If anyone asked Lorde who she was wearing to the Grammys last night, the answer would be Jenny Holzer.
The Album of the Year nominee donned an excerpt from the feminist artist’s infamous Inflammatory Essays, which read:
“Rejoice! Our times are intolerable. Take courage, for the worst is a harbinger of the best. Only dire circumstances can precipitate the overthrow of oppressors. The old and corrupt must be laid to waste before the just can triumph. Contradiction will be heightened. The reckoning will be hastened by the staging of seed disturbances. The apocalypse will blossom.”
She, alongside everyone who carried or wore a white rose, the chosen symbol for the #TimesUp movement at “music’s biggest night,” made a silent statement while Lady Gaga spoke “Time’s up” during her performance of “Joanne” and “A Million Reasons” and Janelle Monae made the only other sole spoken mention of the misogyny, harassment, and general inequity that exists not just in Hollywood, but the music industry.
“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,” Monae said, donning a Time’s Up pin. “Artists, writers, assistants, publicists, CEOs, producers, engineers, and women from all sectors of the business. We are also daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and human beings. 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. Because, you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washingtonit’s right here in our industry as well. And just as we have the power to shake culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well. So let’s work together, women and men, as a united music industry, committed to creating more safe work environments, equal pay and access for all women.”
Monae introduced Kesha’s highly-anticipated performance of “Praying,” a stunning all-star segment that included Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Julia Michaels and Bebe Rexha and the Resistance Revival Chorus, ending in a group hug and a tearful audience. Kesha’s highly-public battle waged against former producer Dr. Luke, who she sued for allegedly drugging, raping, and emotionally abusing her for several years, inspired the emotional song, which Kesha tweeted that she “needed in a very real way,” a cathartic, inspired piece of art that helped her to find power and strength in herself, and something she hopes to impart to anyone else who might need a similar empowerment.
But despite the Grammys giving Kesha the platform to perform one of the most well-loved and reltable songs of the year, they treated it as they’ve similarly treated other personal-meets-political movements in the past; a singular segment with a sentiment that did not reverberate through the rest of the awards ceremony. Viewers were less than thrilled by the consistent rewarding of men like Bruno Mars and, most notably, Ed Sheeran, who beat every single woman (including Kesha) for Best Pop Vocal Performance, winning for “Shape Of You,” which directly bit off TLC’s “No Scrubs,” a song written by two black womenKandi Burruss and Tameka Cottle.
So when the Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, wearing a white rose, spoke to reporters backstage and expressed some sexist suggestions of his own, the systematic misogyny was solidified.
“I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and their soulswho want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on an executive levelto step up, because I think they would be welcome,” Portnow said. “I don’t have personal experience with the kinds of brick walls that (women) face, but I think it’s really a combination of us in the industry making a welcome mat very obvious: creating mentorships, creating opportunities, not only for women, but for all people. And moving forward, creating that next generation of artists who feel like they can do anything and say anything.”
As the leader of an organization said to be the “world’s leading society of music professionals, the Recording Academy is dedicated to celebrating, honoring, and sustaining music’s past, present, and future,” it’s literally Portnow’s job to understand and ensure that women feel welcome and included. Especially after the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Foundation’s new report found that a total of 90.7% of nominees between 2013 and 2018 were male, meaning just 9.3% were women.
Outside of the Grammys, the music industry remains an unwelcoming place for women. Music festivals as large as Bonnarroo consistently have a disproportionate number of men performing, as well as featuring all-male headliners. Both Halsey and Lily Allen have called out Firefly and Wireless Music Festivals, respectively, for this kind of perpetuated misogyny, yet programmers don’t seem to care. Meanwhile, women attending music festivals are often sexually assaulted or raped. Woodstock ’99 is one of the most egregious examples, with two women raped in a mosh pit, and yet three weeks ago, a woman’s assault was filmed and passed around the internet. Last year, one case of rape and 11 cases of sexual assault were reported at Sweden’s Bravalla Festival, where the headliners were all men. And these are just a few examples.
Yet the problem of any industry remains that women are blamed for not doing the work to make sure they are given a seat at the table, and men might sport a rose or a pin, but failing to utilize their platform to speak up, out, or against the continued misogyny makes them armchair activists of the worst kind. As Lindy West wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, “Sexism is a male invention. White supremacy is a white invention. Transphobia is a cisgender invention. So far, men have treated #MeToo like a bumbling dad in a detergent commercial: well-intentioned but floundering, as though they are not the experts. They have a chance to do better by Time’s Up.”
(Speaking of transphobia, Dave Chappelle’s many appearances and win also highlighted how tone deaf the Grammys are and continue to be.)
It was, of course, women who asked that Grammys attendees wear white roses in solidarity with #TimesUpa group called Voices in Entertainment formed by Meg Harkins, SVP of Marketing at Roc Nation, and Karen Rait, Rhythmic Promotion, Interscope/Geffen/A Records and 15 other women working in the industry. Speaking with Pitchfork, Rait said she has been battling sexism in music since 1990.
“Rock’n’roll has never been clean,” she said. “From the New York Dolls to Iggy Pop to David Bowie to the Velvet Underground to the Clash to the Rolling Stones, it’s always been about sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, right? Being a woman in this business is a challenge because you can be perceived in a way that’s not true to who you really are. However, we are in show business and we have to remember that we are presenting, a lot of the time, a story.”
And that story seems to be akin to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey,the tale of a strugglethat is universal, yet one that Campbell himselfrefused to acknowledge was available to women. (He would tell his Sarah Lawrence students that women effectively belonged in the home as baby-making machines.) In the same vein, women who point out the faultiness of their respective industries are told they should just have their own festivals or awards; that they should either accept the handout allotted them or GTFO.
So why, then, are the men of the music industry (and that includes radio programmers, booking agents, DJs, and journalists who continually ask redundant and offensive questions to women musicians like ‘How does it feel to be a woman in music?’ or focusing solely on their appearance or personal relationships) allowed to keep perpetuating an unfriendly environment for women who not only deserve but demand to be respected as musicians, engineers, producers, or CEOs? Why is Chris Brown still getting high-profile collaborations and being played on Top 40? Because they haven’t been forced to change, until now.
The #TimesUp movement has inspired and empowered the likes of Lorde, Monae, and Universal Music Publishing Group Chairman/CEO Jody Gerson, who spoke with Billboardabout her decision to “not knowingly sign an artist who has committed a violent crime against women, or anybody else.”
“I don’t feel, in my position, that [behavior is] OK,” Gerson says. “And I will take a hard-line position. Listen, there are people who make mistakes and I meet them and I feel like maybe I could change their lives, but in general, what I can do is I can be true to what I believe in. And I get to choose who we want to sign and who we don’t want to sign. And with everything I do, there has to be a level of integrity.”
Yet Gerson does admit that “the Harvey Weinstein thing hasn’t affected our business the way it has other businesses.”
“I’ve never been the victim of sexual harassment, but I do think we need to teach young women in particular to trust their instinctsand when it feels weird or uncomfortable, it fucking isand men have to learn not to abuse their power,” she says. “But I personally think that if women were running more companies, this shit wouldn’t happen as muchyou don’t hear these charges against women to the degree you hear these charges against men. I think it’s because women see power differently.”
Women have the power to change the way the music industry propels and rewards men more than women; but men also have the power to acknowledge the inequality that is so blatant and dangerous. It’s unfortunately all too rare that men are brave or dignified enough to use their power to help women, but there are those that have and do.
In 1999, Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys utilized his time at the VMAs to speak about what happened at Woodstock.
“I read in the news and heard from my friends all about sexual assaults and the rapes that went down at Woodstock ’99 in July, and it made me feel really sad and angry,” he said. “We can talk to the promoters and make sure that they’re doing something about the safety of all the girls and the women who come to our shows I think we can talk to the security people to make sure they know and understand about sexual harassment and rape and they know how to handle these situations.”
Almost 10 years later at Sundance’s Respect Rally, Common performed part of his song “The Day Women Took Over” for a crowd of mostly women, standing in the snow in a show of solidarity not just with each other, but other marginalized groups.
“The day women took over, let it continue/Now women get paid as much as men do Dr. Angelou’s lookin’ from Heaven’s window/Tellin’ young girls phenomenal woman is in you/Body is a temple, men don’t prey/Mother earth’s arms around you sayin’ it’s okay/Toilet seats down, that’s a no-brainer/Monuments in Washington of Fanny Lou Hamer Harriet, Sojourner’s truth is marchin’ on/Women preachers and world leaders, it now the norm/Health care, payin’ for nails, jails and fill-ins Intellectual buildin’, intersexual healin’/No stickin’ movers, and no quick shooters/After 15 minutes, callin’ you a Uber/The New World Order is fathers lovin’ their daughters/And baby’s mamas supported and ladies gettin’ courted/In court, kids can’t be tried as adults/And women, they called bitches because they a boss/In all shapes and sizes, beauty is recognized/ Goddess and queens is what we use to describe Now Michelle Alexander wrote the new constitution/Beyoncé made the music for the revolution.”
Beyoncé is writing the music for the revolution, as are Lorde, Monae, Gaga, and thousands of other womenwho were nominated and performed, as well as those who weren’t acknowledged or invited and will never be given the kind of opportunity Alessia Cara spoke out for in her Best New Artist acceptance speech. But they can’t do it alone, not without the support of allies who will wear a pin or rose and pretend that that’s enough to create systematic change.
Women are still fighting for safe spaces inside of the industry, and for the kind of agency they should have afforded to them; the kind that allows them to participate in a fair fight for Album of the Year or a headlining spot at a music festival (and still, then, being one of few women booked for the entire fest). There’s an opportunity, now, for men to show up for women, and for women to show up for themselves and each other in a way that could truly spawn the kind of change necessary for the industry to evolve.
As Solange once tweeted, “Sexism in the music industry, ain’t nothing new.” But it’s getting really fucking old.