The Grammy Awards are supposed to be music’s biggest party. But in recent years the show has also become a pinata for critics, activists and even major artists over a host of issues like race and gender — and, oh yes, music.
The 61st annual show, to be hosted by Alicia Keys and broadcast live by CBS today, should be no different.
After a bruising time last year, when the show came under fire after just one woman won a solo award on the air — and the chief executive of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, commented that women in music should “step up” to advance their careers — the Grammys made a series of changes in their membership and nominations process that were meant to address their underlying problems.
But in many ways the Grammys still walk a tightrope. And as the show tries to stay culturally relevant, while also balancing the demands of race and gender representation, it may be impossible to please everybody at once.
“That moment kind of shed a light on an issue that needed attention, and that is a lack of diversity in the industry,” Portnow said. “And if the light that was shed becomes a catalyst for change, then you can feel that it had a reason and a value.”
To viewers, one of the clearest changes will be that eight, instead of five, acts will now compete in the four major categories: album, record and song of the year, and best new artist.
For album of the year, Drake and Kendrick Lamar, two deities of contemporary hip-hop, are up against Post Malone, who has topped the charts with a mellow style between rapping and singing; the boisterous rap of Cardi B; the adventurous R&B of Janelle Monae and H.E.R.; and two singer-songwriters in the country and folk spheres, Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile.
If Carlile prevails, she would be the award’s first openly gay winner. But as an artist with minimal sales, would her victory make the Grammys seem out of touch with the masses? Will a rapper win, or will they cancel one another out on the ballot?
WHILE race has been a growing problem for years, the Grammys’ most urgent issue is over gender. Last year, a report by the University of Southern California, released days before the show, found dismal numbers about the representation of women in the music industry and at the Grammys. Lorde, the only woman nominated for album of the year in 2018, was not offered a solo performance slot.
After the show, Portnow’s “step up” comment drew an immediate outcry, with some women music executives calling for his resignation. (Portnow said at the time that his words had been taken out of context, and later announced that would leave his position at the expiration of his contract in July.)
In response, the Recording Academy appointed a task force, led by Tina Tchen, a former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, to make its voting pool more diverse, inviting 900 new people this year, from a variety of backgrounds, to be members; of those, 22 percent accepted in time to vote, according to Laura Segura Mueller, the academy’s vice president of membership and industry relations.
Portnow said he viewed last year’s criticism as an opportunity to address important issues, and for the academy to take a leadership role in the industry. Not everyone will be happy, he said, but that’s OK.