Expecting radical action from an awards ceremony is like expecting the weather forecast to rearrange the skies. These events reinforce cultural norms rather than setting them, even if institutions such as the Oscars and Golden Globes are trying to reinvent themselves in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter. But rarely has that culture of affirmation been more apparent than at this year’s Grammys, which rode numerous political moments without contributing to or rewarding them.
The Grammys’ 60th year boasted two advance headlines. One was that hip-hop might finally get its dues at the ceremony. The first hip-hop record to win the album of the year category was Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999; the second, and latest, was Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. This year marked the rare occasion when no white men were up for the award, populated instead by Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, Jay-Z’s 4:44, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn and Lorde’s Melodrama. Yet Mars won with his third album of cosy funk and R&B. His acceptance speech nodded to its retro influences – 80s and 90s stars Babyface, Teddy Riley, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – putting him in stark contrast with his more progressive, political competitors.
Elsewhere in hip-hop, Jay-Z received the most nominations of any artist, with eight nods for 4:44, but won no awards. Lamar won in the rap categories for album, song, performance and collaboration, but lost in the top-billing general slots for album, video and record. The Grammys’ failure to recognise hip-hop undermines its flashy overtures to the genre, and fails to reflect its status as the most popular genre in the US.
The ceremony’s other advance headline was that this year’s Grammys might provide music’s inexplicably overdue “#MeToo moment”. Following the campaign for Golden Globes nominees to wear black in solidarity with victims of sexual violence, a group of female major-label employees under the name Voices in Entertainment suggested that attendees wear a white rose as a symbol of “hope, peace, sympathy and resistance”. Host James Corden said he thought it would be “a moving moment”. The Recording Academy had also booked Kesha to perform her song Praying – implicitly understood to reference her allegations of sexual and physical abuse against former producer Dr Luke – as a way of recognising the ongoing cultural dialogue.
Kesha’s performance was wrenching. Backed by a choir including Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper and Julia Michaels, she cried in her collaborators’ arms after the final note. Yet it also felt exploitative on the Grammys’ part. Kesha lost her case against Dr Luke, who is now suing her for defamation, and she cannot discuss the case directly; the Grammys put the burden of representing a new era of zero tolerance in entertainment on a woman who remains trapped in its grey areas.
This hypocrisy was further entrenched by the awards’ failure to recognise women. Out of 86 categories, only 17 were handed to women, or female-fronted bands. The televised ceremony only featured one female winner, Alessia Cara for best new artist. Lorde was the only album of the year nominee who wasn’t asked to perform solo, but reportedly was invited to join a tribute to the late Tom Petty, which she allegedly declined. “We have a box and it gets full,” Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich said of the snub. “She had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody.” And yet, Sting and Shaggy – Sting and Shaggy – performed two – two! – songs from their forthcoming collaborative album.
After the ceremony, Variety asked Recording Academy president Neil Portnowabout the #GrammysSoMale hashtag circulating throughout the broadcast. He put the onus of change on 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.”
Few things leave a bad taste like powerful men undermining their immense influence to suggest that it’s up to marginalised groups to better their own fortunes, wilfully ignoring the systemic barriers that women, people of colour and the LGBTQ community face when navigating any establishment. Just last week, a number of reports were published confirming music’s gender inequality issue. A study by the University of Southern California analysed 600 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 between 2012 and 2017, finding that women accounted for just 22.4% of artists and 12.3% of all songwriting credits. It also found that women comprised just 9% of Grammy nominees from the past six years. Billboard published its 2018 Power List, ranking the most influential people in the music industry. Universal Music Publishing’s Jody Gerson was the only standalone woman in the top 25 (four other women shared billing with male colleagues).
Never mind the Recording Academy’s hopes of kickstarting music’s #MeToo moment; by systemically underrepresenting women’s achievements and contributing to a lack of female visibility, they’re helping to entrench its absence. There is a direct correlation between a lack of opportunity for women in music and the underreporting of abuse that is a widely acknowledged failure of the industry. When men such as Portnow admit to not having “personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face”, how can they know where change needs to happen? When men predominantly occupy positions of power, and a woman has been exploited by a powerful man, who can she trust with her allegations? Unrelated to the Grammys, I was struck by DJ Annie Mac’s comments in a recent Guardian webchat when asked if she could name “three male allies” to women’s rights in the music industry. “I have been racking my brains and the answer is no,” she said. “I cannot name a man who is publicly pushing forwards women’s rights and making a point of appointing women.”
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