I Would Like to Challenge the Academy: a Recap of the Grammys

Lady Gaga performing at Artpop Ball Tour

Assistant Editor

I did not watch the Grammys live, so I just checked the Internet for the winners. When I found out that Lorde’s Melodrama didn’t win Album of the Year, I was pretty bummed. Lorde is a role model of mine, and I was frankly surprised that her genius album did not win. My feelings escalated to incredulous anger when I read that Lorde was the only female nominee for AOTY and she lost to Bruno Mars. Now, I don’t dislike Bruno Mars. In fact, I think he has an excellent voice and his songs have a great upbeat and retro kind of vibe. But this is not going to be about my music tastes. I want to explore the message the Grammys has sent this year, with so few female nominees for the top awards and even fewer female winners, and additionally favoring music that talks about sex, romance, and other such banal topics as opposed to music that addresses serious and timely issues.

To continue with the AOTY discourse, I already mentioned that Lorde was the only female nominee out of the five total candidates for the award; she was also the only musician out of the five who was not asked to give a solo performance. The Grammys are long, and it would be impossible for every single nominee to give a performance, but excluding the only woman nominated in this category is so foolish that it’s almost laughable. Even if an organization as large as the Recording Academy does not want to support women, they should at least pretend to for PR purposes. Of course, it would be much better for the Recording Academy to actually support women and dismantle the patriarchal ideals in the music industry, but it just seems too obvious for them to at least appear as if they are taking steps towards that. The choice to not give Lorde—I’ll say it again, the only female nominated for AOTY—the spotlight for five minutes is such an evident indicator of the disrespect and prejudice faced by all women in the music industry, as well as the Academy’s apathetic stance on fighting this problem.

According to Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, these obstacles don’t exist, and it is simply the fault of women for not “stepping up” and making themselves heard. He said that women need to come into the industry with “creativity in their hearts and souls” and the dedication to make it. Perhaps Portnow hasn’t been watching the news lately or listening to the radio. Maybe he hasn’t seen people unifying behind #MeToo and #Time’sUp. Maybe he didn’t know anything about Kesha’s years of fighting against the producer who sexually assaulted her, so maybe he did not feel profoundly moved when she stood up on the stage and sang “Praying” with the courage and resilience of a survivor.

Maybe that’s why Portnow feels that there was nothing disturbingly sexist about Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” beating out Kesha’s “Praying” for Best Pop Solo Performance. As an aside, I adore Ed Sheeran and love his lyrics. This is not an attack on him or his music in any sense; rather, it is a presentation of the facts. “Shape of You” is playful and has a bopping beat. It’s about a guy who meets a girl at a bar, they go on a date, and have apparently good sex. “Praying” is raw emotion that has been converted to music. It is Kesha’s years of self-doubt, depression, fear, shame—the nearly unspeakable pain that comes with being sexually abused—all transformed into her rebirth. Kesha has come out of this horrifying darkness stronger than ever, and any anger she harbors towards that man, whose name doesn’t even deserve to be typed, dissolves into the hope that he will repent and “see the light.”

This theme of resilience is prevalent throughout Kesha’s entire album, “Rainbow:” she emphasizes recovery, finding joy in life, and embracing yourself no matter how hard the “bastards” try to tear you down. Kesha is nothing short of heroic, yet Ed Sheeran beat her again in the category of Best Pop Vocal Album. Not only did Sheeran beat out Kesha in this category, but his album also won over Lady Gaga’s “Joanneand Lana Del Rey’s “Lust for Life.”

Lady Gaga’s album was titled after her father’s older sister who passed away at the age of 19 from lupus. As Lady Gaga details in her documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” Joanne was a poet and a painter, and she served as a significant inspiration to Gaga as she was thinking about her future in music. Though Gaga had never met Joanne, she describes feeling a deep connection to her through the stories her family told and the artwork and writing that Joanne left behind. Additionally, Gaga explained that Joanne left a legacy of tragedy and pain and had survived a sexual assault, but the toll it took on her body and mind was so distressing that it caused the lupus to escalated severely, ultimately and quickly causing her death.

Joanne’s influence on Gaga has been visible throughout her career: one of her poems was included in the lyric booklet for Gaga’s debut album “The Fame,” and Gaga’s 2015 song “Til it Happens to You,” which was written for a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, has Joanne’s presence. Now, Gaga has decided to reveal a deeper part of herself, to reveal how much Joanne has impacted her. The title track alone is enough to leave listeners in an emotionally struck state, relating their own personal experiences with loss with that of Gaga and Joanne. To be fair, on Sheeran’s album, simply titled “÷,” there is a beautiful song called “Supermarket Flowers” about his grandmother’s death, but compared to Gaga’s intricate narrative of Joanne which she weaves through her album, his song does not achieve the same poignancy.

Further, most of Sheeran’s songs on “÷” are pretty standard for him: acoustic guitar, violin, drums, piano, and some sort of woodwind instrument paired with lyrics touching on romance and heartbreak. And that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Gaga’s “Joanne” has pushed boundaries that are quite foreign to the avant-garde Queen of Pop we have known. She uses her dynamic voice to sing with a more gospel, blues, and country flair on several of her songs. She also collaborated with indie rock goddess Florence Welch of the band Florence + The Machine. The sheer contrast of their two utterly unique voices yielded a fantastic deut called “Hey Girl,” which, being about two women in a relationship, brought more visibility to the LGBTQ+ community.

Lana Del Rey also produced a record that is different from her usual style, showing quite a bit of growth in her songwriting abilities. I have been a longtime fan of Del Rey, but I fully acknowledge the problematic nature of much of her earlier works. I wrote a critical research paper about her music last year, prior to the release of “Lust for Life,” in which I highlighted her dangerous romanticizing of partner abuse and illegal age-gap relationships and how this can negatively influence her listeners. But “Lust for Lifeis all of Del Rey’s sadness and strong views refined. She tackles issues of social justice and declares that she will live her life how she wants. Newest of all for her, she sings with the determination to fix the problems with her relationships and society at large rather than just crooning hopelessly as she did previously. Del Rey said herself that “Lust for Life” is more about her looking outward. She feels she has done enough personal searching in her previous records and has now decided to make a shift to looking at her place in relation to the rest of the world, a sort of blending of introspection and social commentary. Though much more muted and less emotionally charged than Kesha’s “Rainbow,” Del Rey’s “Lust for Life,” too, is her discovery of her own strength and resilience as well as her newfound “lust for life,” to quote her title track.

The dramatic shifts of these three women–Kesha, Lady Gaga, and Lana Del Rey–as reflected in their brilliant records is what should have distinguished them as the top contenders for Best Pop Vocal Album. Instead, the winner is a man whose record, while catchy and well-written, has not shown the growth, strength, and emotional depth of the other nominees.

This is very similar to the problem with the Album of the Year results. Lorde released “Melodrama” at just 19-years-old, and it debuted at number one in several countries and has received widespread critical acclaim, many even citing it as the best album of the year. She also wrote all of the songs on her own or with only one other person. Her first album, “Pure Heroine,” was released a few years ago when she was 16, and even it just listening to any one song from it and then listening to any one song from “Melodrama” will give you a clear and awe-inspiring picture of Lorde’s maturation as a truly gifted writer. “Pure Heroinehad its time and is still brilliant work, but “Melodrama” is all of the dark and wonderful emotions of that hazy yet distinct shift from your teenage years into adulthood.

That tremendous growth and purely personal authorship is not seen in Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic.” It’s his typical style of bopping electronic music and backup chorus with an old school kind of twist. Themes included romance, sex, wealth, and fun. That’s all fine, but it isn’t a venerable artistic masterpiece that would warrant winning not only Album of the Year, but Record of the year as well.

Mars also claimed Song of the Year for “That’s What I Like” over the collaborative suicide hotline anthem, “1-800-273-8255,” sung by Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid. I cannot fathom how this could have occured. “That’s What I Like” is a sexy and fun tune about Mars’s wealth and how much he wants to present his girl with lavish gifts. It’s a surface value song about the glamorous life of privilege and fame. “1-800-273-8255” has a tragic depth to it that leaves Mars’s song looking shallow and materialistic. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people in America. It is an epidemic. Mental health is far too often ignored by mainstream media, but what these artists have done is phenomenal. They admitted that they, too, have felt depressed and suicidal, asking listeners “who can relate?” which brings them to a very human level. Listeners, especially teens, who do relate will realize that they are not alone in feeling out of touch. When the song shifts midway to the artists declaring that they “want you to be alive” and later triumphantly state that they “want to be alive” as well, listeners see the value in recovery and not succumbing to their dark thoughts. Of course, this song is not the new SSRI, but the media has a powerful role in shaping people’s perspectives, so “1-800-273-8255” is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever been in the terrifying depths of depression. It’s telling them that working towards a better mental state is possible, despite what they might think. How could a song as powerful and bone-chillingly honest as this lose to a song as basic and inconsequential as “That’s What I Like?”

I am not raging against Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran for making music how they want to and winning awards. Their music is not inherently evil, and they’re two artists who are more respectful than many other male artists. I am critiquing the Recording Academy for having such poor and frankly nonsensical judgement this year. Winning several Grammys is a fantastic achievement and I am not suggesting that Mars and Sheeran should feel guilty or return their awards. No, I am challenging the Academy, not thanking it as the winners typically say in their speeches. I challenge the Academy to diversify their panel and investigate the backstories and meanings behind music and its creators, not just their numerical spots on the charts.

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