Cultural Messages of the Grammys

The 2019 Grammy Awards show was riddled with political messages, ranging from the not-so-subtle “BUILD BRIDGES NOT WALLS” newspaper strategically placed in the hands of Columbian artist J Balvin during his performance with latino singers Camila Cabello and Ricky Martin, to the surprise appearance of former first lady and cultural icon Michelle Obama.

Producers crowned Cardi B as the first female to win best rap album and devoted significant attention to Motown performances championed by Alicia Keys—a gleaming choice for the night’s host.

This year’s “biggest night in music” was, however, by no means a purveyor of morality. The increased awards delivered to hip-hop artists and the attempt to diversify its performers were obvious PR tactics: producers sought to assuage the show’s slew of criticism for being racially insensitive and culturally irrelevant for the past four decades—and they thought they could pull it off in one night.

Hence why powerful hip-hop artists, notably Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino—many of whom have been snubbed by the Grammys in the past— declined invitations to perform. After years of systemic undermining and failing to reward the prominence of hip-hop in modern America, the Recording Academy couldn’t make amends so easily.

Drake makes surprise appearance at Grammys to accept award for Best Rap Song. Photo by Time Magazine.

Drake makes surprise appearance at Grammys to accept award for Best Rap Song. Photo by Time Magazine.

Drake, whose long-time reign over the hip-hop genre has substantiated his name as, arguably, a music legend, is only 4-for-42 when it comes to Grammy awards. Perhaps he said it best in his acceptance speech for God’s Plan: "This is a business where sometimes it's up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed race kid from Canada has to say...”

Let it be known that producers “accidentally” cut to a commercial at the climax of his eloquent invalidation of the awards.

Diana Ross performs at 2019 Grammy Awards. Picture by Page Six.

Diana Ross performs at 2019 Grammy Awards. Picture by Page Six.

And then there was the Great Diana Ross--a 74-year-old angel in red who not only pulled off a magnificent performance but owned her age with a remarkable, self-congratulatory closing: “Happy Birthday to Me.”

Perhaps her performance invite was the Academy’s attempt to rectify the almost-Grammy-less-Diana-Ross situation? (The Motown queen never won a Grammy until her 2012 lifetime achievement award).

The Academy could have also been more progressive in addressing the loss of two rhythmically brilliant and beloved artists this year, Mac Miller and Tim Burgling (aka Avicii). Both musicians suffered from substance abuse, and while Miller died from an accidental drug overdose in September, Avicii took his own life after grappling with severe anxiety and depression exacerbated by fame. Both fatalities played out against the larger backdrop of mental illness, suicide and addiction crippling every corner of America.

Mac Miller. Photo by Vulture

Mac Miller. Photo by Vulture

Perhaps the Academy was obligated to acknowledge these painfully relevant deaths, at a minimum to honor the incredible contributions of Avicii and Miller. At best, the show could have generated a much-needed conversation about two very stigmatized subjects. Instead, both artists were depicted as normative casualties of 2018, randomly interwoven in a fast-paced reel showcasing many other, much older, deceased entertainers.

The Academy may have adapted its show to mitigate previous criticisms regarding race and gender, but it certainly wasn’t about to transform narratives surrounding substance abuse and depression. By immersing the deaths of these disturbingly young artists into a generic acknowledgement video, the Academy was, in essence, extrapolating them from the context of their respective illnesses. This lack of focus was symbolic of our societal unwillingness to accept duality-- the fact that mental illness and substance abuse are real, authentic issues that many successful individuals, like Mac and Avicii, struggle with.

If the Grammys executed one theme flawlessly, however, it was the message of female empowerment and sisterhood. Alicia Keys alone provided the ideal symbol of feminism in simply being herself. She has paired her profound impact on the music industry with genuine activism, ranging from her support for families affected by HIV/AIDS to her bold revolt against makeup and image editing (As of 2016, Keys has gone makeup-free, and she made no exceptions for the Grammys). She infused authenticity into every aspect of the night, from lauding the accomplishments of other female artists (with whom she referred to as her sisters) to owning her roots as a biracial musician growing up in Manhattan, the Girl on Fire singer was simply perfection.

Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez take the stage of the 2019 Grammy Awards side by side. Photo by People Magazine.

Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez take the stage of the 2019 Grammy Awards side by side. Photo by People Magazine.

But the award show brilliantly diffused the singular spotlight on one woman, Keys, and forced it to capture multiple powerful women simultaneously: a rare site of female egalitarianism and togetherness. Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Jada Pinkett Smith exuded a confident aura as they entered the stage hand-in-hand. Each expressed their struggles as social misfits or humble city girls, as well as the liberating impact of music.

That image—of five, beautifully different yet unified women holding hands—symbolized the 2019 Grammys. In a country where, despite rapid strides in defeating overt sexism, embedded gender roles persist, locker-room rhetoric normalizes the degradation and comparison of females and product-based beauty is intricately tied to wealth, these women represented an alternative message: Screw that. We will no longer conform to patriarchal standards. We will no longer allow ourselves to be bait to this game of female competition. We will no longer be fetishized, debased merely to our physical features, but rather force the world to understand the complexity of the female.

We will support and empower one another, until the only normalized rhetoric is one that values our soul and respects our talents. I thought this message was perfectly encapsulated in the lasting image of five, impactful females, standing hand-in-hand under one spotlight.

As a whole—the Grammys tried. Producers definitely made improvements, but they cannot stop here. If they want to be a true cornerstone of culture and music, they cannot merely respond to criticism, but instead must catalyze cultural progression.




Alyssa HurlbutComment