A year after the ‘step up’ fiasco, the Grammys will try to step up itself

Battered by critics over the award show's perennial inclusion failures, the Recording Academy hopes they've done enough to finally turn the page.

Janelle Monáe, whose 2018 album "Dirty Computer" is up for Album of the Year at tonight's Grammy Awards, is just one of a fleet of women in the recording industry who this time last year were ordered to "step up" by the Recording Academy's Neil Portnow. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Roc Nation )
Janelle Monáe, whose 2018 album "Dirty Computer" is up for Album of the Year at tonight's Grammy Awards, is just one of a fleet of women in the recording industry who this time last year were ordered to "step up" by the Recording Academy's Neil Portnow. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Roc Nation )

Among broadcast television award show stalwarts, the Recording Academy’s annual Grammy Awards — whose 61st edition will be broadcast live from Los Angeles on Sunday night — seems to be the oddest member of the “EGOT” quartet.

Its bizarre eligibility period, stretching from October of 2017 to September of 2018, means that some of the music that has been a staple of your playlists won’t be receiving accolades, while artists who have long provided the soundtrack to your Lyft rides will be characterized as “new.”

The show’s rampant addiction to Boomer nostalgia means that artists who form part of today’s zeitgeist will be conscripted into tribute bands (hopefully without the catastrophic result depicted in “A Star Is Born’s” fictional Grammy telecast.) And of all the big award shows, the Grammys seems to offer the widest variance between what dedicated critics of the art form deem to be on the cutting edge and what the Academy’s membership has determined to be deserving of awards.

In total, the very way the Academy has built its own beast results in a show that resembles a night-long battle with coherence.


Tonight, the Grammys face a new challenge, as the Academy tries to decisively turn the page from last year’s debacle, when Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s sudden flare-up of foot-in-mouth disease grabbed all of the headlines.

The matter in question took place on the pages of Variety, after Portnow was asked to respond to the 60th Annual Grammy Award’s historic failure to recognize women recording artists.

“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… [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome. I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face but I think it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”

Yes, somehow, Portnow got it into his head that the failure in question was on the supply end, and not the fault of an award show that has seemingly gone out of its way to slight the talents of women.

But the facts speak for themselves. As the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found this time last year, between the years 2013 and 2018, only 9.3 percent of Grammy nominees were women. And in Portnow’s 2018 telecast, the only woman among the five artists nominated for Album of the Year, Lorde, was inexplicably left on the bench as her four male counterparts were given the privilege to perform during the broadcast.

And this wasn’t Portnow’s first brush with criticism — nor was it his first leaden response.

By 2017, the Recording Academy had developed a toxic reputation as an organization that had a real problem recognizing artists of color. As ThinkProgress’ Jessica Goldstein described, several consecutive iterations of the awards show saw the same phenomenon play out: “A black artist and a white artist are the two frontrunners for album of the year. It really, really feels like the black artist’s album is the deserving choice — a musically superior, zeitgeist-capturing, culture-dominating force. And then the white person wins.”


At the time, Portnow responded with the same sort of “I don’t see color” response that’s the stock-in-trade of everyone who prefers to keep their heads in the sand than address a structural problem with race: “I honestly think that our community — musicians — really listens with their ears more than their eyes or anything else. So if you put our voters in a room with a blindfold, I think our community is very open-minded and thinks about music in a universal more holistic fashion, but our voters in particular are thinking about the craft.”

What comes around eventually goes around. This year, when the Grammys reached out to Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino with offers of performance slots, those artists sent the Recording Academy packing. It’s not difficult to imagine that they may have grown weary of watching the show continually leverage hip-hop’s shine for the sake of ratings while offering those same artists scant rewards in return.

The good news, however, is that over the past year, the Recording Academy has made a concerted effort to be more inclusive on the Grammys stage — and with the awards.

After Portnow’s “step up” remarks brought a tidal wave of derision from the planet’s most-beloved recording industry women, he announced that the Academy would create a new task force “to review every aspect of what we do as an organization and identify where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community.”

Smartly, he got Time’s Up co-founder Tina Tchen to head the initiative, and she got results. In October of 2018, Billboard reported that the Academy had invited 900 new voting members into its ranks. Pulled from every corner of the industry, those new members were both diverse and young: “All 900 invitees, who were pre-qualified to vote by the Recording Academy, are female and/or people of color and/or under 39.”


Moreover, as Billboard went on to report, the Academy successfully “diversified the composition of its Nominations Review Committees, the 16 committees that determine the final Grammy nominations in craft and other specialized categories.” These newly forged committees were “51 percent female and 48 percent  people of color, up from last year, when they were 28 percent female and 37 percent people of color.” Tchen and her task force are widely credited with the change, and this year’s slate of nominees offers some hope that the Grammys might be able to put the turmoil of its recent past behind them.

If so, it’s not a minute too soon. In a year where women like Janelle Monae, Kacey Mugraves, and Cardi B arguably overachieved compared to their male peers, the failure to right these imbalances — right now — might consign this venerable awards show to outcast status.