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When an awards show finally felt relevant

There was something splendidly different about these ‘women-dominated’ Grammys—in the quiet but firm way these women made political statements

At the Grammys, singer-songwriter Annie Lennox raised her fist and said ‘Artists for a ceasefire—peace in the world’.(AFP)

By Sandip Roy

LAST PUBLISHED 09.02.2024  |  06:30 AM IST

Two Baby Boomers Watch the Grammys, a New Yorker magazine cartoon a friend shared this week on social media pretty much sums up the annual Grammys predicament for many of us these days.

As a wise friend said, a sure sign that we are getting older is when we know more people in the “In Memoriam" segment than among the actual winners.

The cartoon shows a couple sitting on a couch watching television with their cat curled up on a rug in front of them. The thought bubble for both reads the same—“Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?" And then “Joni!"

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Joni of course refers to Joni Mitchell, who made her Grammys debut at 80. Resplendent in a black velvet shirt with gold embroidery and a black beret, she sat in a plush armchair, tapping her cane with a diamond-encrusted tiger head as she sang her iconic 1966 song Both Sides Now. The voice, of course, did not have the old bell-like clarity she was famous for. At first I pined for that. But then I realised this version had something the original did not—decades of life experience baked into it. It gave the song a certain grit that the original never had. After having a near-death experience because of a brain aneurysm recently, Mitchell had truly looked at life from both sides now. When she sang “Well something’s lost but something’s gained in living everyday", the internet teared up.

She got a standing ovation, but these Grammys had more retro feel than just Joni Mitchell. Billy Joel sang, as did Tracy Chapman and Annie Lennox. Yet the Grammys were not just a nostalgia fest.

My old colleague and friend Hilary Abramson, a retired journalist and editor now living in Sacramento, California, was the one who shared the cartoon. But her comment below it was what really struck me. She wrote: “Actually, I’m proud of myself in that I LOVED Rodrigo’s song about getting her license. The writing was so much more sophisticated than her 20-something age."

Rodrigo is Olivia Rodrigo, also a nominee this year for her song Vampire and the album GUTS. And Abramson was right. The songwriting is indeed sophisticated about a young woman who gets her driver’s licence but loses her lover.

Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.

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‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.

In some odd way Rodrigo’s Driver’s License feels like it is a goddaughter-in-song to Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, both part of this edition of the Grammys.

You got a fast car

Is it fast enough so we can fly away?

Still gotta make a decision

Leave tonight or live and die this way.

From 20-year-old Olivia Rodrigo to 80-year-old Joni Mitchell, the night somehow turned into a sisterhood of the Grammys.

Women won big across categories. Taylor Swift won her fourth Album Of The Year award, making her the first artist, man or woman, to do so. Billie Eilish won Song Of The Year. Miley Cyrus won Record Of The Year. Victoria Monet was named Best New Artist. boygenius, a band with three women, picked up Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song. Lainey Wilson won Best Country Album and SZA won Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song.

In 2018, after a singularly male-dominated Grammys, the ex-president of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, said if more women wanted to be nominated and win Grammys, they needed to step up. At that time, the artist P!nk said, “Women in music don’t need to ‘step up’—women have been stepping up since the beginning of time." This year it seemed like they had conquered.

Although media carried headlines like “female-dominated Grammys" and “Women Sweep the Grammys", the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed saying it’s still not a “Year of the Woman" in the music business. It cited a USC Annenberg study that showed despite these big wins by women, only 19.5% of all songwriters across the Billboard Hot 100 songs of 2023 were women. That’s up from 14.1% in 2022 but there’s still a long way to go. Some songs included a team of as many as 11 writers, all men.

The Annenberg study would not surprise us in India. Generations in India have lived for decades under the hypnotic thrall of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. The men they sang with changed over the years, but the sisters kept ruling the roost. Their supersized cultural footprint also obscured the fact that most of those writing the songs and composing the melodies were men and I dare say that’s still the case.

It feels odd in 2023 to still have to do a kind of bean counting when it comes to gender parity in something like the Grammys. Unlike the acting awards at the Oscars, the Grammys do not do gender separation. Music has never been short of female stars. Lucy Dacus of boygenius once told GQ that the idea of women in music “should not be remarkable whatsoever" and her bandmate Phoebe Bridgers added that “it’s not a genre". In fact, the trio (Julien Baker being the other band member) bonded because they were just tired of constantly being compared to each other in endless “women in rock" copy. Though they had very different styles, the media kept pitting them against each other as if they were competing for some kind of Miss World tiara. Their older musical sisters from another generation would probably nod in agreement. Years ago, three queens of country music, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt, also recorded and toured as a trio, using their distinctive styles not to complete against each other but to create something together. They never formed a band like boygenius, but there was always something genuinely empowering about seeing them together, feeding off each other’s energy. I remember listening to that CD Trio over and over again. And thanks to the Grammys this year, I have discovered boygenius.

It’s important not to view the Grammys through overly rose-tinted glasses, but there was something splendidly different about these “women-dominated" Grammys. It was not just about the victories. There was also the quiet but firm way the women made political statements without needing to resort to grandstanding. The Atlantic called Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs’ mesmerising duet of her working-class ballad Fast Car a “magical, unifying moment" for an “angry and divided nation". The “In Memoriam" section reduced Harry Belafonte, the most politically outspoken star on the list, to just a photograph. He did not get any special salute. But as Annie Lennox finished her emotionally raw tribute to the late Sinead O’Connor, she raised her fist and said “Artists for a ceasefire—peace in the world." Former MSNBC journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote in a post on X, “Respect to Annie Lennox. Shame it took so long into this awards season for a celeb to say this." Singer Esperanza Spalding wore a Palestinian keffiyeh. boygenius wore red pins that represented the Artists Call For Ceasefire Now (a petition demanding an end to the war in Gaza). At one time, the AIDS red ribbon was everywhere at these awards, it had almost become the must-have fashion accessory for anyone trying to be half-cool. People looked askance at the star who did not wear one. The Artists Call For Ceasefire Now pins are certainly nowhere as ubiquitous in a world where the daily horrors in Gaza are carefully and deliberately pushed out of sight. On Grammys night, those red pins were truly red badges of courage.

It was women’s night at the Grammys not just because so many women won, but because some of them chose to stand up and be counted in a world that increasingly pushes all of us to play it safe. For once what they wore on the red carpet felt secondary because they made something as cliched as an awards show finally feel relevant for our troubled times. Unlike Taylor’s Swift’s anti-hero, they stared directly at the sun and dared the rest of us to look in the mirror.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr

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