‘Women need to step up’ says Grammys president after only one female artist wins a televised award

Rihanna performs during the 60th Annual Grammy Awards show on January 28, 2018, in New York. CREDIT: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Did you notice something absent from the podium at last night’s Grammy awards? Men won all but one of the televised awards. (Alessia Cara took home best new artist.) It was a disparity in recognition that would have been stunning in any context, but was particularly glaring against the backdrop of artists carrying white roses to support the Time’s Up movement for gender equality in entertainment and beyond.

SZA, the most nominated woman this year — she was up for five Grammys — won nothing. In the best pop solo performance, the only male nominee, Ed Sheeran, won with “Shape Of You” over his female competitors: Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Pink, and Kesha, whose performance of her nominated song, “Praying,” was a highlight of a mostly-dull evening.

Lorde attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. CREDIT: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS

These losses for women came the day after news broke that Lorde, the only woman nominated for Album of the Year, would not be performing because, unlike all of her fellow (male) nominees, she was not offered a solo performance slot. Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, and Jay Z were reportedly given the opportunity to take the stage solo with songs from their nominated albums; Lorde was only invited to participate in a group tribute to Tom Petty. In an especially odd move, considering Lorde is from New Zealand, the tribute was to involve Petty’s song “American Girl.”

It is, obviously, more than an oversight when the only woman up for the night’s most prestigious award is told she cannot perform a song from the album for which she is nominated. It is more than an issue of time constraints when the Grammys find time for two separate performances by Sting and an extended “Carpool Karaoke”-style video that took host James Corden, Shaggy, and Sting (yes! really! STING, AGAIN) to a subway car where, in a meta-twist, all the passengers told them to shut up.

What does Grammys President Neil Portnow have to say to all this? He told Variety that if women want more Grammys, they need to “step up”:

“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.”

What is especially telling is that Portnow claims the answer to the issue of sexism in the music industry is to “make the welcome mat very obvious.” Nothing says “women are welcome in the music industry” like… not celebrating the contributions of female artists at the Grammys. Seems like Portnow’s first move in the charm offensive he describes could to be reward deserving women with, I don’t know, Grammys.

“On the label side, I don’t think there is abuse, at all… I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but this is not the Catholic church.”

How can Portnow maintain that there is no gender discrimination plaguing the Grammys just days after a study out of USC found that more 90 percent of recent Grammy nominees are male? Between 2013 and 2018, only 9.3 percent of Grammy nominees were women.

SZA performs onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. CREDIT: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NARAS

And how can he be so cavalier about those “brick walls” he just never seems to smack into just hours after Kesha’s rendition of “Praying,” a song she says is inspired by the years of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her male producer?

How can he say that less than two weeks after a searing Rolling Stone investigation on the rampant sexual harassment women face in the country music radio world, which in turn came two years after a country music DJ explained away the lack of female voices on the airwaves because ladies are “the tomatoes” in the salad of country, whereas men are the lettuce (“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out“); two months after Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records, stepped down from his businesses after three women accused him of rape; less than a year after Taylor Swift, Grammys darling, triumphed in a sexual assault trial over a male radio DJ who grabbed her ass during a meet-and-greet; in the midst of an unprecedented cultural reckoning around sexual abuse in the entertainment industry?

How, when the Grammys have seen fit to grant performance slots and dole out trophies to alleged serial rapist and abuser R. Kelly and Chris Brown, whose history of violence towards women is well-documented and stomach-churning?

This is probably as good a time as any to note that even one of the founders of the music industry’s answer to Time’s Up, Voices in Entertainment — Karen Rait, the head of rhythmic promotions at Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records — does not think the music industry has a serious sexual abuse problem.

Rait was asked by Pitchfork to respond to an essay in Variety by record-label executive Dorothy Carvello, in which she wrote about the sexual assault she experienced at the hands of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahment Ertegun and in the industry at large. “Whenever I complained about sexual harassment to the president or chairman of a company, I was fired,” she wrote. “The music business, like the Catholic church, moves its abusers around from label to label.”

Rait’s reply: “On the label side, I don’t think there is abuse, at all. Maybe that was her experience, but that has never been my experience here [at Interscope]. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but this is not the Catholic church.”

It’s also useful to remember that Portnow is the same man who insisted that the Grammys definitely do not have a race problem and totally never have, and that the reason there were more nominees of color this year than in previous years was not due to a concerted push to be more inclusive and course-correct but was just a weird coincidence.

Variety asked Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich “whether it was a mistake to not give Album of the Year nominee Lorde an onstage moment.” His reply (emphasis added):

“I don’t know if it was a mistake. These shows are a matter of choices. We have a box and it gets full. She had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody.”

Once more, with feeling: Sting, who has not been nominated for a Grammy since 2007, performed twice.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated Sting’s most recent Grammy nomination was in 2004. He was nominated in 2007 alongside Sheryl Crow for best pop collaboration. 

UPDATE: Tuesday morning, the Recording Academy released a statement from Portnow regarding his comments about women in the music industry. He expressed regret for his use of the phrase “step up”:

Last night, I was asked a question about the lack of female artist representation in certain categories of this year’s GRAMMY Awards. Regrettably, I used two words, “step up,” that, when taken out of context, do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make.

Our industry must recognize that women who dream of careers in music face barriers that men have never faced. We must actively work to eliminate these barriers and encourage women to live their dreams and express their passion and creativity through music. We must welcome, mentor, and empower them. Our community will be richer for it. I regret that I wasn’t as articulate as I should have been in conveying this thought. I remain committed to doing everything I can to make our music community a better, safer, and more representative place for everyone.