The Grammys have something to say about domestic violence. What is that something, exactly? Well, it’s a little confusing.
First, the good news: a major segment of the show was devoted to sexual violence awareness. President Obama delivered a PSA about sexual and domestic violence, promoting the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign.
Right now, nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape. Nearly one in four women has been a victim of domestic violence. It’s not okay. It has to stop… It’s on us, all of us, to create a culture where violence isn’t tolerated, where survivors are supported, and where all our young people, men and women, can go as far as their talents and their dreams will take them.
Then came a spoken-word performance by Brooke Axtell, a survivor of sex trafficking and domestic violence. The activist against sexual violence who has described being sold by a nanny to men who paid to rape her; in her Grammys performance, she spoke about a boyfriend who abused and threatened to kill her.
I was terrified of him, and ashamed I was in this position. I believed my compassion could restore him and our relationship. But my compassion was incomplete because it did not include me… Authentic love does not devalue another human being. Authentic love does not silence shame or abuse. If you are in a relationship with someone who does not honor and respect you, I want you to know that you are worthy of love. Please reach out for help.
Axtell then introduced Katy Perry, who performed “By the Grace of God.” In an interview with Slate, Axtell said that Perry did not say “By the Grace of God” is explicitly about domestic abuse, though the lyrics leave room to imagine that narrative (“Thought I wasn’t enough and I wasn’t so tough / Laying on the bathroom floor”). When asked if she worried that “people might see your Grammys performance as a PR stunt — as a way for Katy to gain social-justice credibility?”, Axtell said, “I’ve been given the freedom to write my own speech. If I were just there to stand up as some sort of prop to promote her, I don’t think I’d be given so much range and freedom to have my own content. They accepted the first version that I sent them. It’s exactly what is going to be performed. Not a word has been changed.”
That answer won’t necessarily sway those who are skeptical of Perry’s brand of “you go, girl” empowerment that relies heavily on mixing metaphors in illogical songs. Hits like “Roar” and “Firework” have the same sort of vague but hard to argue with style motivation that you find on those posters in a high school guidance counselor’s office. Her songs are like national anthems for countries that don’t exist.
Still, this is great messaging by POTUS and Axtell. But it’s mixed messaging by the Grammys. Because last night’s nominees included Chris Brown and R. Kelly.
Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna, his then-girlfriend, as they drove away from a Grammy party just before the awards ceremony in 2009. Both were slated to perform. Both canceled. Brown was blacklisted from the ceremony, but if you blinked, you missed his absence. He was invited back, not just to attend but to perform, in 2012.
Grammy Executive Producer Ken Erhlich explained why Chris Brown, who in 2012 earned three nominations, would be performing during the show. “We’re glad to have him back,” Ehrlich said, as if Brown had been absent due to some tragedy that had befallen him, instead of a horrific act of violence he committed. In a remarkably tone deaf move for a music industry guy, Ehrlich told ABC News Radio:
I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.
Ah yes, the real victims of domestic violence: the producers of the Grammys.
Also, that “few” years only encompassed a whopping two Grammy Awards. Not three. Two. Given the opportunity to “send a message,” as the Grammys are so eager and desperate to do, the Grammys went with this: should a person leave his girlfriend in such a bloodied, battered state that she needs to be hospitalized, and should he be arrested and charged with felony assault and ultimately be sentenced to five years probation and 180 hours of community service after pleading guilty to that felony assault charge, and should he go on to demonstrate approximately zero remorse, he should definitely be forgiven and come back to the Grammys before his probation is even up.
The most eloquent rage on this matter comes by way of Sasha Pasulka, who wrote at the time that the Grammys had succeeded in “allowing a clear message to be sent to women: We will easily forgive a person who victimizes you. We are able to look beyond the fact that you were treated as less than human, that a bigger, stronger person decided to resolve a conflict with you through violence. We know it happened, but it’s just not that big of a deal to us.”
And that’s just the conversation around Brown. None of the Grammys powers-that-be has commented on the fact that R. Kelly, an alleged serial rapist of underage girls, has been nominated for 25 Grammys, three of which he’s won. His wins came in 1998, two years before Jim DeRogatis’s Chicago Sun-Times story that first accused Kelly of “us[ing] his position of fame and influence as a pop superstar to meet girls as young as 15 and have sex with them.” Even after news of Kelly’s predatory behavior became public, the Grammys saw fit to recognize him with fourteen more nominations, including this year’s nod for “It’s Your World” with Jennifer Hudson. DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch, a former Sun-Times colleague, reported on the allegations against Kelly for years. They interviewed hundreds of people, many of whom were girls who described “stomach-churning” incidents of sexual assault at Kelly’s hands.
The Grammys — legally, technically — don’t have to punish anyone for anything. They legislate over the quality of music, not the quality of an artists’ decisions outside the studio. Yet the Grammys are constantly reminding us that they can be about so much more than music. This is what makes the speed with which the Grammys “forgave” Brown, which would be infuriating no matter what, all the more enraging. The Grammys don’t want to be the awards show with a confusing eligibility period that still considers Brandy Clark (whose “12 Stories” came out in 2013) and Haim (their “Days Are Gone” also came out in 2013; the only place they’re new to is Taylor Swift’s Instagram) to be “new artists.” The Grammys are trying to brand themselves a paragon of social consciousness.
This is a show that hypes bold behavior but rarely delivers. Wouldn’t want to run the risk of offending anybody; this is CBS, not HBO. So they want to step outside their jurisdiction as a body that measures excellence in music to, say, “create a Grammy moment” wherein Queen Latifah officiates the weddings of 33 gay couples simultaneously to the tune of Madonna and Macklemore singing “Same Love” — but only after gay marriage has already been legalized in more than half of the country.
If the Grammy organizers wanted to stick with their primary responsibilities — awarding middlebrow excellence in music, giving LL Cool J an annual hosting gig, providing the most reliably bonkers red carpet of the year — that would be one thing. But if they’re going to take the stance that music can and should be a force for social and political change in the world, they have an obligation to be a part of that change, even when it’s difficult.
The Grammys can’t be the police, the judge, or the jury, and considering some of their questionable choices last night, this is for the best. But they do have the authority to do one very basic thing: stop handing out the hardware to the guy who did something so ugly to Rihanna’s beautiful face.