While accepting the award for best new artist at the Grammy Awards Sunday night, Dua Lipa started her speech by saying she was honored “to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists.” With a wry smile, she added, “I guess we really stepped up this year.”
Following Dua Lipa to the stage was none other than outgoing Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who infamously explained the previous year’s abject failure to acknowledge female talent on the music industry’s biggest night by saying women who wanted more recognition at the Grammys needed to “step up.” His gaffe — awkwardly walked back and ultimately apologized for — snapped what had been already strained by an awards ceremony that saw only one woman, Alessia Cara, win a televised award, and which failed to grant Lorde, the only female nominee for album of the year, a solo performance slot.
This year’s show was clearly the result of the Grammys getting berated into addressing its gender issues. The origin story is not exactly flattering. But for what it’s worth, on Sunday night there were signs of life, of progress, of — if nothing else — proof that Grammys producer Ken Erlich knew the optics would be unforgivable if the show weren’t stacked with female performers and presenters.
The night began with Camila Cabello’s exuberant rendition of “Havana” — for which she was joined by Ricky Martin, Arturo Sandoval, J Balvin, and Young Thug — into a welcome from host Alicia Keys, followed immediately by the oh-so-casual entrance of Michelle Obama, who was flanked by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Surely this FLOTUS cameo was assisted by Tina Tchen, Obama’s former chief of staff, now the head of the Recording Academy’s task force on diversity and inclusion, a group that was formed last year to address documented gender inequality within the Academy and the music industry more broadly.
The top of the show was almost exclusively female: Lady Gaga accepted night’s first award when “Shallow” won best pop duo/group performance (Bradley Cooper was at the BAFTAs and could not join her and/or pee onstage during her speech). Miley Cyrus joined Shawn Mendes for his single, “In My Blood,” and then Kacey Musgraves — whose Golden Hour won all four awards it was up for, including album of the year — sang “Rainbow.” After Musgraves came Janelle Monae, whose rendition of “Make Me Feel” was backed by a electrifying fleet of female dancers, some of whom wore those vagina pants from Monae’s video for “Pink.”
In this way, the Grammys avoided putting men onstage sans women until nearly an hour into the telecast, when Post Malone (ugh) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers broke that streak. But soon the men went back to their seats and were all but erased from recent memory by a Dolly Parton-led tribute to Dolly Parton — an icon among us! — that featured Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miley Cyrus, Little Big Town, and a borderline-manic Katy Perry.
It feels ridiculous to group all these women together as if “female” is a genre, especially given the dazzling range on display: a grand but playful Cardi B., who became the first female solo artist to win the Grammy for best rap album; the lush, powerful guitar of H.E.R., who won two of the five Grammys for which she was nominated, including best R&B album; the stunning vocals of Brandi Carlile, who went three for six last night; the incomparable Diana Ross who, like Dolly Parton, performed a tribute to herself and also shouted “Happy birthday to me!” even though her birthday is over a month away. So what? Are you going to tell Diana Ross when she’s allowed to start celebrating her 75th year on this Earth?
There was exuberance and glee and defiance in all of these performances. It’s almost as if the Grammys telecast would have been better all these years if it had been frontloading this kind of talent from the jump: Women who represent the full spectrum of what’s thrilling and authentic about music right now. The Grammys, like other highbrow awards shows, has struggled to balance rising stars with its reverence for (read: obsession with) its own history. But Sunday night’s show seemed to be honing in on a billing that respected history without cutting off the future at its knees.
Humming beneath the whole night’s proceedings was that feeling only made explicit by Dua Lipa: That this was all an elaborate corrective and/or a really involved apology to Lorde. Would that it didn’t take such a massive failure for the Grammys to course-correct.
Is this a case of better late than never, or is it just too late?
The Grammy Awards are the biggest night in music, or so the Recording Academy continues to insist despite its ever-diminishing guest list. This year, the Academy failed to secure a “yes” RSVP from Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Childish Gambino, and 21 Savage — the last one being the only person on that list who truly could not make it, because the rapper, a double nominee this evening, remains in the custody of the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency, where he has been detained since his arrest last Sunday.
The conspicuous absence of the aforementioned artists — except, that is, for when Grande appeared in an Apple’s Animoji commercial and Donald Glover danced in an ad for a new Google phone — gave the Grammys’ repeated insistence that they totally, definitely matter the same desperate, hollow air of the drunk girl at the waning party cheering about how she’s having the best time ever!!
These no-shows are symptoms of the Recording Academy’s deep, systemic failings, which are not so different from the failings music industry more broadly: Racism, sexism, and the denial that either is quite as dire as critics claim. Artists of color are so frequently overlooked in the big four categories that it’s becoming a new Grammys tradition for white artists to publicly apologize for winning what they know they didn’t deserve.
So, where was everyone?
Ariana Grande, easily the among the most prolific and cultural-conversation-dominating pop artists of the year, announced Thursday that she would be pulling out of a planned Grammys performance. Reports on how the clash vary, but Grande, who released a new album this week, tweeted that “it was when my creativity & self expression was stifled by you [Grammy producer Ken Erlich], that i decided not to attend.” Variety reported that Grande’s team was also furious to see Grande’s image used in billboards and advertising to promote the awards show, considering there was no commitment for her participation. She wound up winning her first-ever Grammy for best pop vocal album, but she spent the night at home in the custom Zac Posen gown she’d planned to wear on the red carpet.
Erlich said the Grammys also offered up performance slots to Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino. But all three declined. As the ceremony approached, none of the artists would even confirm whether or not they planned to attend. Drake, for one, hadn’t attended the Grammys since 2013. He showed up after all, winning best rap song for “God’s Plan,” but Lamar, possibly the most egregious of the recent Grammys snubs, opted out. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” won four awards, including song of the year, but Glover wasn’t in attendance to accept any of them himself.
Jay-Z and Beyonce’s Everything is Love was shut out of all the major categories; clearly the Carters had better things to do than wait around to pick up that coveted “urban contemporary” trophy they didn’t even know they’d win. Taylor Swift, whose Reputation was up for best pop vocal album, spent the evening at the BAFTA Awards in London as her boyfriend’s plus-one. Sure, she’s also filming Cats in London. But if the Grammys were at least as culturally significant as Swift, she’d likely make it her business to attend.
Is there any point in believing in a ceremony that regularly fails to give its highest honors to the worthiest recipients? Is there any salvaging a show that so consistently errs? As pointless as it seems to care about the Grammys and their ability to dole out these awards in some fair and meaningful way, maybe there is, at long last, a reason for cautious optimism. It seems clear that the new system, where the big four awards (best new artist, plus album, record and song of the year) have eight nominees, up from five in years past, is creating the space for more diverse artists to have a shot at more top prizes. Maybe this year’s ceremony — whose awards were voted on by a bigger and more diverse body than ever before — is a preview of better Grammy nights to come.