(This post was updated Tuesday morning with Portnow’s new comments.)
In an award season where the focus is on equality for women, you would think that all award show producers would have some killer quotes ready when they’re inevitably asked a question about the topic. Not so much on Sunday night at the Grammy Awards.
Variety reported that when it asked Recording Academy president Neil Portnow about the lack of female winners (best new artist Alessia Cara was the only woman who received a solo trophy on the main telecast), he said this:
“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.”
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,” you can imagine how the first part of that quote went over 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. https://t.co/Bg1DPWkyN8
— Aléx Young (@AlexYoung) January 29, 2018
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. https://t.co/vjAEFuSVwl
— Mo Ryan (@moryan) January 29, 2018
How do women "step up" in music when only 22% of artists, 12% of writers and 2% of producers are female? You tell me @Recordingacad … what is the composition of your membership and how are YOU stepping up to counter bias? #musicsomale #Grammys 2018 #TimesUp
— Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (@Inclusionists) January 29, 2018
So you are telling me that Demi Lovato, Kesha, Lorde, Camila Cabello, Lana Del Rey, and Lady Gaga and many more didn't step up their games this year? They released better body works than some of the people that won a grammy last night! #GRAMMYs #GrammysSoMale pic.twitter.com/HSILblu4WC
— Moonlit (@feelsitariana) January 29, 2018
C’mon gals, just bootstrap your way up within a hierarchy built on the idea that yr ideas/art/safety/personhood are tertiary to men’s art, never mind the industry was founded on white exploitation of black talent and women’s voices. GREAT ADVICE, NEIL! https://t.co/sbeToOhECw
— Jessica Hopper (@jesshopp) January 29, 2018
— Hilary Hughes (@hilmonstah) January 29, 2018
He also received criticism from artists:
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.
— h (@halsey) January 30, 2018
On Tuesday morning, the Recording Academy released a statement from Portnow in which he stated, “I regret that I wasn’t as articulate as I should have been.” It also explains, in part:
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.
The original 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.”
Meanwhile, Lorde’s camp hasn’t publicly discussed her snub or decision not to perform. But last week, her mother, Sonja Yelich, tweeted an excerpt from a New York Times article that noted over the last six years, only 9 percent of nominees have been women.
“This says it all,” Yelich wrote.
— Sonja Yelich (@sonjayelich1) January 26, 2018