Grammys 2018: Artists Sound Off on Sexism, Equality, Power of White Rose

Cyndi Lauper, Reba McEntire, Sting and others reflect on women's place in the music industry

Lady Gaga, Pink and Zayn Malik show off their white roses on the Grammy red carpet. Credit: Dan MacMedan/WireImage, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images, 2

When the Grammys rolled into New York City Sunday night, it appeared the only #MeToo moment would be Kesha's rousing, star-studded performance of "Praying" preceded by Janelle Monae's impassioned call to arms. But earlier in the week, a group of 16 women in the music industry, drawing inspiration from the Time's Up initiative that asked women to wear black to the Golden Globes, formed the organization Voices in Entertainment and led a charge for people to wear white roses to the event.

On the red carpet before the show, about half of the artists appeared to be wearing or carrying white roses – hardly the show of force at the Golden Globes. Some people simply hadn't heard about the freshly formed initiative. But the dozens of musicians and producers who spoke with Rolling Stone both on the carpet and backstage said that they supported the cause and pointed to specific ways the music industry could transform to be more inclusive, equal and safe for all.

Cyndi Lauper drew an intense face when the subject came up backstage after she joined Kesha for "Praying." "It's time that sisters stand together," Lauper told Rolling Stone. "It's time that human beings grow as a society and fix things that don't work so we have equality. This is a fixable thing. [Women] are 51 percent of the workforce, OK? This is fixable."

But the music industry hardly reflects U.S. census numbers. A recent study reported that only 22.4 percent of the performers on the top 600 songs from 2012 to 2017 on Billboard's year-end Hot 100 chart were women. While the study's pop-focused parameters overlooked certain niche genres in which female performers dominate, it also reported that only 9.3 percent of the 899 people nominated for Grammys in the last six years were women. This year, the only female lead artists to be nominated in the Album, Record and Song of the Year categories were Lorde for Melodrama and Julia Michaels for "Issues."

"Women who are musicians are so used to being around men that they hold their own and don't put up with any crap." - Susan Tedeschi

"The statistics are horrible," Michaels' "Issues" cowriter Justin Tranter told Rolling Stone on the red carpet before the show. "I think that because we have these big female pop stars, people forget that women and marginalized people are so underrepresented in this business."

"I think the industry is just a reflection of American society," adds Rapsody, who was nominated in the Best Rap Song and Rap Album categories. "If you look at our president's cabinet, it's mostly white men. So across the board, we have to come together and be voices for every industry to change and accept women and equality in those areas."

Some artists said they didn't feel the disparity between women and men in music that the numbers suggested. When Rolling Stone read the numbers to Sting, who wore a white rose, on the red carpet, he turns his head and says, "Is that true? It doesn't feel like it." He adds, "I think the music industry more than any other entertainment industry is more integrated in many ways in terms of gender and race. We're not perfect by any means – I think there's room for improvement – but I hope there's no skeletons in the closet."

And in a sharp contrast to the way Hollywood has embraced the conversation, other artists and industry people who spoke with Rolling Stone suggested that women needed to take more of an interest in playing music because the opportunities are there for them. "More women could be doing music perhaps than there are now, and we would look forward to that," Recording Academy president Neil Portnow says on the red carpet. "Trends change. I remember years ago when you would hear about the radio playing only female artists, and now we're not so beholden to radio, so the opportunities are there." 

On Tuesday, Pink issued a sharp rebuke to Portnow, who provoked criticism after telling Variety that women need "to step up because I think they would be welcome.” (He has since walked back his quote.)

"It's embarrassing that it's taken this long to get to this point." - Mastodon's Brann Dailor

Similarly, Reba McEntire, who wore a white rose and won the Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album for her Sing It Now album, thinks things like women's underrepresentation on the charts are cyclical. "In the Nineties, women dominated the charts," the singer says. "If you were a publisher, you couldn't get the writers to write a song for the guys [then] because the women were hot. It'll come back."

"When I did 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun,' it was because I just wanted all girls to see themselves and know that they were entitled to a joyful experience in life and not misery," Lauper adds. "It was freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religion – all the things our country is supposedly based on."

Susan Tedeschi, who walked the carpet with her husband and bandmate, Derek Trucks, says she reluctantly grew to accept a lack of gender equality as she grew up. "There was never a huge amount of women in the music industry other than singers," she says. When asked about why she felt the music industry was slow to embrace the #MeToo movement, Tedeschi says, "I think honestly women who are musicians are so used to being around men that they hold their own and don't put up with any crap. I hate to say that but it's true." When pressed that some don't have a choice, she replies, "Well, that, too, but then they'll usually come out and say something or avoid the situation but it's still going to happen."

Trucks, for his part, offered that he would feel "uncomfortable" for the couple's daughter to go into the music business. "It all depends on the type of music you're playing, and what you're in it for, if you want to go into it for fame and notoriety," he explains. "There are a lot of traps along the way."

"It's a total boys' club," Tranter says. "For the most part, it's straight white men running these labels and publishing companies. I'm fortunate that I have a female publisher and her boss is a man of color. My world is a little more diverse, but the majority of the business is not diverse at all."

For some, the music industry's structure may put it at a disadvantage when it comes to speaking out about inequality. "Music's a little more decentralized than Hollywood is," Trucks says. Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor, who wore a white-rose pin, suggested that the situation within music hasn't come into view in the music industry because there are fewer opportunities like awards shows where artists can embrace a movement and bring it to the public's attention. "It's embarrassing that it's taken this long to get to this point," Dailor says.

Lisa Loeb, the "Stay" singer who won a Grammy this year for Feel What U Feel in the Best Children's Album category, agreed that a dearth of tentpole events has stunted the conversation. "We [musicians] are in the studios, we're on tour, we're so far apart from each other when we're working that it's hard to join together like we do at something like the Grammys," she says. "The music industry needs to be part of this movement to speak out ... people listen to musicians and musicians believe in equality and supporting each other and each other's stories."

It's also a matter of changing times, she says. Lately, she's been excited to see her eight-year-old daughter embrace playing electric guitar. "It's a totally normal thing that a girl would have an electric guitar – literally a girl, not a woman," she says. "Many years ago, when I was a kid, it was very wild that I had an electric guitar. It was unheard of."

But even as times change, there are many barriers that women in the music industry are grappling with daily. K.Flay, who was up for Best Rock Song and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, says it's still hard for women to make an impact on radio. "I saw a huge change [in my career] once I got played on terrestrial radio, and that is such a male- dominated and -controlled industry," she says. "I think some of those gatekeepers are just giving more airtime and opportunities to male artists in that genre. Rock music, historically, is a 'masculine, aggressive' genre that hasn't been welcoming to women. I hope that's changing."

"Underneath all anger is grief and after the grief is done, there's bliss because we can heal. [But] we still have to speak up." - Cyndi Lauper

And Jenny Conlee, pianist for the Decemberists, says she still feels the gender barrier on tour. "We were at Big Day Out in Australia with maybe 30 bands and there were two women – Peaches and Katy Perry – other than myself," she says. "Peaches came up to me and was like, 'Here we are. Isn't this wild that we are so underrepresented here?' and I don't think about it, because I usually feel like we are all sort of genderless in this weird music way, but actually when you look at it, there are more peewees than vajays onstage." She laughs and adds, "I think girls need to start playing music. Maybe girls don't want to be in bands, I don't know, but I think it's a great career and they should aspire to that and study music."

Some say that it's something that is slowly changing. Jain, a French pop artist whose striking, human-rights–themed "Makeba" clip was up for Best Music Video, says she's seen "a lot of young women starting to record themselves on their own computer" in France, but that she'd like to see women support one another more. "There's so [many] men controlling the music industry," she says on the red carpet. "We women don't encourage each other enough. I hope the next generation is going to be strong and fierce."

"I think if the music industry was 50/50, there wouldn't be so much competition [among women]," Bebe Rexha, who accompanied Kesha during "Praying," says backstage after the performance. "I don't think we would be fighting each other and hating on each other, which I think a lot for times girls do. It's important to change that."

Similarly, a sense of unity is what brought Lauper to this year's Grammys. The reason she wanted to participate in Kesha's show of force, she says, was because "nobody believed [Kesha]," when the singer accused producer Dr. Luke of drugging her and sexually assaulting her. "How would people [who doubted her] react if that happened to them?" she exclaimed, looking agitated. (Dr. Luke has denied all charges.)

"I had a lot of weird things happen to me in my life, but I always learned from it," Lauper says. "I'm still standing. I come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother couldn't speak English. She was in an arranged marriage with her cousin and she was treated like a fucking servant. Women are treated badly. And maybe it's my Sicilian background, but I do know underneath all anger is grief and after the grief is done, there's bliss because we can heal. We're not at that point yet. We still have to speak up."

Additional reporting by Sarah Grant