The Grammys president pissed off everyone by saying women need to ‘step up’

Burn the Grammys to the ground

This weekend’s 60th Annual Grammy Awards included plenty of political speeches, messages, and performances from women, but the biggest take-home was that the music industry isn’t practising what it preaches.

Even before the ceremony, reports surfaced that Lorde, the only woman nominated for Album of the Year, was not allowed to perform solo (unlike her male counterparts) but instead asked to perform as part of a group. On the night itself, Alessia Cara was the only woman to take home a prize during the televised portion of the awards, with most going to artists like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran.

Fans voiced their irritation using the #GrammysSoMale hashtag, and when Variety put these criticisms to Neil Portnow – the president of The Recording Academy, and effectively the man who heads up the Grammys – he responded by saying that women just need to “step up”.

“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 said.

There are obviously a few things wrong here. Portnow’s meritocratic rhetoric – that women simply need to step up their game and they’ll make it to the top – totally ignores the massive structural and insitutional obstacles that women face in the music industry (and really, any industry). Change shouldn’t “begin with” women, but the men who hold power.

The words also feel gross in the context of #MeToo and #TimesUp. While the movement hasn’t hit the music industry to the same extent that it has Hollywood, there have nevertheless still been reports of abuse by powerful men. At the Grammys, this was visibly expressed by Kesha, who performed “Praying” for the executives of an industry that won’t release her from her record contract despite alleged abuse.

“Bruno Mars won Best Album with 24K Magic, a retro throwback... In what universe is that more inventive than Lorde’s Melodrama?”

Even if you were to take Portnow’s comments at face value, they’re still just... wrong. Bruno Mars won Best Album with 24K Magic, a record that was such a retro throwback that he literally shouted out 80s producers and hitmakers Baby Face, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Teddy Riley in his acceptance speech. In what universe is that more inventive than Lorde’s Melodrama? How does “That’s What I Like” make more sense in 2018 than SZA’s “Supermodel”, which he beat out in Best R&B Song?

Musicians were understandably quick to respond. “Ugh, bout 2 step up on 2 ur face,” Charli XCX tweeted. “Women are making AMAZING music right now wtf is this dude talking about?”

“IF YOU’RE DEBATING WHETHER OR NOT I CAN MURDER A STAGE... COME SEE IT FOR URSELF,” Lorde wrote, linking out to her tour dates.

“Women owned music this year... and every year before this,” P!nk said in a handwritten statement. “When we celebrate and honour the talent and accomplishments of women, and how much women step up every year, against the odds, we show the next generation of women and girls and boys and men what it means to be equal and what it looks like to be fair.”

Portnow’s comments suck, but they’re also the attitudes of the people who hold real power in the industry. Short of widespread institutional change – the sort that involves sacking most executives and starting from scratch – they aren’t likely to change. Asking for representation in a system that’s fundamentally broken is pointless.

There are deep-rooted problems with the music industry, from the exploitation of performers to the abuse faced by women and men who work behind the scenes and don’t have public-facing jobs. Awards ceremonies like the Grammys aren’t really about the artists, but about celebrating the power of the industry itself. They simply aren’t the place to be fighting these sorts of battles.