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Music’s rigged-est night? What to expect from Sunday’s scandal-ravaged Grammy Awards

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

Additional reporting by Brennan Williams.

When the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards take place this Sunday, Lizzo and Billie Eilish are expected to be the big winners. But what should be a triumphant and historic night for two female music iconoclasts will likely be tainted by the scandal that has exploded in the 10 days leading up to the ceremony.

On Jan. 16, new Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan was suddenly, shockingly placed on administrative leave, so that the Academy could investigate “a formal allegation [against Dugan] of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team.” Dugan, who had held the CEO job for only five months, had been brought in to replace longtime CEO Neil Portnow (who’d stepped down soon after his unfortunate “women need to step up” comment at the 2018 Grammy Awards), and she had promised swift, dramatic, Academy-wide change. 

Dugan, who is now suing the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for wrongful termination, claims she was ousted as "a serious retaliation" for accusing the Academy’s general counsel of sexual harassment, the organization of rigging the Grammys’ voting system, and Portnow of raping an unnamed female artist. (Portnow calls this sexual assault allegation “ludicrous and untrue.”)

Dugan says she was put on leave three weeks after she sent an email to the Academy's managing director of human resources detailing these bombshell allegations, according to a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The Recording Academy has countered by saying Dugan created an “abusive and bullying” environment in the workplace, and on Wednesday, four women serving on the board of trustees released a statement defending the Academy. Claudine Little, Portnow’s former executive assistant who is rumored to be the above-mentioned “senior female” employee, is now reportedly suing Dugan, alleging that the CEO “caused an untenable situation in the executive offices that included verbal abuse and mistreatment.”

Dugan and her attorney appeared on Good Morning America Thursday to discuss the alleged corruption of the Grammy nominations process, saying, “In that room, not only are there trustees that have conflict of interests on particular artists that are nominated but more importantly, there are even artists that are nominated that are in the room. So, for me, that's just a blatant conflict of interest. … If you represented that artist, you have financial gain if they, of course, get nominated for a Grammy." 

Taylor Swift, who is up for three awards including Song of the Year, has reportedly bowed out of her Grammy performance, which had not yet been announced — although it’s unclear if the controversy was the reason for her cancellation, or if she will still attend. While it’s possible that attending artists might address the controversy on the red carpet or on the ceremony’s live broadcast this Sunday, Grammys host Alicia Keys, a usually outspoken feminist, will likely stick to her script. (Keys has canceled all of her press interviews before Sunday’s ceremony.) And most Academy members have unsurprisingly declined to address Dugan’s accusations on the record, taking on more of a show-must-go-on attitude.

“The overall vibe of the organization is regrettable that all of this is coming out right now, but [the Recording Academy is] super-focused on making an awesome show for fans and artists. There’s some exciting things in the works… but [Dugan’s] lawsuit isn’t really everyone’s focus,” an inside Academy source diplomatically tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Everyone’s excited and focused on celebrating the artist. These people have worked their entire careers to get to this point. The current mood that you see around here right now is a lot of celebration, and everyone’s super-excited.”

Interim Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. has maintained a similarly optimistic tone, asserting in a statement released to Yahoo Entertainment: “As Grammy week is upon us, I truly hope we can focus our attention on the artists who’ve received nominations and deserve to be celebrated at this time of the year, and not give credence to unsubstantiated attacks on the Academy.”

Lizzo and Billie are expected to be this year's top winners amid Grammys controversy. (Photos: Associated Press)

Billboard’s awards editor and a veteran Grammys expert, Paul Grein, also hopes the night can be a celebration of great music, but he describes the situation as “terribly depressing” and expects that “the mood will be different” at this Sunday’s Grammy ceremony. “[The controversy] is hurting the reputation of the Grammys. … It’s not at all what any of us want the Grammys to be about,” he laments.

However, regarding the supposedly “rigged” nominations process that Dugan has criticized, Grein points out that it hasn’t exactly been an industry secret. “It is widely known that the Grammys have nominating committees that have the final say on what gets nominated. That isn't news; that's been public since 1995,” he says. “It’s called a Nominations Review Committee, to determine the final nominations in the ‘Big Four’ categories. … It is known that the committee has the power to pull things from lower in the list and put up top, displacing things that the voters intended to be nominated.”

In his statement, Mason says, “We have always been transparent about the process — it is posted on our website for anyone to see and review,” and he notes that “the Nomination Review Committees are made up of a diverse group of current and relevant music creators with a high level of expertise in their respective genres.”

Grein actually thinks “ rigged” is a “very loaded word. It makes the process sound phony — and it isn’t phony.” However, he adds, “Yes, you can have a lively debate about whether it's better to have the final nominations decided by a special committee or if we should just trust rank-and-file voters. You could have a real strong debate about whether it's better to let the rank-and-file voters decide, or let a committee of experts decide, with the theory that the experts have listened to everything and are not just voting for name brands or old favorites. A case can be made both ways.”

That being said, while Grein has no intel regarding Dugan’s claims about conflicts of interest, he stresses that industry insiders with direct links to potential nominees, or who are potential nominees themselves, definitely shouldn’t be in the room during this process. “They are supposed to recuse themselves, obviously, if they have any kind of a conflict of interest,” he says. “If somebody is an artist in question, they should not be in the room of voting, nor should anybody who is managing or booking or connected to that artist.”

But now that nominations are in, however tainted the process may or may not have been, Grein notes that this Grammy scandal will not affect who actually wins from among those finalized nominees — because the voting window closed on Jan. 3, two weeks before Dugan was ousted, and “the votes have been locked for 20 days now.” So, with that being said, let’s look at the predictions for the “Big Four” Grammy categories, with Grein’s expertise.

SONG OF THE YEAR

Prediction: Billie Eilish & Finneas O'Connell, "Bad Guy"

Possible alternates: Lewis Capaldi, Tom Barnes, Pete Kelleher, Benjamin Kohn & Sam Roman,  "Someone You Loved”; Taylor Swift, “Lover”; Lizzo, Steven Cheung, Eric Frederic & Jesse Saint John, “Truth Hurts” 

(Also nominated: Lana Del Rey & Jack Antonoff, "Norman F***ing Rockwell"; Lady Gaga, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey & Lori McKenna, "Always Remember Us This Way”; Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth & Tim Hanseroth, "Bring My Flowers Now"; H.E.R., Ruby Amanfu, Sam Ashworth, D. Arcelious Harris & Rodney Jerkins, "Hard Place")

This is the category likely to garner the most scrutiny from skeptics Sunday, as it is the one Dugan singled out during her explosive GMA interview. Dugan claimed that from the 20-name Song of the Year shortlist, someone was moved from the bottom of the list up to the top. Though Dugan did not mention that artist by name, she blamed the situation on a "mostly white male” system that was “taking care of their own."

Capaldi’s breakup ballad “Someone You Loved” is the only nominated song that was recorded by a male artist, and the only one credited to all male songwriters. (The Song of the Year award goes to writers, not recording artists.) But even if what Dugan claims is true, Grein doubts that “Someone You Loved,” which he says “sound like a classic Grammy-winner” and was at No. 1 for three weeks on the Hot 100, is the entry she’s referring to. “I certainly don't think it was pushed up from way down the list into the top eight. There are other songs here that were much less prominent [on the charts] that might've been pushed out,” he says.

While Grein says “Someone You Loved” has a shot, it’s still “the little song that could” compared to some of the other nominees, including Swift’s “Lover,” the only nominated song with a sole writing credit. “Taylor certainly has her supporters, and she's the only one in the field this year who wrote her song by herself,” he says. “That’s almost is starting to seem like a real accomplishment, something that a generation ago was the norm. Now we're in an era of songwriting-by-committee, and it seems impressive that one person can write a song by themselves.” Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” which Grein says is the frontrunner here, only has two writers. (Side note: The winner in this category two years ago, Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like,” set the record for the most writers on a winning entry, with a whopping eight.)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Prediction: Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Possible alternates: Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next; Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride

(Also nominated: Lana Del Rey, Bon Iver, H.E.R., Lil Nas X, Lizzo)

“It really comes down to Billie, who I think will win for a lot of reasons,” says Grein. “Her album was No. 1 for three weeks — longer than any of these other albums that are nominated. Finneas [Eilish’s brother, producer, and co-writer] is up for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, and this is the only one of these Album of the Year nominees that's up for that.”

While Grein does not rule out indie-rockers Vampire Weekend, pointing out that there’s a “sizeable contingent of rock fans now in the Academy” who “often go with rock and alternative,” and he thinks Grande should have been nominated last year for Sweetener, it’s looking like Eilish, who just turn 18 last month, is about to make Grammy history. If Eilish wins, she'll be the youngest Album of the Year winner ever – breaking the record currently held by Swift, who was 20 when she won for Fearless a decade ago.

RECORD OF THE YEAR

Prediction: Lizzo, “Truth Hurts”

Possible alternates: Billie Eilish, “Bad Guy”; Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”; Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road”

(Also nominated: Bon Iver, H.E.R., Khalid, Post Malone & Swae Lee)

Grein doesn’t expect one artist to dominate this year’s ceremony — which was the case in 1981, when Christopher Cross became the only artist in Grammy history to win all of the “Big Four” awards (Record, Album, and Song of the Year, plus Best New Artist) in a single ceremony. Cross’s record is likely to remain unbroken as the love in spread evenly between this year’s two top nominees, Lizzo and the above-mentioned Eilish, with Lizzo winning this particular award. And Grein says that’s for the best.

“My main impression through much of the year that Billie Eilish was going to win everything, but in the last two or three months of the year, Lizzo really came on strong,” Grein says. “And so suddenly we have a horse race in each of the ‘Big Four’ categories, which is probably better for everybody. It's more exciting for the viewers, of course, when it's presumably not going to be a coronation and somebody just wins everything. But I don't think that sweep [in 1981] did [Cross] any favors. It kind of put a target on his back, and I would hate for something like that to happen with Billie or Lizzo.”

While Grein says Grande’s “7 Rings” could appeal to older voters largely for the way it “brought a 60-year-old showtune [“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music] into the streaming era,” and Lil Nas X “got a lot of attention for 19 weeks at No. 1” and for coming out as gay while he was in in that top spot, he still thinks it all comes down to Lizzo vs. Eilish. “I'm going with ‘Truth Hurts,’ in part because of the influx of new [Academy] members.” If Grein is right, Lizzo’s hit would be the second consecutive hip-hop song to win this ward, following Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” last year.

BEST NEW ARTIST

Prediction: Lizzo

Possible alternates: Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Rosalía

(Also nominated: Black Pumas, Maggie Rogers, Tank & the Bangas, Yola)

Eilish and Nas’s record-breaking 2019 achievements cannot be overlooked, and voters may also lean towards Rosalía, the first artist to ever be nominated for Best New Artist on the strength of foreign-language album. “What Rosalía did was very impressive,” notes Grein.

Still, Grein says, “I’m going to go with Lizzo. I think [voters] may decide that both Billie and Lizzo are quality artists, but Lizzo is more of a personality and more of an instant star. It will be very close, but a woman who is talking about body positivity and being proud of who you are, whether you look like Beyoncé or you don't — that’s a backstory that is very compelling. That will be a great moment on the show, and what she represents is important, because let’s face it: More people look like Lizzo in this world than look like Beyoncé. I think it's helping her in Grammy voting — the fact that people want to support her for who she is and what she represents.”

The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and air on CBS this Sunday, Jan. 26. It will certainly be an interesting evening.

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