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Out of touch
by Randall Roberts February 09, 2018
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And now it’s the Grammys’ turn. So far, the Recording Academy has largely avoided the sort of criticism over lack of diversity that’s been levelled at the Oscars. But hours after men swept all but one of the categories given out on live television, #GrammysSoMale was trending.

Kesha’s impassioned performance of Praying was certainly the highlight of this year’s Grammys, but the audience’s emotional response to the anthem of female-empowerment appeared to be skin-deep when the song lost to Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You for pop solo performance.

Indeed, of the 84 Grammy categories handed out, only a dozen or so went to women or acts co-led by women, which is pretty much in keeping with the damning research paper recently published by Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti and Kate Pieper of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Looking at the gender breakdown of nominees, it found that just 9.3 per cent of them between 2013 and 2018 were female.

Having apparently learned nothing from the many men forced to walk back tone-deaf commentary during the #MeToo movement, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow almost immediately made things worse. He responded to the hashtag by urging women to “step up.”

Just as if he hadn’t listened to Kesha’s song, or to singer, actor and producer Janelle Monae’s introduction: “To those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s up.”

Identifying issues including wage inequality, discrimination, harassment and abuse of power, she declared, “It’s not just going on in Hollywood. It’s not just going on in Washington. It’s right here in our industry as well.”

Just as the #OscarsSoWhite campaign forced the film academy to reconsider its almost all-white, mostly male membership, this year’s male-dominated Grammy results prompted many variations on the same unanswered question: Who, exactly, is deciding the winners of music’s most coveted award?

Hard to tell. Like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before The Times investigated and revealed its membership in 2012, the Recording Academy’s demographics have long been a mystery. It is made up of 24,000 professionals who work in all aspects of the business — producers and engineers, label executives, music publishers and artists, of which 13,000 are eligible voters. (By comparison, there are roughly 8,400 members in the film academy.)

But the leadership remains unwilling to offer basic data on its voters, such as race and gender. At the Grammys post-telecast press conference, Portnow was asked directly about male domination.

“I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and their souls,” he answered, “who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on an executive level — to step up, because I think they would be welcome,” Portnow said.

The backlash was swift. “Neil getting up there and saying that women should ‘step up’ just shows [how] out of touch he is and how out of touch the organisation is,” said Dorothy Carvello, the former record executive and author of the upcoming music-industry memoir Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry.

“Women in music don’t need to ‘step up’ — women have been stepping since the beginning of time,” recording artist Pink posted on Twitter. “Stepping up, and also stepping aside. Women owned music this year. They’ve been killing it. And every year before this.”

The Recording Academy did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Further inflaming many critically-attuned music fans, for the coveted Album of the Year Grammy the academy overlooked widely regarded and topical hip-hop releases from Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z in favour of Bruno Mars’ album of retro-focused pop, 24K Magic.

The slight renewed long-held criticism that, absent a diverse membership, the Grammys were denying a major award to rap, the culture’s dominant musical genre for going on two decades now. Over the years the academy has repeatedly been called out by Kanye West, J. Cole, 50 Cent, rap mogul Steve Stoute (he once spent $40,000 [Dhs147,000] on an ad to criticise the awards) and Jay-Z, who went home empty-handed despite having the most nominations this year.

Last year, Chance the Rapper became the first black hip-hop artist since Lauryn Hill in 1999 to win the trophy for New Artist. Song and record of the year trophies have never gone to rap artists. Had Jay-Z or Lamar taken the night’s biggest honour, Album of the Year, he would have only been the third hip-hop artist to do so.

When asked whether the telecast needed to have more rap showcased on-air this year given the genre’s dominance in nominations, Portnow said he didn’t think so, at least during this year’s 60th-anniversary return to the East Coast. “It’s got to be a balance,” he said. For Portnow, the goal is “creating the night to be a real experience and something special that people will talk about for years. We have to play to all of that.”


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