CMU Opinion

Following The Grammys, we need to totally rethink award shows

By | Published on Friday 2 February 2018

Grammy Awards

Major entertainment award ceremonies have come in for much scrutiny and criticism for their diversity – or a lack thereof – in recent years. None more so than the Grammy Awards.

Growing anger about the lack of racial diversity at the ceremony reached wider attention in 2016, when Frank Ocean revealed that he’d refused to submit the two albums he’d released that year in protest. It was too late in the day to completely overhaul that year’s bash, but little, if anything, was seemingly done to stave off the controversy that then exploded on the night of the ceremony, centred on the #GrammysSoWhite hashtag.

Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, and the man in charge of the Grammys, responded to that year’s criticism by saying that the ceremony did not have “a race problem at all”. After all, the winners of the awards are voted for by the 14,000 members of the Academy, and not chosen by some shady group in a back room somewhere. These are all people who work in music, know music, love music. Race doesn’t come into it. Plus, he added, there are loads of categories at the Grammys which recognise a huge range of different types of music and musicians.

That all ignored a number of things. First, it didn’t take into account the diversity of the voters themselves (or lack of). Secondly, while there are lots of categories at the Grammys, only a fraction of them are actually handed out during the televised ceremony. If people realise that there are other categories at all, they’re unlikely to actually see who won them. And finally, if a fucking army of people are telling you there’s a problem, it’s quite likely that there is one.

The #GrammysSoWhite hashtag did re-emerge this time round. However, the growing #MeToo movement should have been an indication of the wave that was about to hit this year’s event. Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal last year, more and more women are coming forward with stories of being harassed, assaulted and devalued by their male counterparts, in the music industry and far beyond. And for the first time it feels like the world is actually starting to listen. Although perhaps not in the offices of the Recording Academy.

It seems obvious that such a big event in the music industry should reflect everything that’s happened in the last year. If you don’t draw attention to it yourself, then there are plenty of people out there who will, by which point you’ve lost control of how the talking points of the moment are presented. You’d have though that the team behind an award ceremony with a 60 year history would have known this.

I just had a look back through as much of the coverage of this year’s Grammy Awards as I could find. Hundreds of articles. Scanning the headlines, it was very difficult to find any overall positive coverage. Sure, there were matter of fact reports on things that happened during the actual proceedings on the night, and others highlighting upbeat things that performers had said on or off stage. However, as time went on even some of the elements of the show that had initially been deemed good were being re-assessed otherwise.

As stars began walking up the red carpet, it was clear what a hot topic gender diversity would be this time. Many women walked up that red carpet carrying white roses in honour of survivors of sexual assault – a quiet protest organised by the newly formed Voices In Entertainment group. Meanwhile Lorde arrived with what she called her “version of a white rose” – an excerpt from feminist artist Jenny Holzer’s ‘Inflammatory Essay’ sewn into the back of her dress.

Lorde became a particular focus for those wishing to highlight the Grammys’ poor gender diversity. The only woman nominated for the Album Of The Year prize, she was also apparently the only nominee in the category not asked to perform solo. Instead, she was offered a place in a group tribute to Tom Petty, which she refused.

Asked about this, Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich suggested to Variety that it was merely an issue of space, saying: “These shows are a matter of choices. We have a box and it gets full. [Lorde] had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody”.

However, they did manage to find space for U2, who despite not being nominated for anything this year appeared on stage twice – once with Kendrick Lamar and once for their own performance.

Ehrlich suggested that the overall diversity of the ceremony might have been better if Taylor Swift had been there. Her latest album wasn’t eligible for any prizes (being released after 30 Sep 2017), and she’s not U2, so she was off doing something else last weekend. Maybe next year she’ll win a few prizes, pushing up the number of women who get to go up on stage by as many as one.

If Swift is a winner next year, that means the 2019 ceremony will definitely do at least as well as this year in terms of the number of women presented awards during its broadcast. By which we mean one woman.

The only woman to be handed a trophy on TV on Sunday night was Alessia Cara. Among the 9% of total nominees overall who were female, she took the gong for Best New Artist. She was then forced to defend herself against people who thought SZA should have taken that particular prize. Perhaps she should, but it now seems like we’re pitting women against each other to fight over the scraps tossed out to them.

Neil Portnow could have fallen back on his previous line of blaming the Grammy voters for the lack of diversity during the night. After all, they were due some blame given they’d just handed pretty much all the awards to Bruno Mars. Instead, he spat an incredibly poorly chosen collection of words in the general direction of Variety.

“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”, he began. “[They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome”.

Having suggested the lack of women at the Grammys was mainly due to inactivity on the part of female musicians, he did then concede: “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 later told Billboard that he regretted saying that women needed to “step up”, because “when taken out of context” those two words look bad. He’s right, those were the two words that people mainly focussed on, and they did look pretty bad out of context. Of course, they also look pretty shitty in context.

After all, take in its entirety, his Variety statement read like he reckoned women hadn’t yet begun to do very much in music, but if a few of them started trying a bit harder, then in a few years more women might win some awards. If only women would at least make a little effort, then us guys would happily welcome you into our club, he seemed to say.

Whether or not it would have come across better if he’d not used the words “step” and “up” is slightly irrelevant now anyway. By the time Portnow reflected on what he’d said, a long list of people had already pulled his words apart. PinkKaty PerryKelly ClarksonSheryl CrowCharli XCXHalsey and Iggy Azalea were among those to respond angrily.

Crow actually advocated a return to gendered awards to ensure that women get something, though that seems like a backwards step to me. Best Male/Best Female category splits at awards ceremonies already look like organisers don’t believe women are as good as men. And to split categories specifically to boost female nominations now – regardless of how well-meaning that might be – would appear to be confirmation of that. It’s clear that something needs to change at awards ceremonies, but I don’t think that’s it.

Pink meanwhile wrote: “Women in music don’t need to ‘step up’. Women have been stepping up since the beginning of time. Stepping up, and also stepping aside. Women OWNED music this year. They’ve been KILLING IT. And every year before this. When we celebrate and honour the talent and accomplishments of women, and how much women step up every year, against all odds, we show the next generation of women and girls and boys and men what it means to be equal”.

An obvious change for the Grammys would be to start at the top, with Neil Portnow stepping down. He’s been in charge since 2002, in which time the music industry and the world have changed hugely. While it’s true that the make up of the voting academy is the major issue in terms of who does or doesn’t win prizes at the event, Portnow’s unwillingness to date to implement any sort of change is at best embarrassing for the Recording Academy.

There’s already a petition calling for his resignation, and the case for ousting him (aside from all of the above) is arguably increasingly strong on a simple commercial basis. Despite vast (albeit largely negative) coverage of the big TV broadcast, the number of people actually tuning in to watch the Grammys is falling.

This year, according to CBS, which broadcasts it, viewers were down by more than six million on the previous year. A total of 19.8 million Americans tuned in. Close to the all time low of seventeen million (also on Portnow’s watch) in 2006.

Some blamed the controversy surrounding the show, and various politically charged moments, for the poor ratings. Although it seems a lot of people simply weren’t tuning in to begin with.

Presumably in response to those calls for his resignation, Portnow yesterday announced a new Grammys taskforce to review “every aspect of what we do as an organisation and identify where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community”. Which, OK, is a step in the right direction. Though let’s hope a radical change at the top of the Recording Academy is one of the things the review will consider.

Personally, I find awards ceremonies to be pretty tedious affairs at the best of times. I think my preference would be to not have them at all. Though they often make money for whoever owns them, and provide a decent marketing platform for those who win. Assuming they’re here to stay, maybe now would be a good time to totally rethink what award shows do and how they work. Especially for the big televised ones that put the wider music industry on show to the wider world.

With the Grammys out of the way, attention next turns to the BRIT Awards here in the UK. At least there attempts have been made in recent years to actively improve diversity. In 2016, conscious efforts were made to increase the diversity of the voters, with more women and industry representatives from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds invited to take part. While no panacea, at least the BRITs actively acknowledged the problems and took some initial steps to deal with them.

However, just fixing your voting academy isn’t enough. Next, there’s who you choose to play. And it has to be said, the current BRITs line-up isn’t looking especially great in that regard, given the focus this year is on gender diversity in particular.

Justin Timberlake will be flying in, following his big Super Bowl show this weekend. And Ed Sheeran will be there on stage, of course. So too will Rag N Bone Man, Jorja Smith, Stormzy, Dua Lipa, Sam Smith, Foo Fighters and Rita Ora. Three women out of nine acts. And the nominations, despite being split along gender lines in some groups, are not looking great either.

Just as #BRITsSoWhite followed #GrammysSoWhite, it’s looking like #BRITsSoMale may well be trending later this month too.