Even among jaded music industry types — hardened by years, if not decades, of quasi-authentic glad-handing and perpetual cynicism — there are few events more whimsical than Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala. Every year, on the night before the award show, the record label kingmaker hosts approximately 1,000 people for an event that combines myriad performances with Davis honoring and anointing his favorite industry people — many of whom have long locked down “legend” status — alongside various sports and political figures.
But for all the paparazzi and glitz that Davis ensures each year, it’s paradoxically one of the few places where celebrities can, to the extent celebs are able, “be themselves.” Young musicians approach their influences starstruck with the same glee as a teenage fan. Actors buddy up with politicians (Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi got a standing ovation from the crowd when Davis introduced her). Managers, publicists and label honchos try to get their rising stars in front of “the right people.” There is no Illuminati; but if there was, this room is the closest approximation.
Imagine a wedding where roughly 50 percent of the room are celebrities and the best man (Davis) gives a speech every 15 minutes or so. As in past years, Davis’ fetes to his colleagues take on a near-game show-like approach. (“Our next honoree has won six Grammy awards, sold 38 million albums and starred in a 1983 movie that rhymes with ‘Eggplant.’”) Guessing who it is becomes a parlor game in and among itself.
This year’s event, which took place on Saturday night at the Beverly Hills Hilton, honored Clarence Avant, the 87-year-old record label executive who founded Venture Records and Sussex Records, with the Salute to Industry Icons Award. But it also doubled as a showcase for artists like Travis Scott, Brandi Carlile, H.E.R. and others.
Like this week’s Spotify party for the Best New Artist nominees, it can be a tough room. Travis Scott’s typical crowd, for example, is not a group of tuxedo- and gown-clad attendees clumsily dancing in their seats to “Goosebumps” and “Sicko Mode.” But getting the Davis imprimatur still feels like the closest an artist can get to an “Industry seal of approval” in a landscape in which the very idea of a monoculture has been decimated.
But there are moments of sheer joy. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis joined Morris Day and the Time for an ebullient medley that included “Jungle Love” and “The Bird.” (He’s been doing it for decades, but there is still no better stage prop than Day preening himself in front of a handheld mirror mid-song.) Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line performed a crowd-pleasing “Meant to Be,” while H.E.R. chose her poignant cover of Foy Vance’s “Make It Rain.” But the clear highlight was a tribute to Aretha Franklin that included Jazmine Sullivan covering “Call Me,” a duet with Rob Thomas for “I Knew You Were Waiting,” a medley by Ledisi of “Think,” “Ain’t No Way” and “Respect” and R&B sister duo Chloe x Halle delivering a joyful “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Davis had known Franklin for 40 years before her death last August, so the medley felt especially personal.
Exponentially more people will watch the Grammys than this party, of course. But for many in attendance afterward, it felt as if the main event had already happened; a vestige of a bygone music industry that continues to lurch forward, gleefully oblivious, for one night at least, to changing technologies and structures in favor of a time when a bunch of powerful people all hang out in the same room to continue their global cultural takeover and awkwardly dance.