On last night’s American Music Awards (AMAs), Taylor Swift doubled down on her voter registration message, Ciara and Missy Elliott leveled up, and Aretha Franklin finally got the tribute she deserved. Women were at the forefront of the show, which was a vast step forward from their massive under representation at the Grammys or the MTV VMAs and the number of awards they won was a step up from their Billboard Music Awards treatment. The AMAS did the best job representing women as performers and winners of any music awards show this year. They also showed us how far music has to go to fix its #MeToo and representation issues.
Of the show’s 13 performances, eight featured women as the primary artist. Women collected trophies throughout the telecast, with Taylor Swift taking home enough of them to break Whitney Houston’s record for most AMAs won by a women artist. And the Queen of Soul was granted a moment, at least in part because of her longstanding relationship with the also departed Dick Clark, who founded the awards in 1973. On the surface of things, it would seem the AMAs was a damn good night for women.
But digging a little deeper, the AMAs also highlight some serious areas that need work. First and foremost, let’s talk about the late XXXTentacion being nominated for two awards, and winning one that was broadcast in the show. Imagine the Golden Globes nominating Roman Polanski (or Woody Allen, or Kevin Spacey, or any number of high profile men accused of sexual misconduct) for an award this year, of all years. Imagine them giving it to him on television. And imagine that later on, when a woman nominated against him lauds his work, saying she’s a fan and it’s an honour to be in the same category as him. That’s essentially what happened with XXX’s win, and Camila Cabello’s subsequent lauding of him in her Best New Artist acceptance speech. XXX, who passed away earlier this year, may have been a talented artist and undoubtedly has legions of fans. But he is also accused of violent, disturbing abuse against a woman. We don’t have to celebrate abusers at our awards show, and to do so only tells women that their pain is not important. It was an especially bitter pill to swallow after weeks of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle. Music seems to think it can continue to exist in a bubble where #MeToo and support for the survivors of abuse are negligible.
Second, the AMAs have such a high award count for women because they still have gender separated categories that ensure women don’t have to compete with men. It creates an uneven playing field for artists. Even worse, the show separates the categories by Male and Female, creating a lack of space for trans and gender nonconforming artists by centering the categories on biological gender and not gender identity. Take away the male vs. female wall of separation, and men absolutely dominated the wins this year. Even Taylor Swift isn’t the all-time most awarded artist, she’s just on top of her fellow women artists.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after listening to what all the celebrities on the show, from those who presented or won awards to those who performed, had to say it felt like some sense of connection to the political landscape for women was lacking. Swift and Billy Eichner urged viewers to vote, and host Tracee Ellis Ross went out of her way to acknowledge Black culture and the strength of women. Carrie Underwood performed a song that could, if you squint, be an indictment of abuse as related to alcoholism. Cardi B shouted out her haters in her Best Rap/Hip Hop artist win speech, acknowledging the numerous people who told her she wouldn’t have a career if she had a baby and put her music and tour on hold. Music doesn’t think it has music of a woman problem, despite dire statistics about the under representation for women as artists, songwriters, and producers and serious concerns about sexual abuse in music go unaddressed.
It’s not just on women in music to talk about these issues, from #MeToo to the systematic exclusion of women from select roles in music — including those in the boardroom. There weren’t any dudes on stage talking about how it’s time to do better by the women in music either. The Grammys seemed to set the tone earlier this year, putting the onus on artists to create moments of wokeness. But maybe it’s time, as we wrap up another year of music awards shows, to look at the issue with new eyes in 2019. It’s on awards shows as well, to make artists feel safe sharing their views and to apply a smarter filter, so they don’t give awards to those accused of preying on women on national television.