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Tuesday, February 7, 2017
PODIUM POWER: POLITICS AT THE GRAMMYS
by Erik Himmelsbach-Weinstein
When artists speak out at the Grammys, it’s usually the music that does the talking: Kendrick Lamar’s reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death with his 2016 “The Blacker the Berry” performance; Elton John showing solidarity with Eminem in 2001; or Nicki Minaj taking on the Catholic Church while performing “Roman’s Revenge” in 2012. If there’s controversy, it gravitates toward the trivial, be it J-Lo’s dress or Soy Bomb’s dancing.
But after the outpouring of political dissent to emerge at the American Music Awards, Golden Globes and SAG Awards, many expect presenters and winners at the Grammys to up their game and use their prime-time forum to tee off against the Trump Administration.
"I think artists post-November 8th feel more enfranchised and entitled probably because of the polarity that occurred," show producer Ken Ehrlich told Rolling Stone. "We expect that artists will have things to say and while we're not a forum for that, we also don't feel that it's right to censor them."
“I don’t think anyone will be scared to say something or is very worried about offending Trump,” says Howie Klein, former president of Reprise/Warner Bros. “People feel strongly about what he’s doing. I expect there will be a lot things to make statements about.”
One high-profile artist manager believes Grammy night will be open season on the Trump administration. “It’s going to be a bloodbath,” the rep speculates. “If you thought Trump hated on Meryl Streep, his Twitter is going to explode after the Grammys.”
Sources close to the Grammys told Rolling Stone that CBS executives are worried about potentially damning salvos from the stage, and are combing through scripts and introductions with a fine-tooth comb.
Speaking out is not only the right thing to do, says the head of one large indie label—it’s also good for business. “Trump is so unpopular that for 90% of musicians, the bounce from taking a stand is priceless in terms of building brand awareness,” the exec notes.
Politically charged musicians shouldn’t be a surprise, Klein adds. It comes with the territory: Musicians have traditionally been at the front lines of dissent.
“Historically, cultural figures have been very important,” he says. “There are a lot of people who don’t follow the news very much. Either a musician or actor they respect, if they perceive it as sincere and meaningful, it has real weight. And it’s very important to speak out if they have something to say. I love Green Day for the way they told their fans what’s going on [at November’s AMAs]. I was thrilled when Madonna spoke out at the women’s march.”
Unlike the film and television industries, however, the music biz is not quite as ideologically unified. The country-music sector, in particular, tends to lean harder to the right than New York or Los Angeles. Blind Ambition Management’s Charles Driebe, who oversees the Grammy-nominated Blind Boys of Alabama, believes that if the Nashville community is bothered by anti-Trump rhetoric, they’ll likely keep it to themselves. “The commercial country crowd tends to stay away from controversy. “I don’t think there will be a lot of ‘pro-Trump’ talk,” he says.
“If you’re at the Grammys and you support Trump—particularly if you’re a Country artist—you’re just gonna keep your mouth shut,” agrees one Nashville-based agent. “It’s like bringing a butter knife to a gunfight.”
Margaret Cho agrees. Nominated for a Best Comedy Album Grammy for American Myth, the writer/actress/standup says extraordinary circumstances will override any polarization with the Nashville cats. “This is not about patriotism,” she insists. “This is about a crazy person who is breaking laws, basically.”
Cho, who will also host the Grammy Premiere Ceremony, expects a steady stream of protest from presenters and winners, herself included. “It’s going to be very political,” she says. “That’s the thing about ceremonies right now—they’re a way for people to get that message out. There are so many people unhappy with Trump, it’s just crazy. I can’t seriously believe it. I’ve seen a lot bad presidents—from Reagan to Bush to [W.] Bush—and this is the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s really nuts.”
But in the end, will these messages make a difference, or are we reaching awards-protest fatigue? “Artists have traditionally represented what people in the country are feeling,” says Cho. “Right now is the perfect time for this type of protest. We saw it at the women’s march; we see it throughout music. We’ll continue to see a chance to speak out.”