The 63rd Annual Grammy Awards featured reminders of the pandemic woven through every part of the awards show. Only the nominees were in attendance, unlike the normal live audience full of other celebrities, artists’ families, and the public. High-fashion masks accompanied the usual flurry of elaborate outfits (among the most eye-catching was Taylor Swift’s floral Oscar de la Renta mask), and the show highlighted several independent music venues to acknowledge COVID’s far-reaching impact. Each performer took a different stage while the next artists in the lineup looked on from their own stage. Bruno Mars made his television debut with his new R&B group, Silk Sonic, donning a burnt orange-colored suit and matching sunglasses.
However, of all the changes, the most important was the increased—albeit slight—effort to include women artists among those who were nominated and who won. The Recording Academy, which puts on the Grammy Awards, announced on March 5 its plan to partner with Arizona State University and Boston’s very own Berklee College of Music to conduct a study on women’s representation in the music industry. The study is expected to be completed and released early next year.
The first step in this study came as an analysis of this year’s Grammy nominations, making this the first year that the Recording Academy is publicly reporting gender representation. Among 853 nominees in 83 categories this year, only 198 identify as women. Although these figures seem bleak, there have been some improvements compared to previous years: three out of the four artists with the most nominations identify as women (Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Dua Lipa), and Beyoncé became the most-awarded woman in Grammy history. For the first time in history, the category of Best Rock Performance consisted entirely of women, and women artists won the “big four” categories of Best New Artist (Megan Thee Stallion), Song of the Year (H.E.R.), Record of the Year (Billie Eilish), and Album of the Year (Taylor Swift).
In recent years, the Recording Academy has taken some steps to be more inclusive of women artists. Women in the Mix, a “producer and engineering inclusion initiative,” was launched in 2019 in order to encourage organizations and professionals in the industry to consider at least two women in the selection process every time a music producer or engineer is hired. According to its website, “only 2 percent of music producers and 3 percent of engineers/mixers across popular music are women.” Women in the Mix has thankfully garnered substantial support—650 producers, labels, artists, agencies, and other stakeholders have signed onto the initiative. Also in 2019, the Recording Academy pledged to double the number of women voters by 2025. By adding 831 new women voters to its membership, the organization has reached 33% of that goal.
In her acceptance speech, Billie Eilish praised Megan Thee Stallion for her work, pointing out that the award should have gone to her instead. "Megan, girl, I was gonna write a speech about how you deserve this, but then I was like, ‘There’s no way they’re gonna choose me,’” Eilish said. “I was like, ‘It’s hers.’ You deserve this. You had a year that I think is untoppable.” This brought back an all-too-familiar déjà vu to 2017, when Adele won Album of the Year and acknowledged Beyoncé’s Lemonade, calling it “monumental.” Yet another similar instance occurred in 2014, when Macklemore swept the Grammys, and Instagrammed a text he sent to Kendrick Lamar saying Lamar was robbed of awards. The Recording Academy puts on a façade of inclusivity and diversity, but continues to ignore BIPOC artists. And when the time comes for the Grammys to prove it really has evolved, the Recording Academy once again refuses to acknowledge the talent and ingenuity of BIPOC artists.
Women of color in particular are incredibly underrepresented. White women are more likely to be nominated twice or three times than women of color (referred to as ‘underrepresented female nominees’), according to a 2012-2019 study by USC Annenberg. Considering that only 11.7% of Grammy nominees from 2013-2020 were women, there is a dire need for the awards to include more women of color. The “percentage of underrepresented female nominees lagged compared to their participation in the charts,” meaning their presence and essential role in popular music have been overlooked by the Recording Academy.
The 2021 Grammy Awards certainly showed improvement from 2018, when under pressure from artists and the public calling for more representation of women, the Recording Academy president said that women need to “step up.” But with only about 23% of the nominees identifying as women this year, it’s clear that the issue is not women “stepping up,” but the fact that they are consistently being held down. The world is changing, and music has always been part—and often the cause—of that forward-moving rhythm. An awards show that is said to celebrate that progress, yet is stuck in the past, shouldn’t be what’s holding the industry back.