It says something about just how apolitical the 2018 Grammys were last night that the most explicit expression of opinion came via an anti-abortion singer wearing a dress emblazoned with a fetus surrounded by a rainbow, with a purse that said "Choose Life." Sure, the music industry has never been as outspoken about sexism as Hollywood, but it certainly has been about politics—which this year should have been more pronounced than ever, just two days away from Donald Trump’s first State of the Union, the ongoing arguments over immigration that led to the government shutdown, and, of course, above all—at least when it comes to awards season—the rampant sexual harassment and abuse that mostly women face, which is finally being brought to light not just in Hollywood, but across every industry.
Somehow, though, there seemed to be some unspoken agreement among everyone at the Grammys last night that the brunt of addressing the latter issue would fall on Kesha—even though many wore white roses supposedly in support Time's Up. Indeed, the headlines last night and this morning have all praised the singer for her "fearless" performance, with some saying that it felt "like the closest thing we'll get to a #metoo moment in music."
If that's true, we have a much, much longer way to go in making progress ahead of us than previously believed. The reality is that Kesha released "Praying"—which begins with a voiceover of her asking why she's alive, and which accuses a man who's undoubtedly Dr. Luke of "put[ting] her through hell"—back in July, way before the #MeToo movement. At the time, it was covered more as Kesha's comeback, and/or part of a juicy saga of lawsuits between her (and even her mother) and Dr. Luke, Kesha’s longtime producer whom she’s alleged has sexually, physically, and emotionally assaulted her for years.
Retroactively, it seems, “Praying” is being recognized for an anthem—one that "speaks to our times," to the outrage of many Twitter users who called that title an unfair burden. Essentially, it was the music industry forcing a woman who’s been traumatized by the music industry to be the poster child, and sole person responsible for addressing, sexual abuse. It also seemed to be yet another instance of the industry taking advantage of Kesha—by only listening to and recognizing her when it was convenient for them.
Sure, Kesha has embraced addressing her trauma; “Praying” and many other songs on her album Rainbow are pretty much explicitly about Dr. Luke. But Kesha didn’t get to say anything last night except the lyrics of her song—which were met by applause from some in the industry who not only didn’t believe Kesha, but still support Dr. Luke and neglect to address further instances of abuse. Sony, which admitted that some at the company knew about and enabled Dr. Luke’s abuse, in fact tweeted a GIF of Kesha onstage hugging Cyndi Lauper, Camilla Cabello, and more of the women dressed in white who sang with her, simply stating, "No words. All love." (This felt so flagrantly disingenuous that I took a screenshot in case Sony deleted the tweet; by the morning, it was gone.)
Kesha’s performance was undeniably moving—it brought many viewers to tears—but in no way was it, or Janelle Monae’s eloquent speech about women in the industry ("We come in peace, but we mean business") enough. Monae's words—that "we say time’s up for pay inequality, discrimination or harassment of any kind, and the abuse of power," which is "not just going on in Hollywood, or in Washington, it’s right here in our industry as well"—were no doubt necessary and powerful, but overall, her speech seemed to beg the question: If Kesha hadn’t been performing "Praying," and if Monae hadn't been the one to present it, would Time’s Up have been addressed onstage at all?
After all, only a single woman, Alessia Cara, won a Grammy last night—a shocking fact that the Recording Academy president Neil Portnow reacted to later that night, after the hashtag #GrammysSoMale began to circulate, by telling Variety that women 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," he said, adding that they need "to step up because I think they would be welcome." (Never mind that he admitted that he doesn't have "personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face," some of which seem to have been built by the Academy he represents.)
This came after his speech during the show that repeatedly pointed it was the Grammys' 60th anniversary—a milestone that should have been marked by the music industry addressing sexism and sexual harassment head on. Now would seem the perfect moment to do so, especially after a jarring recent report in the New York Times on the total lack of gender diversity in the music industry, concluding that it is worse than in Hollywood (of the 899 people nominated in the last six Grammy Awards, only nine percent were women).
What's more, the Times also noted that Lorde was the only woman nominated for album of the year this year, and was somehow the only nominee not scheduled to perform—a point that Lorde’s mom posted to her Twitter account. She also tweeted about how her daughter literally stitched the artist Jenny Holzer’s words of protest onto the back of her Valentino gown. A powerful statement, yes; but also disheartening in that Holzer’s words about oppression date back to the ‘70s, and still feel so relevant now.
#MeToo aside, politics seemed to be missing from the rest of the show, too. Though Kendrick Lamar started things out strong, the political conversation fizzled out from there. Unsurprisingly, it was a woman who brought it back to the table, when Camila Cabello declared herself a proud immigrant in support of the DREAM Act. Even the outspoken Dave Chappelle kept his commentary succinct, though on target: "The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America." (His acceptance speech for Best Comedy Album was even more terse.)
But the fact that he was one of the few to say anything at all points to the real failure: the responsibility to address such harmful, widespread issues falls way too often on the victims. People of color should not be forced to repeatedly explain how systematic and lethal racism still is in America; survivors of sexual assault should not be forced to relive details of their trauma to be believed.
So what of the white men in power who were omnipresent at the awards last night? All too often, they resembled the white men in power at the Golden Globes—a Time’s Up pin affixed to their person while literally not knowing what the movement stood for, failing to address the issue during their acceptance speeches.
To seemingly everyone’s surprise and no one's pleasure, Bruno Mars ended up the night's biggest winner. "Despacito," inarguably the biggest song of 2017, did not win any of the three awards it was nominated for—a turn of events that held particular significance, seeing as it was maybe the best opportunity for a Spanish-language song to ever win.
Getting back to the women who, as Portnow would say, stepped up: SZA somehow lost of on all of the five awards she was nominated for, and Kesha, who was snubbed in the nominations in the first place, also left without any awards—and therefore opportunities to actually speak up. The Academy, knowing full well she wasn't going to win, at least could have arranged for her to be a presenter. For them, though, she'd already played her role: to make the show look political, without any of those in power having to lift a finger.
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