The Grammys truly bungled their attempt to be part of the conversation around equality and representation for women this year. First, there was no coordination with Time's Up, which organized protests at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, to help raise money for their legal fund or give attendees an opportunity to rally behind achieving equality for women in the industry. So, a group of 14 women who are mid-level music industry executives pulled together and formed Voices in Entertainment, and started the white rose campaign the Wednesday before the ceremony. Speaking to Refinery29, one of their organizers, Meg Harkins of Roc Nation, indicated that the Grammys only mark the starting point for their initiative.
Then, on the Thursday before the ceremony, a study was released by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, that revealed how exceptionally underrepresented women are in music. Among the statistics was a look at Grammy nominees, of which women only made up 9.3% from 2013 to 2018. Or, as the study breaks it down, "This is a gender ratio of 9.7 males to every 1 female." Less than 10% of the artists nominated for Record of the Year or Album of the Year, the Grammy's two flagship awards, were female. Those are bad optics for the Grammys as a whole, and they were only enhanced at the 2018 Grammys by an Album of the Year nomination field with one female artist nominee (Lorde) and a Record of the Year category with zero female artists.
The Grammys, lead by Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, and its telecast, helmed by Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich, did not adequately plan for their telecast to give voice to women. Not that they ever do, but this year it has blown back on them with exceptional ferocity. They offered Kesha a performing spot, which Ehrlich explained to the Los Angeles Times came about after he saw her at the Hollywood Palladium. His decision, by his account, had less to do with her narrative and more to do with her showmanship. While that might be diplomatic, it was not the smartest choice for the Grammys this year. Instead, they should have been all over embracing the voices, presence, and representation of women.
While Kesha's performance, Janelle Monae's introduction of it, and Camila Cabello's speech in support of Dreamers that followed it were emotional highlights of the telecast, the Grammys would face one more controversy: They forgot about Lorde.
News broke on Sunday ahead of the awards show that Lorde was not performing because she wasn't offered a solo performance slot. All of her fellow (male) nominees were. That is bad optics that sends a message to the public and the industry that Ehrlich does not think she is a good enough performer to deserve three minutes in their four-and-a-half hour long telecast. It also conveys that, despite being nominated for one of the top awards of the night, the Academy does not revere her contributions enough to give her airtime on "music's biggest night."
Buckle up, because it gets worse.
Speaking to the press backstage after the awards show, Variety reports that Portnow addressed the public conversation around #GrammysSoMale, a hashtag that began trending during the show.
“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." Portnow said, and let's pause the tape right there. The head of the Recording Academy thinks it is on women to step up and take the jobs they want in music.
"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," Portnow continued, course correcting his earlier statement to at least acknowledge that men bear some responsibility in the fight for equality.
Here's a suggestion: Make the welcome mat obvious by inviting the single female nominee for Album of the Year to have the same opportunities all the male nominees did. It's called parity.
Not to be outdone, Ehrlich decided to open his mouth and insert his foot as well, according to Variety. In response to a question about Lorde, he said: "I don’t know if it was a mistake. These shows are a matter of choices. We have a box and it gets full. She had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody."
We, the women in music, also have a box that gets full. Right now it's full of men who think gender or race are boxes to check off, that you can have enough of them. There is no threshold for enough when it comes to representation, but the Grammys certainly aren't near it with their dismal track record when it comes to women. Having one moment in the show devoted to the #MeToo narrative is not representation, it is tokenism. Women aren't an in memorandum or tribute section of the show to check off the list. We are half of the population. Female musicians are some of the most creative, impressive figures in the history, present, and future of music. If Ehrlich and Portnow can't understand those thoughts and reconfigure their box accordingly, then I have a suggestion.
It is not women who need to step up, but these two men in particular. If they are unable to read the zeitgeist, if they are unable to read the statistics, if they are unable to watch their own show and recognize that only one woman, Alessia Cara, winning an award on television is a problem then perhaps women aren't the issue. Yes, the music industry at large has a problem with representation and is clearly stifling opportunities for women. Perhaps the Recording Academy shouldn't wait for the industry to lead it, but step up as a leader in the industry.
And, if they are unwilling to do so, it is the Recording Academy who should step up and find a new president. It is CBS who should step up and find a new production partner for the Grammy telecast. Time's up on this conversation.
Courtney Smith is an editor at Refinery29. The views expressed are her own.
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