Producer Ken Ehrlich talks 60th annual Grammys: 'They're not going to be a downer this year'

Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich. (Photo: Getty)
Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich. (Photo: Getty)

As Ken Ehrlich, who has produced the Grammys telecast since 1980, prepares for the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, which will take place at New York’s Madison Square Garden this year, it’s natural to ask him if the tone of the ceremony will be similar to the tone of this month’s Golden Globes, which had a strong political focus. Ehrlich stresses to Yahoo Entertainment that the show will be fun, upbeat, and celebratory, but also says, “One of the things about our show is that we allow artists to express their artistic freedom. We certainly don’t stifle that; on occasion, we encourage it. … I can’t remember ever having either the Academy or the network come to me and say, ‘No, you can’t do this.’”

Recent examples of political statements at the Grammys includes last year’s performances by A Tribe Called Quest (who called out “President Agent Orange” in a particularly incendiary moment) and Katy Perry (who wore a Hillary Clinton-inspired white pantsuit and “RESIST” armband, and sang in front of a backdrop of the Constitution), as well as a 2014 number by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, and Madonna during which 33 diverse couples were married in a mass wedding officiated by Queen Latifah. (Ehrlich cites the latter production as one of his all-time favorite Grammy moments.) Ehrlich still believes in the power of music to express, and sometimes protest, what’s going on in the world — but he leaves that up to the artists.

“Society is changing, and on the one hand, there’s this kind of general feeling that music is less valuable in people’s lives, based upon sales and the role that streaming plays. But on the other hand, and it’s probably related to the fact that I’m an old guy, I really believe that I’m seeing touches that remind me of the ’60s, which was the music that I grew up with — the protest movement, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, where a lot of the music was issue-oriented and was socially relevant. I’m seeing a young generation of artists who are, I think, returning to that,” Ehrlich says. “So there’s probably going to be a little more of that on this show. If you look at the tapestry, the landscape of music this year, it’s reflected in that. … One of the things that make music what it is, as it evolves, is it changes and it’s taken over by a younger generation. It is counter-culture, anti-establishment. There’s even a whole movement in the music business now that’s anti-record company. We’d be remiss if we didn’t open ourselves to reflect what’s going on.”

As for the increased diversity among this year’s nominations, with Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Bruno Mars, and Daddy Yankee & Luis Fonsi ruling in the major categories, Ehrlich muses, “Music is changing. One of the great things about pop culture is that each generation adds its layer to it. There’s no question that hip-hop culture has become a pretty dominant musical form, and this is the year where it exhibited itself most in the nominations.”

However, Ehrlich doesn’t envision the 2018 Grammys being as serious in tone as this year’s Globes, which was dominated by #MeToo statements. “This year, I was really interested to see what did happen on the Golden Globes, and I thought that it was entirely appropriate,” he asserts. “But I think that there’s a fine line — and I think there have been times when we may have stepped over the line — where you have to understand that the majority of artists that are coming to be a part of this show are coming to celebrate what they accomplished in the past year, and in some cases, over an entire career. So, I think that the thing that we have to be careful about is letting the show turn into an issue-oriented show that loses sight of the fact of what winning a Grammy means, and what being in the forefront of the music industry means.

“I certainly hope that doesn’t sound sexist, because it’s certainly not meant to be. I’m very much in sympathy with the movement, as you’ve probably seen on this show; we’ve done some pretty forward-thinking pieces on the show that have been very much directed toward reflecting the change in society,” Ehrlich adds. (Indeed, this year’s Grammy telecast will feature performances from many strong female artists, including Kesha, P!nk, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Alessia Cara, SZA, Cardi B, and Patti LuPone.) “But I also do think that our obligation is to present a show that primarily focuses on people that made great music in the past year. … I want to make sure that people understand that they should be coming to this show for a great, celebratory experience.”

However, Ehrlich realizes that all eyes will be on Kesha, whose drawn-out legal battle with producer Dr. Luke (whom she has accused of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse) practically makes her the music industry’s poster woman for the #MeToo movement. “I can tell you, obviously, that Kesha’s performance is definitely going to reflect what has happened to her in the past couple of years,” he reveals. “‘Praying,’ that is what that song is all about, and that’s what she’s going to perform on the show. We are going to do something a little bit different with it. I think people will come away with the sense that we are supporting or allowing the artist to make a statement.”

As for other potentially intense numbers in the ceremony, Maren Morris, Eric Church, and the Brothers Osborne will pay tribute to victims of violence at concerts (“That, I think, is going to be beautiful, a very emotional moment”); Logic will perform his nominated suicide-awareness song “1-800-273-8255” with Alessia Cara and Khalid; and there will be a salute to last year’s MusiCares Person of the Year, Tom Petty, whose departure was one of the most headline-making music deaths of 2017.

“This has been a particularly tough year — but every year’s a tough year. And it gets tougher, because I think we find ourselves at a time when, whether it was the golden age of music or not, the artists that are passing away now achieved really great heights in their time,” laments Ehrlich, who had to figure out how to acknowledge other major losses in recent years — David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, George Michael, and, six years ago, the shocking Grammy-weekend death of Whitney Houston — sometimes with mixed or even downright angry reactions from fans.

“We have choices that we have to make, and we have to be very careful about those. There’s no question that in the past, sometimes we’ve been criticized. Natalie Cole was a good example a few years ago, where the family didn’t think that we did enough [to honor her]. But sprinkled throughout the show, there are several tributes to artists who’ve passed. These are obviously subjective, and we run the risk of not being able to do everything we’d like to do, but the fact of the matter is, as I said before, the show should primarily focus on people who had great accomplishments in music this year. So, you can expect to see something for Tom Petty, and there are others that we will probably in one way or another, either in a small way or in a larger way, pay tribute to.”

Explaining the balancing act involved here, Ehrlich says, “The best example I could give you was the line that we treaded when Whitney Houston died. That show could have turned into a testimonial for Whitney Houston, but it did not. It touched on it. It certainly gave the moment. LL Cool J was eloquent, Jennifer Hudson did an amazing version of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and three or four people who won Grammys that night mentioned Whitney [in their acceptance speeches]. But the show still had a spirit and an essence of celebration. And remember, that was 24 hours after Whitney died. So, I think that’s probably not a bad analogy to make — not that one tragedy can be related to another, but we didn’t get lost in what had happened 24 hours before.”

Ehrlich therefore promises a high-energy night on Sunday, Jan. 28; other scheduled Grammy performers include Bruno Mars, U2, Daddy Yankee & Luis Fonsi, and Childish Gambino. “I want to make clear: The Grammys are not going to be a downer this year,” he proclaims. “So many performances will be in the show, and they really do speak to the heart. They get your feet going. Yes, some are political. But I don’t want to mislead the public into thinking they’re going to watch a show that’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to cry every nine minutes!’ You’re not. You’re going to love some of these performances. Bruno Mars is not going to make you cry.”