Grammy Awards boss telling women to ‘step up’ sparks backlash

Online furor follows perceived snubbing of Lorde in show telecast.

Canadian singer Alessia Cara was the only woman to win in one of the major categories at this year’s Grammy Awards, and less than a quarter of the 84 trophies handed out Sunday went to either a woman or group that included a woman.

But it was backstage comments from the Recording Academy’s president that really inflamed critics who saw this year’s awards show as more proof that a pervasive gender gap exists in the industry.

“I think 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 an executive level,” Neil Portnow told reporters in the press room after the show on Sunday.

“(They need) to step up because I think they would be welcome.”

Although he added, “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,” the first part of that quote generated an angry response on the internet.

“Maybe next year the Grammys should look to add a new category for Most Tone-Deaf Spoken-Word Statement from the Male Head of an Increasingly Irrelevant Awards Ceremony,” music blogger Aléx Young tweeted.

And from Mo Ryan, TV critic for Variety: “These quotes are breaking my brain: Neil Portnow of Grammys org says women (only 1 of whom got a Grammy Sunday night) need to ‘step up.’ No Lorde performance? Grammy producer says ‘there’s no way we can really deal with everybody.’ Oh.”

Suggesting that women aren’t “stepping up” in the music industry frustrates Aerin Fogel, organizer of Toronto-based feminist arts celebration Venus Fest. She’s not exactly surprised by mainstream industry sentiment that suggests blame lies with women themselves.

“In a way what he’s (saying) represents the larger issues in the music industry — and in most industries,” Fogel said.

“There are real inherent challenges for women to be moving through these structures in the same way as men.”

Grammy winner Barbara Hannigan didn’t necessarily face a lack of opportunities as a woman when she first started in the music industry. As a soprano, the Nova Scotia singer only competed for jobs with other women.

“Then when I became a conductor all the sudden I was in a male-dominated field and I started getting all these questions about my gender,” said Hannigan, who picked up a Grammy for classical solo vocal album at this year’s awards.

“For some reason it seemed absolutely appropriate for a woman to conduct a choir but not an orchestra,” she said. “I don’t know why that is. All I know is that I never saw that.”

Portnow’s quotes come on the heels of Variety’s earlier report that Lorde, the only female nominee for album of the year, declined to perform after producers only asked her to be part of a Tom Petty tribute — while the male artists in the category (Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Childish Gambino and Jay-Z) were all offered solo performance slots.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Portnow and Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich were asked about this backstage. “It’s hard to have a balanced year and have everyone perform,” Portnow replied. “We can’t have every nominee perform.”

“These shows are always a matter of choices. She had a great album, but there’s no way we can deal with everybody,” Ehrlich added. “Maybe people get left out who shouldn’t, but we do the best we can to make sure it’s a fair and balanced show.”

Ehrlich also told Variety, “Hopefully we’ll see Taylor Swift next year.” Ouch.

Many fans were already frustrated Sunday when Ed Sheeran, the only male nominee in the pop solo performance category, won over Kesha, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson and Pink. His monster hit “Shape of You” triumphed instead of Kesha’s deeply personal “Praying.” Kesha’s emotional performance of her anthem about overcoming abuse was one of the most powerful moments of the ceremony; Sheeran, who was left out of all the major categories, was a no-show.

SZA, the breakout R&B star nominated for five awards, was also shut out completely. She did get a solo performance spot with “Broken Clocks,” though quite a few viewers noted her lack of wins.

The topic of women’s inequality was a big one on the pre-show red carpet, as many stars wore white roses (similar to how celebrities wore black at the Golden Globes) to show support for the newly created Time’s Up initiative, the legal fund for victims of sexual harassment. While introducing Kesha’s performance, Janelle Monae urged support for “safe work environments, equal pay and access for all women.”

“Tonight, I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist, but a young woman with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry,” she said. “We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s up. We say time’s up for pay inequality, time’s up for discrimination, time’s up for harassment of any kind, and time’s up for the abuse of power.”

While she doesn’t dwell on her gender, Hannigan recognizes she is among a rare set of female conductors. She was reminded of the fact during a recent performance for a couple of thousand teenagers, many of whom had little exposure to classical music.

“That’s amazing because they’re going to sit in the hall and they’re not going to find it strange to see a woman on the podium,” she said.

“I think it’s important to have a dialogue. What’s even more important is to look at what I’m doing and how I do it.”

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