Review: The Recording Academy is mired in scandal. The Grammys tried to make you forget it
The 62nd Grammy Awards had a lot to contend with Sunday night when the ceremony kicked off at Staples Center just hours after Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash in the hills above Calabasas along with seven other people.
“We’re literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built,” said cool and collected host Alicia Keys, who had the impossible job of creating a celebratory mood inside the Lakers venue, where the late player’s retired jerseys hung illuminated above the star-studded audience and crowds mourned outside.
The tragedy, however, wasn’t the only catastrophic hurdle Keys faced during the three-plus-hour CBS telecast.
Scandal erupted days before music’s biggest night when the Recording Academy was accused of systemic sexism, voting irregularities and covering for its former president and chief executive, Neil Portnow, when he was accused of rape by a female music artist. (Portnow denies the accusation.)
The bombshell was dropped by his replacement, Deborah Dugan, after she was recently placed on “administrative leave” amid allegations of misconduct. The irony is that the organization hired Dugan, and formed a task force headed by Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen, to help remedy its women issues.
The organization has been was widely criticized for sidelining women in its nominations process. A recent study showed that only 10.4% of Grammy nominees between 2013 and 2019 were women, despite the preponderance of strong female talent at the forefront of popular music.
Sunday night was supposed to mark a change. But the scandal, coupled with the spectacle on stage, poked holes in the facade that the Grammys, or the Recording Academy, had changed an age-old music-industry standard of discounting female artists while simultaneously objectifying them.
FKA twigs did not sing but instead pole-danced during Usher’s Prince tribute; she tweeted later in the ceremony that she would have loved to sing, but the Grammys did not ask her. Ariana Grande’s medley performance looked like it was ripped from an old Aerosmith video — dozens of girls sashaying in lingerie, rolling around on a bed together.
The honors handed out did signal some progress. Billie Eilish won five awards, including a sweep of the four major categories: album, song, record and new artist. A majority of nominees for best album — five of eight — were women. Lizzo led going into Sunday’s awards with eight nominations, winning three, while an openly gay rap artist, Lil Nas X, was up for six awards, winning two.
But while there’s been progress in the diversity of the Grammy nominees, in particular women, the academy needed to address the recent blowup rather than hiding behind the gowns of women on stage.
No one save for Dua Lipa, who called for more women to be hired in behind-the-scenes roles in the music industry, said much of anything about the Recording Academy-sized elephant in the room. Except maybe Keys.
“Let me be honest with y’all. It’s been a hell of a week,” she said in her opening piano number. “It’s time for newness. We refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old system. We want to be respected and safe in our diversity. We want to be shifting to [more] inclusivity.” Then, as if signaled from offstage, she switched gears to remind the room they were there “to celebrate the artists.”
Lizzo too had one of the harder jobs of the evening. She opened the ceremony, dedicating the show to Kobe, then launched into a medley that was emotional but not morose. She rallied the subdued crowd, pulling it in with a rousing, full-throated, downright fierce set.
As the Grammys telecast showed, music is brimming with performers who exemplify the progress the academy seems prepared to leave to a hired committee to implement. Some of the show’s best moments came when Lil Nas X took the stage with Billy Ray Cyrus, K-Pop boy band BTS, YouTube yodeling sensation Mason Ramsey, EDM star Diplo and respected rappers Young Thug and Nas for a rendition of “Old Town Road.”
But as the camera swept repeatedly over the star power in the audience, including Trevor Noah, Gwen Stefani, Smokey Robinson, LL Cool J and Ellen DeGeneres, among numerous others, they looked preoccupied. Likely it was with the sad news outside the door. But perhaps it was also a response to a show that felt like window dressing for an institution stuck in another era, when diminishing women’s contributions to popular music wasn’t a scandal — it was business as usual.
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