This year’s Grammys were supposed to be a return to normal. Then came The Slap

Three men and a woman seated on steps or standing next to them
Grammy Awards producers Raj Kapoor, left, Jeannae Rouzan-Clay, Ben Winston and Jesse Collins during rehearsals this week at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
(Saeed Rahbaran / For The Times)
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As stagehands wheeled an enormous replica of what appeared to be Lil Nas X’s head into position, the black-and-white faces of dozens of pop stars looked on from cardboard placards arranged, two to a bistro table, on the floor of the MGM Grand Garden Arena here.

With Billie Eilish just an outstretched arm from Lady Gaga and Carrie Underwood within murmuring distance of Jon Batiste, the cozy setup for Sunday night’s long-delayed 64th Grammy Awards promises plenty of the celebrity hobnobbing missing from last year’s masked-and-distanced rendition of music’s most important awards ceremony.

“This show is about community, about seeing people that we love and watching them be celebrated amongst their peers,” said Jesse Collins, one of the Grammys’ executive producers, during a tech rehearsal this week.


But just days after Will Smith smacked Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars, setting off global chatter about the risks of live television, it’s not hard to see the Grammys’ up-close-and-personal vibe as a potential liability — if also, perhaps, as a draw for viewers eager to witness some other wild and unpredictable event.

Will Olivia Rodrigo make history? Could Tony Bennett win for album? Will anyone get slapped? Come Sunday, music’s preeminent awards show takes the spotlight.

March 29, 2022

“It’s true that one of the things people love about live TV is that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said another of the show’s executive producers, Ben Winston. “You don’t know who’s going to win an award. You don’t know who’s going to win the Super Bowl. And you don’t know what’s going to happen when a load of people are in a room together.”

None of the Grammys’ organizers would characterize The Slap, as it’s already known, as a good thing for their show.

“I would hate to be the beneficiary of something like that,” said Jack Sussman, who oversees live events for CBS, which will broadcast the Grammys. Watching the Oscars on ABC last weekend, Sussman said, “I was just so glad I wasn’t in the [production] truck when it happened.”

Added Harvey Mason Jr., chief executive of the Recording Academy, which presents the Grammys: “Nothing was pleasant about what happened.”

Yet in terms of attracting an audience, the Grammys can inarguably use any help they can get. Last year’s telecast, the first under Winston’s control after four decades with Ken Ehrlich at the helm, won warm reviews but hit a historic low in Nielsen ratings, with a mere 8.8 million viewers — down 53% from 2020.


And though that’s in keeping with a slide across all awards shows — with the exception of this year’s Oscars, whose ratings were up more than 50% from 2021’s lowest-ever figures — the Grammys are facing particular challenges heading into Sunday’s ceremony.

Kanye West wearing sunglasses and a gold necklace
Kanye West is up for album of the year with “Donda,” though he’s not slated to perform on the Grammys telecast.
(Evan Agostini / Invision/AP)

Kanye West, always a reliable driver of attention, was barred from performing on the show because of recent threats he’s made on social media. A scheduled performance by Foo Fighters was canceled after the band’s drummer, Taylor Hawkins, died suddenly on tour last week. Positive COVID test results for two members of BTS have thrown that hugely popular boy band’s appearance into question.

A year ago, Olivia Rodrigo was a Disney actor with a knack for songwriting. Today, the 18-year-old has 2021’s top debut album and is nominated for 7 Grammys.

Dec. 10, 2021

And then there’s the fact that the Grammys are taking place for the first time in Las Vegas, two months after the show was supposed to happen Jan. 31 at its longtime home of Arena in downtown Los Angeles. At the time, the academy said it had no choice but to postpone the event amid an outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“I just hope people know about the show,” said Winston, a veteran of British TV best known to Americans for turning James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” into a viral sensation. (Other members of the Grammys brain trust include executive producer Raj Kapoor, who’s serving as showrunner, and co-executive producer Jeannae Rouzan-Clay.) “People always think the Grammys is at the end of January, so my concern is that they know it’s this weekend” — a message CBS has been hammering in TV spots during the NCAA basketball tournament.

A woman in a purple dress sings and plays the guitar onstage.
Olivia Rodrigo performs during the 2021 American Music Awards at L.A.’s Microsoft Theater on Nov. 21, 2021.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images for MRC)

To drum up interest, the show has performances planned by Eilish, Gaga, Underwood, Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Silk Sonic, Brandi Carlile and Chris Stapleton, among others, as well as a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who died in November. Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” will host. Presenters will include Megan Thee Stallion, Dua Lipa, Joni Mitchell (this year’s recipient of the academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year award) and Questlove, whose “Summer of Soul” was named best documentary feature at the Oscars immediately after Smith’s altercation with Rock.

Batiste, a jazz and R&B composer who’s also the bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” is the night’s most-nominated act, with 11 nods. But younger viewers may be more inclined to tune in to see whether 19-year-old Rodrigo sweeps the Grammys’ four biggest awards — album, record and song of the year, along with best new artist — on the strength of her smash power ballad “Drivers License.” (If she does, she’d follow Eilish, who pulled off the feat in 2020.) One obstacle in Rodrigo’s path: 95-year-old Tony Bennett, whose collection of Cole Porter tunes with Lady Gaga is up for album of the year. Other high-profile artists vying for that prize are Eilish, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Doja Cat.

Regarding a potential appearance Sunday by Bennett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, Kapoor said the producers are in touch with his team “on a daily basis.”

“We would roll out the red carpet should he be able to come,” Winston added. “But we’re not sure at the moment.” (On Thursday a placard with Bennett’s photo was among those in the nominees’ seating area.)

Bennett aside, this year’s performers skew young compared to the Grammys in Ehrlich’s day, when old-timers like Sting and the Eagles seemed to take up as much air time as any current hitmaker. Kapoor said the producers are simply reflecting the nominations, which are increasingly going to younger acts — itself a change for the Grammys, which for years drew criticism for rewarding established acts at the expense of pop innovators.

At the 2021 ceremony, the academy shut out the Weeknd’s blockbuster “After Hours” album from even a single nod; the group later overhauled its voting process to eliminate secretive “nomination review committees” of insiders that many (including the Weeknd) suspected of rigging the vote. The academy has approximately 11,000 voting members, a pool of recording-industry professionals it’s worked to diversify along age, race and gender lines.


“We’ve also moved away from doing too many tribute performances that you have to sort of work out why,” Winston said. “The Grammys traditionally have gone, ‘Oh, it’s the 75th anniversary of this,’ or, ‘It’s 20 years since this happened,’ and that’s an excuse for doing something. Our taste is that it might be better to showcase something newer or something that people are interacting with.

“But we haven’t made a conscious decision that we don’t want anybody over 45 on the show.”

Asked to elaborate on the decision to bar a performance by 44-year-old West — who now goes by Ye and later this month will headline the Coachella festival — Mason said, “I don’t want to comment on who we don’t invite to the show. I think it’s in poor taste to talk about it because there’s a lot of different reasons artists are able to perform or not perform.” The academy has a famously rocky relationship with hip-hop artists, who say Grammy voters don’t appreciate or understand the culture; Drake asked this year that his album “Certified Lover Boy” be withdrawn from awards consideration, presumably as a form of protest.

Does Mason worry that not having Ye is a lost ratings opportunity?

A man stands at a transparent podium.
Harvey Mason Jr., chairman of the board of trustees of the Recording Academy, said there was nothing the organization could have done to keep the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles this year.
(Bryan Bedder / Getty Images)

“With every artist there are great things that come along with them, and you’re always weighing everything,” he said. The rapper and producer, who has five Grammy nominations (including album of the year for his “Donda”), is “definitely, definitely invited” to attend the show, Mason added.

Though the telecast itself will be back to pre-pandemic dimensions, with elaborate sets and a live arena audience at the MGM Grand, the so-called Grammy Week of events that surrounds the ceremony is smaller this year because of the show’s move to Las Vegas. Key parties like Clive Davis’ annual night-before-the-Grammys gala and an annual brunch hosted by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation aren’t happening; Spotify, which throws a popular bash celebrating the year’s best new artist nominees, is still doing its party, minus the usual live performances.

Bill Werde, director of the Bandier Program for Music and the Entertainment Industries at Syracuse University, typically travels to the Grammys in L.A. to network with the “next generation of music industry leaders.” But this year he’s staying home.


“That layer of the music business — the folks just under the CEOs of major labels — a lot of them aren’t gonna go to Vegas,” he said, “so it’s a way less interesting proposition for someone like me.”

Mason, who pointed out that events like Friday’s MusiCares dinner honoring Mitchell have sold out, said, “There was nothing we could’ve done” to keep the Grammys in L.A., given the show’s demands on a venue.

“People go, ‘Crypto must have been available. The Forum must have been available. It’s only two or three nights that you need,’” Winston said. “We load in two weeks before, so if you’re looking for a venue you can take for two whole weeks in the middle of [NBA and NHL] seasons and touring bands — no one’s sitting around going, ‘Oh, this arena’s empty.’”

“For us it would’ve been cheaper to be in L.A.; it would’ve been closer to the industry,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of things that would’ve been in our favor if we’d been able to stay in L.A.” Among them: selling the expensive luxury boxes at Crypto to deep-pocketed music bizzers; the MGM arena has no boxes.

Winston also defended the delay from January. “Omicron was just flying,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody that didn’t have it.” Back then, he added, “There were artists that didn’t want to go as big with their performance. They didn’t want to do it with as much ambition when it all might go an hour before the show if they test positive.”

Postponing “wasn’t a PR decision,” said Mason. “We were in the middle of a massive outbreak in L.A. We were concerned about hospital beds; we were getting reports from our CDC people saying that going ahead with the show was very risky.”


Now, with COVID numbers on the decline, “I think people want this sense of community back,” Collins said.

Kapoor was at the Oscars and said that — at least before The Slap — “you could sense how different it felt in the room. There was actually so much joy with people being able to interact.”

That joy, Winston said, is what he’s hoping viewers get from the Grammys — provided, of course, they bother to watch.