Joke.”
Will the hip-hop songs cancel one another out on Grammy voters’ ballots, thus giving a boost to a song like “The Joke”? Does “Shallow” have an advantage simply because of its association with a popular movie? Or will voters feel compelled to select a woman with a great rise-to-fame story, like Cardi B?
Those kinds of questions are bedeviling the industry’s usual oddsmakers, which makes the contests more intriguing.
Will the Grammys solve their hip-hop problem?
The academy, the organization behind the Grammys, knows that it will be scrutinized for how the show rewards women, and so it has already taken steps to diversify its ranks.
But the voters can have their own agendas, and the factionalism of the industry — Nashville versus the coasts; hip-hop versus rock’s old guard — can have surprising effects on the final tallies. If the big winners turn out to be men, will it be seen as a failure, or just a problem that needs more time to be solved?
The Grammys’ spotty recognition of hip-hop remains a major issue, one that has strained its relations with the very artists the organization needs to draw in younger viewers and remain credible. Stars like Jay-Z, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar have racked up dozens of Grammys between them, but none in the top categories, and Drake has openly mocked the awards for misclassifying rap-free songs of his as rap. One result: many stars of hip-hop and R&B simply skip the show.
“The fact of the matter is, we continue to have a problem in the hip-hop world,” said Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammys telecast.
This year, Drake and Lamar — perhaps the two most vital young stars in hip-hop — face off in album, record and song of the year. A win for one of them will be seen as a win for hip-hop. But if neither wins, it will just further erode the relationship between the Grammys and the hip-hop world.
Performers onstage, but plenty of them off
Only nine awards will be given out during the show. The rest of the time is taken up by performances — nearly 20 of them.
Among the announced highlights are an appearance by Dolly Parton, with a tribute to her by Katy Perry, Morris and Musgraves; an Aretha Franklin tribute with Andra Day, Fantasia and the gospel star Yolanda Adams; an opening number with Camila Cabello, featuring Ricky Martin, J Balvin, Arturo Sandoval and Young Thug; Post Malone with the Red Hot Chili Peppers; and a 75th-birthday appearance by Diana Ross. Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Shawn Mendes, Travis Scott and Janelle Monáe will also appear.
[Here’s what to look for on the Grammys red carpet.]
But the show may be just as defined by who does not appear. Drake, Lamar and Childish Gambino were invited to perform but declined; it was unclear whether they would show up at all. Ariana Grande, in a rare public rebuke of the Grammys’ producers, said she refused to perform because her “creativity & self expression was stifled” by them.
Taylor Swift is in London shooting “Cats.” Bradley Cooper is also there, for the Baftas, the British film awards. Other stars, like Justin Timberlake and Ed Sheeran, were once willing performers but haven’t come since failing to be nominated for top awards; Frank Ocean disavowed the process as out-of-date and irrelevant.
Alicia Keys steps into the hosting spotlight
One star who will certainly be there, however, is Alicia Keys, this year’s host. A 15-time Grammy winner, she is also an outspoken advocate for women in music; last year, she helped found an organization, She Is the Music, that is working to promote female producers and engineers — behind-the-scenes studio jobs that have long been overwhelmingly held by men.
At the Grammys, the job of host has typically been a small one. The previous host, James Corden, took the role expecting to be on camera for only about 15 minutes. But Keys’s involvement carries symbolic weight, and given her interests, some campaigning on her part would not be surprising.
“Celebrating so many amazing nominees, particularly women nominees,” she told The Associated Press, “is so incredibly magnificent and so many are my friends.”
[Here’s the full list of Grammys winners.]