In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency – when even a Bruce Springsteen cover band becomes a lightning rod for political controversy – every major cultural event has faced increased scrutiny.
So as the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys comprised mainly of musicians, producers and industry executives, prepares for the award show this Sunday, organizers and network executives at CBS have been trying to find the delicate balance between encouragement of artist expression and fear of presidential reproach.
“It’s the tenor of the times right now and you can’t really divorce yourself from reality,” says Ken Ehrlich, the show’s producer since 1980. “All of the [award shows] after the election had people on them that felt that it was important to express themselves about their political feelings. So naturally as we come up in the queue, we’re an organization known for protecting artistic freedom. We expect that artists will have things to say and while we’re not a forum for that, we also don’t feel that it’s right to censor them.”
Award shows, of course, have long been vehicles for artists to make political statements, sparking an unending debate on the role of celebrities in promoting social causes. Following Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech at last month’s Golden Globes and David K. Harbour’s fiery SAG speech last week issuing a “call to arms” to the creative community, Monday’s water cooler moment will likely be more about politics than music.
But Ehrlich says no artists were booked with any political agenda in mind, nor have any conversations with performers discussed possible political bends.
“I think artists post-November 8th feel more enfranchised and entitled probably because of the polarity that occurred,” Ehrlich tells Rolling Stone. “I suspect that there are more artists that are a lot more passionate about their beliefs on both sides. It’s a much more politicized generation than may have existed in the Eighties when you were listening to Dexy’s Midnight Runners.”
While many of this year’s performers – Metallica, Daft Punk, Adele, among others – typically remain apolitical publicly, the show will see performances by John Legend, who recently condemned Trump’s travel ban and has spoken frequently on incarcerated, non-violent drug offenders and Chance the Rapper, the Chicago MC with a long history with Barack Obama.
Ehrlich says the Recording Academy, for its part, strives to be non-partisan and that his history as a staunch progressive – he produced 2009’s “In Performance at the White House: Music of the Civil Rights Movement” and has worked frequently with Global Poverty Project – won’t factor into Sunday’s broadcast.
There have been some outliers, though. When show organizers asked Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to perform “Same Love,” the duo’s song about LGBT rights, at the 2014 Grammys, it was Ehrlich’s idea, spurred by discussions with his lesbian daughter, to marry 33 couples of all orientations onstage during the song. (Ehrlich says organizers have planned no similar moment for this year’s show.)
Last year, Kendrick Lamar gave a standout Grammy performance, using a medley of To Pimp a Butterfly highlights “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” as a backdrop to speak on prison and the black experience. “Kendrick Lamar is going to do something very controversial,” host LL Cool J told The Wrap prior to the performance. “And that’s what art is about. It’s not about whether you agree or disagree. it’s about it stimulating conversation and provoking people to have conversations about society.”
But while artists may be preparing some form of political speech or expression, multiple sources connected with the Grammys admit to Rolling Stone a heightened nervousness among CBS executives, Recording Academy members and show organizers. While the network has not issued any mandates or directives concerning Sunday’s show, one high-level source close to the Grammys says that they are scrutinizing scripts and award introductions more closely than in past years and “going out of their way to not inadvertently shoot the first bullet” against the Trump administration.
“They’re being so much more meticulous about the words in a way to make sure in this day and age, where everyone is looking for this coded message, that no one’s going to then be able to take from that and spin something completely out of control,” says the source.
A rep for CBS did not respond to a request for comment.
This extends to Recording Academy President Neil Portnow’s often non-controversial annual speech during the broadcast. Portnow has previously used his platform to discuss industry-related, yet mostly apolitical, issues such as illegal file-sharing and streaming payouts. As he prepares to speak to 25 million people as the face of the Academy, he now must answer many potentially conflicting questions: Is it appropriate for a cultural institution to remark on current political events? Will speaking out against Trump influence issues that affect academy members like copyright reform currently being fought on Capitol Hill? How do you discuss insider issues and represent your members without marginalizing more wide-reaching issues happening in society? One source tells Rolling Stone the speech is still being revised less than a week before the show, an unusually tight time period relative to past years.
Ehrlich, for his part, appears less concerned about any Trump backlash, but stressed the need for self-expression. “Musical artists are more than just music and lyrics,” he says. “They’re complete people and thinking individuals with feelings and expressions. My hope is when they do our show, we want them to feel that they can say what they want to say.”
Watch questions we have heading into music’s biggest night.