Vicarious Hollywood at Clive Davis’ 2021 Pre-Grammy Gala

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Amy X. Wang
·5 min read
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We have, by and large in this pandemic year, lost our grasp on time, tossing out heralded routines and watching some minutes skirt by while others seem to drag without end. And yet Clive Davis remains unperturbed. The 88-year-old music executive’s storied pre-Grammy bash, which he hosted Saturday night in virtual form, lasted a formidable five hours — almost as long as its in-person counterpart. Davis, however, swapped out the usual ballroom hors d’oeuvres, champagne flutes, and side-of-the-room gossip for a potpourri of at-home artist performances, interviews, and decades-spanning reminiscence.

In non-Covid times, Davis’ annual fête sees hundreds of gowned-and-tuxed-up artists, music executives, politicians, and other household names commandeering the Beverly Hilton hotel on the eve of the Grammy Awards for performances, toasts, and schmoozing galore. This year, the online party — which will be followed by a second show in the spring due to the Grammys moving their original date from January to March — was part music showcase, part dinner party, part excavation of the vault of Davis’ career memories. The show streamed to an invite-only group of industry insiders on Moment House, an upstart livestreaming platform backed by investors including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, and Jared Leto; “backstage,” a smaller subset of 200-odd VIP guests connected on a group Zoom, some opting to don formalwear, others wrapped in blankets and T-shirts.

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Absent were the impromptu jibes and scattered moments of drama onstage. (Last year’s in-person gala, transpiring amidst the Recording Academy’s abrupt and controversial ouster of CEO Deborah Dugan, was a bit more of a doozy.) But the Saturday show reeled in dozens of artists for one-on-one chats: Chance the Rapper honed in on his enduring emotional connection to his Chicago hometown; John Legend hit on the political and social strife of the last few months; Bruce Springsteen reminisced on his early years before he’d ever started making music (“I was a bit of a freak”) and Rickey Minor paid tribute to Aretha Franklin. Legend sang with a grand piano set up directly in front of his five Grammy Awards, while Jennifer Hudson crooned “Amazing Grace” from a studio. Audience-celebrities on the livestream bobbed their heads, lip-synched along to their favorite lines, and sprawled out in home libraries or on designer couches with tumblers of their liquor of choice in hand.

“I know we may be in the 45-percent tax bracket here,” Jamie Foxx said during his performance, talking to the group via a studio set up inside his home, in response to a question from Clive about maintaining his momentum in a number of different entertainment industries. “But we were all banging on someone’s door with a mixtape once. I’m still the starving artist. I go up there hungry.”

Merck Mercuriadis, Carl Bernstein, Nile Rodgers, D-Nice, Tyra Banks, Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Rob Thomas, Keith Urban, Rob Stringer, Kathy Griffin, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jack Antonoff, and Sir Lucian Grainge were among those flitting in and out of the VIP Zoom room, which, sadly, had the chat feature disabled. (One can only imagine the conversations that, say, Diddy and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi would have had there.) Throughout the lengthy night, Dan Smyers of Dan + Shay curled up on a sofa with several dogs, while Joni Mitchell could be seen sipping a generous glass of white wine, clad in black.

When it came to introducing speakers and performers, Davis had no shortage of material to draw from: He boasts a music career dotted with C-suite titles at Arista Records, RCA, BMC, and Sony Music, carries four Grammys as a producer, and has personally signed or coached a league of superstars that includes Billy Joel, Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, and Santana. In opening Saturday’s show, Davis made a point of noting that his pre-Grammy gala is attended by “the heads of every major label in the United States” — and also that he would bring up a number of figures who’ve shaped entire generations of music, like Berry Gordy and Carole King. “I know I’m using superlatives a lot tonight, but what can you do when you’re dealing with old-time performers at their best?” Davis said.

Davis spun a reel of his favorite historical live performances — weaving in clips from Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston at the 1994 American Music Awards, the Bee Gees performing “Stayin’ Alive” to a breathless arena, a young Jay-Z and Alicia Keys serenading the night air at New York’s Times Square with “Empire State of Mind” (Alicia, on the livestream, mused of the team-up with Jay: “The song is like a homecoming — when we perform it together, it’s just easy”), and Aretha Franklin so pitch-perfectly crooning “Natural Woman” in 2015 that it brought audience members including Barack Obama to tears (Clive’s 2021 commentary on the performance: “If you don’t have goosebumps from that, you should check carefully for a pulse.”)

Harvey Mason Jr., who has been the interim CEO of the Recording Academy for the last year since Dugan’s departure, joined Clive onstage toward the end of the show to remark on the singular influence of the annual pre-Grammy party. While Saturday’s event fundraised for the Recording Academy’s charity MusiCares, the upcoming March show will be dedicated to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Davis told Variety last week that invites to both shows totaled around 2,000 each, as opposed to around 1,000 attendees at the in-person precedents.

“Watch out for your March 13th invite,” Davis promised in Saturday night’s closing remarks. “Frankly, I can’t wait to be with you again.” If the well-choreographed show felt stiff a times, its artificiality was also an unavoidable juxtaposition against the strange, grim present moment, as well as a testament to Hollywood’s adamance on the continuation of its own insular rites and rituals. At midnight — the show’s exact five-hour mark — Davis closed the stream with an old clip of Beyoncé, holding court with backup dancers synced in matching gold costumes, regaling a happy pre-pandemic crowd somewhere, at some less fraught moment in time, with “Single Ladies.”

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