Grammy white roses call for a complete cultural makeover

Olivia Dalby

This year, the 60th Grammy Awards confirmed what we had been speculating for a while: that they are a sexist and racist institution. From who was invited to perform to the comments said by Recording Academy president there is a lot to tackle. The 60th Grammy Award Ceremony featured a handful of musicians collected for reported excellence, a plethora of white roses holding a powerful message, and an even smaller number of awards handed out to people that weren’t men.

The white roses were a nice touch, at least. Worn to correspond with the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, the flowers were a side-eye to Hollywood’s slew of sexual assault allegations, an outreach to survivors in the audience, and a reminder that the afflictions of gender are present in celebrities, too.

In this post-Weinstein world that we live in, it’s more than appropriate to set aside time to think about how our society handles the voices of victims, particularly women. Aside from sexual assault awareness, the white rose is a generic symbol for peace, love, and similar feelings of goodwill. Not to criticize the performers, such as Kesha who chose to wear a white rose during the ceremony, but these symbolic stands of solidarity rarely get the attention one hopes for, doing the bare minimum to move the conversation in one direction or another.

The white roses were a nice touch, and that’s all they could ever be. The gesture’s lack of impact is far from the fault of the female performers who wore one.

The far more glaring issue is with the Academy itself. During the whole evening, little attention was brought to the issue, the presence of the white roses, or even the female nominees themselves, aside from a speech made by Janelle Monae and a few performances by others. In the few days since the ceremony, the overwhelming disagreement on the evening’s award winners between the artists, viewers, and academy has hammered down the disconnect between the Grammys and the modern consumer. The last few people unaware of the systematic discrimination in the music industry were slapped in the face when Academy President Neil Portnow brushed it off and told female artists to “step it up.” There’s little that hasn’t been said about his comment, and we can talk all day about the male bias and industry misogyny — some have gone as far to call for Portnow to step down as president. A good thought, but perhaps it doesn’t go far enough. Portnow’s comment had some personal notes to it, but overall, it feels more like a reflection of the academy than it does himself as an individual. A replacement figurehead might handle their words more carefully, but people put too much hope in a change in management and don’t spend enough time criticizing the system.

This situation shows just how out of touch the Grammys and the Recording Academy executives are. It’s as if Neil Portnow and his colleagues are unaware of the institutional barriers in place to keep a majority of women in the music industry down, with sexism in the industry and the media, and invalidation being just a couple of examples of these barriers. Kesha can escape from a horrible situation in which she was under contract with an abuser, write and perform a powerful song about this situation, and still lose to an unremarkable white guy with a guitar. You could say that the Grammys are a numbers game and Kesha just didn’t have the numbers, to which I could say that there are bigger factors at play leading to this. Additionally, I could ask where that would put people like SZA and Lorde or the moment when Beck beat out Beyonce for album of the year. It’s obviously about much more than the numbers.

Now we get into who was invited to perform. I’d like to talk specifically about three male acts who were invited to perform and one woman who was egregiously not invited to perform. Sam Smith, U2 and Sting were all invited to perform despite not being nominated in any category. Sam Smith’s album was released too late to be in consideration for this Grammy award season. If U2 had only been invited to perform that one part of Kendrick’s song “XXX” that would have made some sense, but of course they got to perform their own material later. The point is that all three of these acts took a spot that could have allowed Lorde to perform. Lorde was the only act nominated for album of the year who was not invited to perform, and she was also the only woman nominated for that award anyway. It’s sad that this outcome has become predictable, it shouldn’t be this way, and that’s why the Grammys need to change.

There’s no getting rid of the music industry, and it will evolve if it wants to survive, as it seems to have started doing with the powerful message sent by the white roses worn. However, it’s going to take bigger strides, and more than a handful of flowers worn, to see the changes that need to be made put into action.