2019 Grammy Awards: 3 key storylines ahead of Sunday's ceremony

The 61st Grammy Awards on Sunday night could be more forward-looking and eclectic after recent firestorms over diversity and representation.
Image: Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Alicia Keys
Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Alicia KeysChelsea Stahl / NBC News

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By Daniel Arkin

The pop music industry is in flux — reshaped by the rise of streaming services, remixed by cutting-edge genres and styles, redefined by the swift ascent of new voices from across the globe. In recent years, the Grammy Awards has sometimes lagged behind the times and stumbled into cultural firestorms. But this year's ceremony (Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS), hosted by 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys, could be more forward-looking and eclectic. Here's a look at some of the major storylines heading into the show.

WOMEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT

In the wake of last year’s ceremony, the Record Academy was embroiled in a furor over gender representation and diversity. But this year’s show is shaping up to be a loud-and-clear showcase for female artists, from reigning hip-hop queens to rising stars.

The four marquee categories — record of the year, song of the year, album of the year, and best new artist — are dominated by women, including the vivacious Bronx-born rapper Cardi B and the R&B envelope-pusher Janelle Monáe. In the album of the year field, for instance, women make up five of the eight contenders. (Kendrick Lamar and Drake, however, racked up the most overall nominations.)

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At last year’s divisive ceremony, only two female performers nabbed prizes during the live telecast and Twitter lit up with the #GrammysSoMale hashtag. The indie pop singer Lorde, the only woman nominated for album of the year, reportedly was not offered a slot for a live solo performance.

Neil Portnow, head of the academy, stirred more backlash when he said backstage that women in the music industry needed to “step up.” He later acknowledged his “poor choice of words” and announced he would step down in 2019, making this year’s show his last.

OSCARS OVERLAP

It seems no one awards show could contain the sweeping cultural power of “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born.” Marvel’s superhero smash and Bradley Cooper’s country-fried melodrama could make strong showings at both the Grammys and the Academy Awards on Feb. 24.

The “Panther” soundtrack, anchored by Kendrick Lamar and SZA's Oscar-nominated anthem "All the Stars," is up for eight Grammys — including record of the year and album of the year. Lamar, who curated and co-produced the soundtrack, could take home his first album of the year award after falling short three times, most recently when his Pulitzer Prize-winning "DAMN" lost out to Bruno Mars' ebullient "24K Magic."

Lady Gaga and Cooper's “Shallow,” the soaring, Oscar-nominated ballad that powers “A Star Is Born,” is in the running for four Grammys, including record of the year. (The album itself was released after Grammy eligibility.) Gaga, who won a Golden Globe for "Shallow" last month, notched a total of four Grammy nods for the hit single; Cooper scored two.

GHOSTS OF THE PAST

R&B singer R. Kelly has won three Grammys from 26 nominations. Michael Jackson, who died nearly a decade ago, earned 13 Grammy Awards, along with a lifetime achievement prize.

But at this year’s ceremony — another entertainment event shadowed by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements — the mere mention of these two artists might be taboo. But will a presenter or performer address their alleged misdeeds?

“Surviving R. Kelly,” a recent six-part Lifetime series, has put fresh scrutiny on the R&B singer’s alleged sexual and physical abuse. R. Kelly has consistently denied the allegations against him.

“Leaving Neverland,” an upcoming HBO documentary, could inspire a renewed reckoning with Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of children. Jackson, who long professed his innocence, was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005.