“People think we know who’s going to win, but we don’t.”


An Exclusive HITS Dialogue With Grammys Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich by Roy Trakin
With his 33rd Grammys telecast in the books, Ken Ehrlich is taking some deserved time off, preparing for a round of golf with T Bone Burnett, amid the accolades for a show that has hit its stride over the last five years. Before he could hit the links, though, he sat down for a post-telecast wrap-up with HITS’ resident consolation prize Roy Trakin, who lets fun. rain on his parade.

It must take a little while after the show for you to wind down.
You do get yourself to a point where sometimes you wonder if you will. Honestly, it’s just a very heady experience. I can act one way when I have the Grammy over my shoulder, but I never forget the fact, a week later, I’m basically the same piece of shit I always was.

Watching last night, I realized the Grammys are a combination of the Super Bowl and an all-star game, a snapshot of the previous 12 months in music.
It is that and more. The thing you keep uppermost in your mind is that you’re carrying the mantle of the music business. At the end of the day, what pleases me most are the emails from people who pat you on the back and say the show makes them proud to be part of this community. And we find ourselves in a time of being able to say that less and less.

Have you done any kind of Monday morning quarterbacking about the show?
It would be arrogant to say no, but not many. The ratings vindicated the structure of the show. It held pretty much for the whole duration. We know there’s some attrition at 10:30-10:45, but it maintained a strong rating until the end. We had a major problem with the Taylor Swift segment an hour before the show. The number was supposed to end with her on a scissor lift going about 10-12 feet in the air over the audience. It worked during the dress rehearsal, but then the gears got stripped and it failed. We were frantically trying to get another one in, but we couldn’t. You like things to be perfect, but no one really missed it, except for us. Maybe the fact Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley performed and then didn’t get the Grammy that was handed out right after. People think we know who’s going to win, but we don’t.

The big productions have really mushroomed in the post-MTV age.
I don’t know if topping yourself is personified by more elaborate sets. We have a reasonably set budget every year, which has to cover 19 acts. Part of it for me is to try and vary the feel of the show. We had Kelly Clarkson out in the middle of the house with nothing behind her, followed by something with a lot of scenery. I love going up and down look-wise and musically. I’d like to think we try to support the acts the best we can. There have been years when we did very little scenery. Other than the Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake numbers, there weren’t any dancers on-stage. Maybe there should’ve been one more number like those. It varies from year to year, following the music from that time period. I would rather have the show judged by its musical temperature than what it looked like. Of course, the visualization of music since MTV is a huge factor in what we do. But I don’t think it’s about the scenery. On the other hand, I’m very proud of the Emmys our scenic department and lighting people receive.

How involved are the artists in how they’re presented on the telecast?
It varies from artist to artist. There are some artists we have a short-hand with because we’ve worked together before. Take Adam Levine and Alicia Keys. The three of us had a conference call several weeks ago to talk about the “Daylight” and “Girl on Fire” medley. I really believed those two songs would go great together. Taylor Swift has a creative guy named Baz Halpin, who’s a genius. He did the P!nk performance on the AMAs. That was all their vision. It was my idea for Miranda and Dierks to do the duet on “Home” and “Over You.” With fun., it was kind of a combination. We agreed to do “Carry On,” which I thought was a really good choice rather than doing “We Are Young” or “Some Nights” because it was underexposed. In terms of the production, they suggested a Montreal graphics and visual company, Moment Factory, who did Celine Dion’s Vegas show, which I directed, so I was well aware of them. Together, we came up with the rain idea.

How did the band not get electrocuted?
It’s all low-voltage equipment. The only real contact, other than the non-conductive material on the floor, was the microphones, which we skinned with condoms—extra-large. The only questionable things were the guitars, and they were all grounded. The drummer, who had a lot of microphones around him, was out of the rain.

The mash-up of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” and Sting’s “Walking on the Moon,” segueing into the Bob Marley tribute with Rihanna, Ziggy and Damian, was a real highlight.
The whole idea was inspired by listening to “Locked Out of Heaven.” Bruno didn’t want to be on the show this year, but I called Kathy Schenker to find out what Sting thought about him. Frankly, the song is either an homage to The Police or a rip-off. Turns out Sting thinks Bruno is great, and wanted to be part of it. So I built this reggae number around “Locked Out of Heaven,” and Sting came back and said he wanted to do “Walking on the Moon.” Then I added Rihanna, Damian and Ziggy, and went back to Bruno, who agreed to take part.

How did the Frank Ocean performance of “Forrest Gump” come about?
I honestly didn’t agree with the song that he chose or the production he brought to it. I thought we probably could have helped in a lot of ways. And I thought so from the beginning. Basically, it was presented to us, take it or leave it. This is what Frank wants to do. He apparently didn’t have a good experience on the VMAs, so he wasn’t in a trusting mood. The reaction was pretty divided. On-line, there were people who thought it was terrific and others who thought it was not.

Loved what you did with the black and white sepia-tone on the Justin Timberlake performance.
That idea was theirs. Justin remembered that we had done the same thing several years ago with NSYNC.

The projections on Carrie Underwood’s gown were also impressive.
That’s a fella we’ve been working with for a few years now named Raj Kapoor, who is wonderful. He specializes in computer graphics. He designed Carrie’s touring show and brought that to us. We didn’t want to take away from the artist or the performance. But I think it added to the number.

This year’s show seemed to span almost every musical genre.
It’s something we have an opportunity to do because the Grammys are such a broad award show. We’re not limited to a single genre. We try to create s how for the largest audience possible. It’s great to be able to give them 90 seconds of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” And you have artists like The Black Keys bringing on Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I do love connecting the dots, whether it’s cross-genres or bringing together heritage and young acts. Every year we try to fill that blank canvas. People have now come to expect that from us. The other shows try to do what we do now in terms of honoring the past, the broad landscape of music rather than just one little piece of it. If that’s my legacy, I’m proud of that. Nobody else does it the way we do.

Where and what are you doing while the show is on?
I live underneath the stage like a troll. We have an unfortunate name for it. We call it the Bunker. I’m there with the lead stage manager, Gary Hood, and Jack Sussman. Neil Portnow comes back from time to time. We’re watching on the monitors as the show literally passes before us, as presenters walk up the stairs to the stage. I’ll greet and talk to them, if I can, give them one last kick in the pants, which is sometimes meaningful and sometimes distracting. I remember giving Mary J. Blige a pep talk before she gave her career-changing performance of “No More Drama.” She was scared shitless, and I could see that in her eyes. And I just said to her, “You’ve got one shot at this. What you need to do is forget about everything else and pretend you’re 12 years old and in front of your bedroom mirror.”

How come Gotye didn’t perform?
We thought about him and talked about it. Honestly, I think it’s a great song and a great video. It was hard to come up with an idea to present it. It’s a great song, but it’s not necessarily a great performance. At the end of the day, any performance that gets on the Grammys has to knock somebody else off. What would you have not wanted to see on Sunday night in favor of Gotye? In the end, it’s a consensus decision. I love the song. I’m just not sure a performance of it on the Grammys would’ve served it well.

Are you happy with LL Cool J as host?
LL is a CBS star with music cred, and we all fell in love with his persona. What he brought to that show last year, with his prayer for Whitney. B’shert is a word I don’t see often in HITS, but that’s what it was. Not only did he earn his stripes, but we saw great potential in him.

I realize it’s part of the deal with your network partner CBS, but rolling out some of these sitcom stars with no connection to music is a bit of a jarring note.
The network has been and continues to be great partners. They’re #1 for a reason. More people watch CBS than any other network. The presenters we use are very popular stars of the big shows on the network. The fact of the matter is, they ask us to do this, and for their financial investment and long-term commitment to the partnership, we say yes.

Do you monitor Twitter while the show is going on?
It’s the last thing I can do during the show. I will go back and read some of the blogs after it’s over, which are, for the most part, pretty smarmy. But the instant criticism is only good for the moment. Judge me later, not during.
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