Neil Portnow, Recording Academy president, says he didn’t really mean to say that women who want to be recognized at the Grammys need to “step up.”
He shared this particularly tone deaf term of art backstage after this Sunday’s Grammys, where only one woman won a televised award and the only female nominee for the night’s biggest prize — Lorde, album of the year — was not offered a solo performance slot, even though all her fellow male nominees were. By Tuesday morning, the backlash booming in his ears, he issued a statement apologizing for his “regrettabl[e] choice of words,” which he insisted were “taken out of context.”
Women across the music industry were appalled by Portnow’s initial comments and unimpressed by his attempts to backpedal.
In an interview with Vulture, Vanessa Carlton spoke at length about the problems with Portnow’s attitude. “It’s not just the ‘step up’ wording that he thinks is what’s bothering everybody. It’s this idea that there are just not enough women out there. You have to be aware of glass ceilings, you have to be aware of brick walls. (She also surmised that the voting block of NARAS, the Recording Academy, “is predominately white males…I would not be surprised if women are not well represented in that group.”)
“Women have been stepping up since the beginning of time,” Pink, who performed at Sunday’s Grammys, tweeted. Katy Perry, sharing Pink’s message, added, “We ALL have a responsibility to call out the absurd lack of equality everywhere we see it.” Pop singer-songwriter Halsey wrote on Twitter, “Neil’s comment was absurd. Female artists came HARD in 2017. But the nominees are selected by peers and their opinion of the music. Which means it’s a conversation about the standards of which the ENTIRE INDUSTRY expects women to uphold.” Kelly Clarkson, ever the savvy American Idol, tweeted that Portnow was a “confused soul” who she wouldn’t even deign to correct — that is, beyond pointing her followers to her new “A-game” album.
Perhaps the pithiest, pop-hook-perfect reply came from Charli XCX, who tweeted “ugh bout 2 step up on 2 ur face” in response to Portnow’s comments.
“Your comments are another slap in the face to women, whether intended or not; whether taken out of context, or not,” the letter reads. “If you are not part of the solution, then you must accept that YOU are part of the problem. Time’s up, Neil.”
The statement you made this week about women in music needing to “step up” was spectacularly wrong and insulting and, at its core, oblivious to the vast body of work created by and with women. Your attempt to backpedal only emphasizes your refusal to recognize us and our achievements. Your most recent remarks do not constitute recognition of women’s achievements, but rather a call for men to take action to “welcome” women. We do not await your welcome into the fraternity. We do not have to sing louder, jump higher or be nicer to prove ourselves.
We step up every single day and have been doing so for a long time. The fact that you don’t realize this means it’s time for you to step down.
Today we are stepping up and stepping in to demand your resignation.
The letter goes on to call out the “stringent requirements” for members of the Recording Academy, which have kept women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals on the margins. The Grammys “do not fairly represent the world in which we live,” the women write, helpfully pointing out in all-caps that “WOMEN COMPRISE 51% OF THE POPULATION.”
The letter also cites data from a new study out of USC Annenberg which found that over 90 percent of Grammy nominees in recent years (from 2013-2018) were male, while only 9.3 percent were women. And when women were nominated, they were more likely to receive those nods for best new artist or song of the year. Zero women were nominated for producer of the year in the time covered by the study.
From the L.A. Times (emphasis added):
As for production credits, the disparity is so vast as to be almost totally dominated by men. An astonishing 98% of credited producers across the top surveyed songs were men. Only two women of color had production credits among the songs surveyed, and a full 95.7% of songs had no female production credits whatsoever.
Though it can feel like women are dominating pop music right now, that says more about the outsize cultural heft of a handful of formidable artists — Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna, Taylor Swift — and less about the industry as a whole. As the L.A. Times notes, “In 2017, 83.2% of artists across the top pop songs were male and just 16.8% were women.”
Also on Thursday, Portnow released a follow-up statement announcing that, as he understands the outrage across the music community is “about more than just my words,” the Recording Academy will establish an independent 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.”
Portnow writes that “we as an organization, and I as its leader,” pledge to dismantle the gender inequality and discrimination women in the music industry face. But it’s not clear if Portnow will, in fact, be that organization’s leader for much longer. In addition to the industry letter, a Care2 petition demanding Portnow step down has racked up well over 13,000 signatures. At press time, it was less than 600 signatures away from its goal.
“With someone like Neil Portnow at the helm of The Recording Academy, women in music will never gain the recognition they deserve — no matter how much they ‘step up’ or ‘lean in,’ it reads. “Sign now and tell Portnow to resign immediately.”