The Grammys—ever tepidly reviewed and rated—is, of course, not just Portnow’s mess. Which is why it was fitting that days before the show, another backstage figure made headlines for unhappy reasons. Ariana Grande had been advertised as a performer at the Grammys, but ended up pulling out. Ken Ehrlich, the telecast’s producer, told the Associated Press that it was just a logistical issue. “When we finally got the point where we thought maybe it would work, she felt it was too late for her to pull something together for sure,” he said.
But Grande, on Twitter, called Ehrlich a liar: “I can pull together a performance over night and you know that, Ken. It was when my creativity & self-expression was stifled by you, that I decided not to attend.” Grande said she’d offered three songs, presumably from her new album, to play at the show—but was encouraged to do something else in the interest of political game-playing and favor trading. It’s a flap that recalls reports from 2018 that Lorde, the only woman nominated for Album of the Year, didn’t play because the Grammys’ producers had only offered collaborative, not solo, performing slots, including in a Tom Petty tribute.
You know that, Ken has quickly become a catchphrase among Grande fans, one that—as with the Portnow controversies—brings new attention to a power player who’s been in plain sight for a very long time. The 76-year-old Ehrlich has been producing the Grammys since 1980, which is more than one and a half the amount of time Grande has been alive. He understandably has pointed to that epic tenure when defending himself. “The thing that probably bothered me more than whatever else she said about me is when she said I’m not collaborative,” Ehrlich told Rolling Stone.
“You can ask Christina Aguilera, who I asked to do ‘It’s a Man’s World’ for James Brown,” he continued. “You can ask Melissa Etheridge, who finished her cancer treatment and I put her out on stage, bald, doing Janis Joplin. You can ask Ricky Martin, who overnight became the creator of the Latin-music revolution. Ask Mary J. Blige, who was scared shitless to go out there and do ‘No More Drama.’ I basically worked with her to mold it.”
That litany indeed includes some of the highlight moments from Erhlich’s reign. Producing an event like the Grammys is an enormous task involving an overwhelming number of elements—personnel, equipment, creative concepts—and that he’s met that challenge for so long is a real feat. But Ehrlich’s 39-year stint has also seen perennial grumbles from viewers about strange performance choices and overlong, tribute-packed, gimmick-obsessed mediocrity, all of which was well on display Sunday night (one top-of-the-head example: J. Lo, of all people, doing the Motown medley).
It’s also seen, in recent years, mounting outcry from not just Grande and Lorde, but also other huge artists such as Frank Ocean and Justin Bieber who for one reason or another have been alienated from what’s supposedly “music’s biggest night.” After Sunday’s show, Nicki Minaj joined their ranks by blasting Ehrlich by name. “I pissed off the same man Ariana just called out for lying,” she tweeted. “Grammy producer KEN. I was bullied into staying quiet for 7 years out of fear.” The full details of their spat would be revealed soon, Minaj promised, building suspense in much the same fashion she has when beefing with rappers. Ehrlich has yet to respond.