While much of the chatter surrounding Sunday’s Grammy ceremony centered on Kesha, Janelle Monáe and other women who raised their voices (and wore white roses) in support of #MeToo and Time’s Up, the night’s winners list told a different story. Of the eight awards presented during the telecast, only one – Best New Artist – was given to a woman, Alessia Cara; the full list of 84 categories, which included solo artists and bands, songwriting committees and liner-notes scribes, didn’t fare much better, percentage-wise.
The disconnect between the message of female empowerment and the reality of male dominance made for a jarring viewing experience, even with the full awareness that this was, after all, the Grammys, with their innate, bordering-on-absurd conservatism that, more often than not, seems like a core feature instead of a bug – from Bruno Mars’ 24-karat retro-R&B sweep over more political offerings like Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. and Jay-Z’s 4:44 to the persistence of “name” acts in the lower reaches of the winners’ list. But as Monáe said during her succinct, powerful speech introducing Kesha, “Just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.” Unpacking the Grammys’ innate biases is a crucial step in figuring out how to improve gender dynamics not just within the music industry, but within the culture it entertains.
A few questions, for starters: Why was Lorde, whose big-sky party chronicle Melodrama was up for Album of the Year, reportedly the only nominee not offered a solo performance slot – sources say she was asked to participate in a group Tom Petty tribute – while old-guard male acts like Sting and U2, neither 2018 nominees, got multiple chances to mug for the camera in unmediated fashion? Why was Julia Michaels, up for two of the night’s Big Four cross-genre awards – Song of the Year and Best New Artist – relegated to Kesha’s backing choir? How did Ed Sheeran’s leering “Shape of You” beat “Praying” and the rest of the all-female Best Pop Solo performance field? And why, as Monáe pointed out on Twitter on Saturday, have only 9.3 percent of the Grammy nominees in the past five years been women?
A reporter for Variety asked National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president Neil Portnow about the gender disparity in this year’s Grammy hoopla, and his answer was muddled yet revealing:
“It has to begin with… women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome. I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face but I think it’s upon us – us as an industry – to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”
This response is startling on multiple levels, particularly from someone who purports to represent the whole of the recorded-music business, and who surely scrutinizes the Grammy nominations lists up close. While he somewhat admirably talks about his lack of personal experience with “brick walls,” if he’s listened even faintly to women in the business, Portnow must know that simply stepping forward when the proverbial welcome mat is rolled out and mustering up as much heart and soul as possible won’t solve the problem. Stories about women being disrespected by country-radio employees and journalists and other colleagues on levels ranging from the embarrassing to the egregious abound; relative newcomers like Lorde and seasoned performers like Björk have both noted how male collaborators are often granted “Svengali” status when they work with female artists, but not male artists. Women can “step up,” as Portnow put it, but breaking what is clearly a glass ceiling requires much more than a single move forward – it requires systemic change that might cause discomfort.
Others chalked up the lack of female winners to the dearth of megastars releasing music during the 2018 ceremony’s nomination period like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Taylor Swift, about whom Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich said, “Hopefully we’ll see her next year.” Not only does that ruthlessly celebrity-first sentiment diminish the artistic achievements of SZA (a first-time nominee with five nods), Kesha, Lady Gaga and other women who went home empty-handed, assuming Swift is a slam-dunk is a bit of a stretch: While Swift’s Reputation came out in November – far past the Grammy’s September 30th cut-off date for eligibility – she was nominated in two categories in this year’s awards. She lost in both: The Lin-Manuel Miranda–penned “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana topped her Fifty Shades Darker duet with Zayn, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” (which she performed and co-wrote), while Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos,” credited to Stapleton and Americana songwriter Mike Henderson, beat out the Swift-written Little Big Town song “Better Man” for Best Country Song.
Lorde, perhaps bolstered by the optimism of youth, used her silence, social-media savvy and keen knowledge of the celebrity-media panopticon wisely. Attached to the back of her siren-red gown was a card emblazoned, in spidery handwriting, with a piece by spectacle-minded artist Jenny Holzer. Part of Holzer’s 1979–82 project Inflammatory Essays, the work, like others in the project, originally appeared on wheat-pasted posters around Manhattan – probably not far from where Lorde sat on Sunday night. “Rejoice! Our times are intolerable,” it begins. Then:
“Take courage, for the worst is a harbinger of the best. Only dire circumstance can precipitate the overthrow of oppressors. The old and corrupt must be laid to waste before the just can triumph … the reckoning will be hastened by the staging of seed disturbances. The apocalypse will blossom.”
When Holzer embarked on Inflammatory Essays, which also contains posters that open with “Thou are that kind of privileged woman who is really really sure that nothing will ever happen to thee” and “When you become rich, death sniffs the air and starts circling,” she honed her voice by researching polemicists like Vladimir Lenin and Emma Goldman as well as “various religious and right-wing fanatics,” as she said in a 1986 interview. Not all of the writings necessarily mirrored her beliefs, except that she wanted to “write things that were very hot – in tone and subject matter – to (hopefully) instill a sense of urgency in the reader.” Think of it as a pre-commercial web version of a hot take, complete with a desired, if vague, outcome that resembles the goals of a hashtag campaign: “I wanted the reader to jump, at least,” Holzer said, “and maybe consider doing something useful.”
Lorde may not have uttered a word on last night’s telecast, but her presence – and absence, too – spoke volumes. Whether or not the music industry will more widely “consider doing something useful” in response to the resulting outcry, however, remains to be seen.
Watch our recap of the best and worst moments of the 2018 Grammy Awards.