This was the year when the oft-maligned Grammy Awards were going to get it right. But an unexpected thing happened on the way to crowning Lizzo — or Billie Eilish — as queen of Music’s Biggest Night.
The Recording Academy’s new CEO — and first woman boss — was placed on administrative leave for misconduct just 10 days before Sunday’s show.
The official explanation is that Deborah Dugan allegedly bullied a senior female staffer who was the previous CEO’s longtime assistant.
The New York Times reported that Dugan, who had been tasked with making improvements in the slow-to-change Recording Academy, was apparently too aggressive in overhauling an organization long dominated by older white men.
Before being placed on leave, Dugan filed a complaint with the academy’s HR department raising concerns about sexual harassment, conflicts of interest, voting and financial irregularities, and excessive payments to law firms by the 63-year-old nonprofit.
With lawyers for all parties volleying charges and denials back and forth for the past several days, this behind-the-scenes intrigue sounds like the making of a prime-time miniseries that could be more compelling than 3 ½ hours of the Grammy Awards themselves.
Under Dugan, the Grammys were poised to become more inclusive. Women accounted for only 26% of the academy’s voting membership as of last summer. The organization pledged to recruit 2,500 new women members by 2025, as well as more young people and voters of color. For this year’s process, 1,186 new voting members signed up — 49% of them women and 51% age 39 and younger.
This year’s nominations certainly seem more inclusive. The leading nominees are Lizzo, 31, with eight and Eilish, 18, and openly gay rapper Lil Nas X, 20, with six each. All the finalists for album of the year are 40 or younger, and women hold five of the eight nods in that category.
Dugan, 61, a white woman, has been replaced by a black man as interim CEO: Harvey Mason Jr., 51, chairman of the academy’s board of trustees, is a record producer known for working with Chris Brown and on such movies as the “Pitch Perfect” franchise.
History of Grammy gaffes
Founded in 1957 by a handful of record-label honchos, the Recording Academy has long been viewed as a stodgy, myopic institution dominated by older male executives and lawyers often out of touch with the current music world.
The Grammys have been harshly criticized for giving top prizes to safe, rather than smart, choices. For example, in 2018, Bruno Mars took album of the year for “24K Magic” instead of the more innovative “Melodrama” by Lorde and “Damn” by Kendrick Lamar.
Some choices have been so glaringly misguided that Adele apologized to Beyoncé in 2017 for grabbing best album for “25” over “Lemonade.” Macklemore similarly apologized via Instagram that he was not worthy of beating Kendrick Lamar for best new artist in 2014.
The list of Grammy gaffes is long, perhaps none more egregious than Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” being named album of the year in 1985 over Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
In 1995, the Grammys implemented changes after the out-of-touch choice of Tony Bennett’s “MTV Unplugged” for top album. The Recording Academy decided to enlist an anonymous blue-ribbon panel to determine the finalists for the so-called “Big Four” categories — best new artist and song, record and album of the year — to circumvent block voting by record-company staffers and other improprieties.
In 2019, the finalists in those categories were expanded from five to eight. Of course, that could mean the winner might receive as little as 13% of the votes cast. Dugan reportedly was exploring a ranked voting system like the Academy Awards uses for best picture.
In any case, Dugan — a former record-label lawyer who most recently ran the AIDS-fighting RED organization started by U2’s Bono — was in the process of giving the Grammys an overdue makeover.
She’d already planned to forgo the CEO’s speech during the ceremonies, a moment that her predecessor, Neil Portnow, often used to dourly lobby for arts education or music-related issues before Congress.
Few women in industry
Not only does the academy’s membership have a gender imbalance but so does the music industry overall.
“In 40 years in the music business, I’ve maybe worked with three women engineers, and as far as women producers, there was just me when I produced myself,” said four-time Grammy winner Rosanne Cash, who is nominated this year for best American roots song. “The changes that need to be made are systemic. Making women heads of major labels and [their talent departments], not just in publicity and lower and mid-level positions.”
In 2018, when Portnow was criticized for presenting only one award to a woman during the lengthy televised ceremonies, he stirred anger by saying that women needed to “step up.”
Bouncing back from his faux pas, Portnow made noticeable changes last year, enlisting Alicia Keys as host and front-loading the first hour with women performers.
The Recording Academy also convened a task force chaired by lawyer Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff. It recommended, among other initiatives, diversifying the organization’s board of trustees (which was 65% male and 65% white) and the influential committees that review nominations.
Dugan was definitely stepping up. Ads for Sunday’s Grammys have promoted women performers — including Eilish, Lizzo, Camila Cabello, Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato — over men such as the Jonas Brothers.
The show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, 76, who has been involved with the Grammys for 40 years, will step down after this year. His signature contribution has been orchestrating unexpected collaborations such as Elton John and Eminem, or Prince and Beyoncé. The only pairing CBS has touted this year is an obvious one: lovebirds Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani.
“I love to see great combinations that we could never see at a concert,” said pop-culture junkie Lori Barghini, a My Talk 107.1 FM radio personality. “The performances have always made the Grammys the most fun awards show to watch. I don’t care who wins.”
Barghini and other Grammy viewers will likely see more changes in 2021 with new executive producer Ben Winston, 34, an Emmy winner who has produced the Tonys and the Brits (England’s answer to the Grammys) as well as “Late Late Show With James Corden” and a One Direction movie.
Regardless of what has gone wrong behind the scenes, 2020 could end up as the year the Grammys at least got the prizes right.