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Michelle Obama led a banner year for women at the Grammys

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 10: (L-R) Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, host Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez speak onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

There’s no doubt that women had a banner year at the Grammys.

It’s hard to say if this is an anomaly or the new normal, and it’s too soon to herald a changing of the guard within the Recording Academy. However, the diversity of the female performers/honorees and winners — not only in terms of race, but also musical genre and generation (from legends like Dolly Parton and Diana Ross to newcomers like Camila Cabello, Dua Lipa, and H.E.R.) — is worth noting and applauding. Let’s hope it’s a sign of a more equitable future in the music industry.

The hashtag #GrammysSoMale went viral after the awards show last year. Recording Academy president Neil Portnow chimed in with a tone-deaf response, saying women “needed to step up” — the music industry equivalent of Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism mantra “lean in,” a comment that totally disregarded the presence of any sexism or bias on the part of the Grammys or the music industry writ large.

The show had some missteps, but overall it was a marked improvement from last year in one major way: Women dominated the night. From the choice to have Alicia Keys — who famously vowed to stop wearing makeup to challenge normative notions of beauty — host the show, to bringing out Michelle Obama (surrounded by Keys, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez) as a surprise guest, there was a clear decision to put forth an empowering message about gender equality that was purposely diverse. As Obama said, looking at the women sharing the stage with her, “Music shows us that all of it matters, every story within every voice, every note within every song — is that right, ladies?”

Camila Cabello opened the show with a Havana-inspired performance of her hit by the same name that featured Latin music stars Ricky Martin, Arturo Sandoval, and J Balvin. Following up on Cabello’s pro-immigration speech from last year’s Grammys, this performance saw Balvin sitting on a bench reading a newspaper whose anti-Trump headline read “Build Bridges, Not Walls.” It’s not insignificant that this was the first time a Latina artist opened the Grammys show.

These performances were a pleasant surprise, since I didn’t have high hopes for the Grammys going into Sunday night’s show. It was dogged by controversy in advance, particularly since the artist with the #1 song in the country, Ariana Grande, decided not to perform because she felt the show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, was stifling her creative autonomy. In addition, multiple rap nominees declined the Grammys’ invitation to perform. Drake, who initially said no, did attend, and accepted his Best Rap Song award for “God’s Plan” with a surprising speech that took a swipe at the Grammys; he declared that as long as fans are buying records and concert tickets, these awards don’t matter all that much.

Childish Gambino didn’t attend, although he was the night’s biggest winner, taking home Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Music Video, and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for “This Is America,” a song that I doubt would have even been considered for these awards if not for its audacious, endlessly analyzable video. His absence suggests that the Grammys still have a hip-hop problem. The fact that “This Is America” was the first rap song to win “Song of the Year” is downright embarrassing, given the fact that hip-hop is now in its mid-40s.

Then there was the announcement last week that Jennifer Lopez would be headlining the Grammys’ tribute to Motown’s 60th anniversary, which raised a lot of eyebrows (including my own). Not only is JLo not an R&B singer — she’s widely known to be a much better overall performer/dancer than vocalist per se; to put it bluntly, she doesn’t have the vocal chops or the musical lineage for a Motown tribute. But there she was, headlining a performance that was backed up by Ne-Yo and a Motown legend himself, Smokey Robinson. Diana Ross was already performing in honor of her 75th birthday, but there are dozens of other Motown recording artists who are alive, well, and still performing who would have been a more meaningful choice than JLo, starting with Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men, DeBarge, and/or Michael McDonald (who recorded two Motown tribute albums!). JLo should have never been invited to perform this tribute, but given that she was, she should have turned it down.

Still, female artists were the clear highlight of the night. Janelle Monae brilliantly performed her Prince-inspired “Make Me Feel,” declaring in the middle of the song, “Let the vagina have a monologue!” This was followed by Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves, a beautiful tribute to Dolly Parton featuring duets with Miley Cyrus and other female country singers, a powerful Lady Gaga rendition of “Shallow,” and a raunchy, show-stopping performance of “Money” by Cardi B, who made history by becoming the first female solo artist to win Best Rap Album. While many of these performances were bursting with energy and female swagger, the biggest revelation of the night for me was sister duo Chloe x Halle’s stripped down, gorgeously harmonized rendition of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s “Where Is the Love?”

Considering that in 2018 only one woman won a prominent award during the telecast, this year’s winners were much more equitable in terms of gender. Indeed, this year women won Album of the Year (and also represented half the total number of nominees); Best New Artist (most nominees were women); Best Rap Album; Best R&B Album, Performance, and Song; and most of the Country and Pop categories.

Slyly referencing Portnow’s statement last night, Best New Artist winner Dua Lipa got the last laugh when she stated in her acceptance speech, “I just wanted to say how honored I am to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year, because I guess this year we really stepped up!”

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