Yeah, I said 2020. I know the 2021 Grammys ceremony was on last night, and I’ll get to that eventually, but I’m a wee bit behind! There was a lot going on when the Grammys show aired on Jan. 26, 2020, because the former guy had been impeached (for the first time) by the House of Representatives the month before. There was absolutely no doubt that white supremacists in the Senate would soon acquit him. But it’s always worth putting up a fight, so on Jan. 29, 2020, I went with other activists to D.C. to call on Republican Senators to put country before party. I was arrested for non-violent civil disobedience on the Capitol Steps that day …
… and then arrested again in the Capitol Rotunda on February 5, the day of the acquittal vote.
When I came back to New York, I returned to other issues that I am passionate about. As a result, I arrested in Times Square in New York on February 16, 2020, for protesting Thomson Reuter’s contract to provide information about immigrants to the administration’s deportation machine.
We now know the COVID-19 pandemic was looming during those months although, at the time, we wallowed in denial. The first case of the coronavirus was reported in New York state on March 1, 2020. New York declared a state of emergency on March 7, 2020. On Friday, March 13, 2020, I took my friend Chiara D’Agostino to her chemo appointment at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University hospital. Then I went home, and that was that. I didn’t go anywhere else for six weeks. Theoretically, I should have had plenty of time to write about Billy Porter’s Grammys hat, but, like a lot of other people in these tumultuous times, I discovered that my many depression naps interfered with my productivity.
My lack of productivity, in turn, made me feel guilty, so I needed even more naps, and you know how that cycle goes. I felt especially guilty about my failure to write a Grammys post, but it wasn’t really because of Billy Porter’s hat. As spectacular as the chapeau created by milliner Sarah Sokol was, wild things were taking place behind the scenes at the The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which presents the awards. Writing about all that was too daunting then. But better late than never — especially because, judging by last night’s show, the Recording Academy has yet to find its way.
The organization has long been criticized for favoring white and male performers. (Remember the 2014 Grammys, when Macklemore won best rap album over Kendrick Lamar? I still think “Thrift Shop” is the best song about fashion, ever, but come on!) In 2017 and 2018, I wrote several posts mentioning the (white, male, totally oblivious) Academy president Neil Portnow, who had held the job since 2002. In 2018, I blogged about a couple of his most egregious statements, as well as what might be his worst “achievement”:
“With complaints about gender bias circulating while the 2018 Grammys show was still on the air, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said immediately after that women need to “step up” if they want to win. (He apologized four days later.) This is the same Neil Portnow, who, in response to complaints about the white-skewing 2017 show, said, “No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all.” And, guess what? It was Neil Portnow who, according to the Grammys website, “forcefully led The Academy through some tense moments with the network following the Super Bowl controversy” in 2004. I’ve got a tip for the folks doing that new, independent gender-bias investigation for the Recording Academy: Start with Neil Portnow. You’re welcome!”
As a result, I was pleased when, in June 2018, the Academy announced that Portnow’s contract wouldn’t be renewed when it expired in 2019. Maybe that happened because of my helpful tip, or Fiona Apple’s “Kneel, Portnow” t-shirt, or that gender-bias investigation. Just kidding! It was totally because of money: The announcement came one week after Variety reported that a female whistleblower accused Portnow of steering money from Musicares, the Academy’s charitable arm, to the Grammys telecast to cover a shortfall. Even then, the Academy didn’t seem particularly chastened, seeing as it let Portnow work till the end of his contract rather than ousting him immediately. But the future seemed brighter when the organization named Deborah Dugan — its first female president — as Portnow’s successor. She promised transparency and “a major restructuring” that would confront not only gender bias in the industry, but underrepresentation in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability as well.
Well, Dugan lasted for five months before she fell off the glass cliff. Just 10 days before the 2020 Grammys, the Academy suspended her, citing bullying behavior and “a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team.” Five days before the ceremony, Dugan fought back by filing a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. NPR reported:
“That filing contained a number of bombshell accusations, including that her predecessor, Neil Portnow, raped a female artist in New York; that she was pressed to hire Portnow as a consultant for $750,000 by the Academy’s then-board chair, John Poppo; and that the Academy’s general counsel and former board chair, Joel Katz, sexually harassed Dugan in May 2019, as she was being courted for the top Academy job. Both Portnow and Katz have strongly denied Dugan’s allegations; Portnow has said that he was exonerated by an independent investigation.”
In addition, the Los Angeles Times said, “The complaint describes ‘egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members and voting irregularities with respect to nominations for Grammy Awards, all made possible by the ‘boy’s club’ mentality.'” Attached to Dugan’s EEOC complaint was a memo detailing many of her charges, which she had sent to the Academy’s human resources department in December. She said her suspension was swift retaliation; the Academy claimed she cobbled together her accusations to ward off a firing or negotiate for severance. When the Academy officially fired her last March 2, it sent a letter to members saying it had conducted “two exhaustive, costly independent investigations relating to Ms. Dugan and the allegations made against her and by her.” However, as Variety pointed out, the letter, like the Academy’s previous communications, didn’t specify what Dugan’s allegedly did wrong or respond to many of her allegations.
The Academy’s interim president is Harvey Mason Jr. As for Dugan, I’ve been poking around teh Internets but I’m not clear about the status of her complaint. If the next steps were delayed due to the pandemic, I’m sure the Academy was low-key delighted to avoid more #MeToo headlines about the very person hired to tackle that problem and others. Could Dugan have been a bully, as the Academy claims? Yes, that’s possible. But do I believe she could have behaved more egregiously in five months than Neil “I don’t think there’s a race problem” Portnow did in 17 years? I’m dubious. Could she have sent the memo in December because she trying to head off career disaster? Hell, yeah, but that doesn’t mean her allegations can’t be true. I know, because I did the same thing in 1995. I have experience with working within the system and realizing too late that appeasement never works.
Meanwhile, is the Recording Academy still an old (white) boys’ club? Three-time Grammy winner Weeknd thinks so. His single “Blinding Lights” — which made Billboard history by spending 52 weeks in the top 10 of the Hot 100 chart — earned the star a meme-worthy Super Bowl halftime gig but not a single 2021 Grammy nomination.
The Weeknd also got zero nods for his well-reviewed album, After Hours, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard last March. After the Grammy nominations were announced in November, he tweeted, “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…” And last week, he told the New York Times he will permanently boycott the Grammys process, citing the anonymous expert committees that have final say on most nominations. Zayn Malik is another top performer calling for the end to the secret committees. At the start of last night’s show, Malik tweeted:
Other big names that the Grammys have pissed off recently for one reason or another include Wiz Khalifa and even white dude Justin Bieber, while Teyana Taylor called out the male-dominated R&B album category. (Fiona Apple, who won two Grammys, didn’t attend the ceremony for personal reasons but also mentioned the lack of transparency in her video statement.) As for the actual show, I thought last night’s masked and socially-distant 2021 Grammys ran more smoothly than usual. Thankfully, Megan Thee Stallion won Best New Artist at the start — she’s been so impactful and turned out so many hits, the show would have been over before it began if Megan had been ignored like Nicki Minaj was in 2012. Nicki, by the way, hasn’t forgotten that.
Last night, Megan also won Best Rap Song/Performance for the remix of her song “Savage,” featuring Beyonce. And Beyonce became the Grammys most-winning female artist, breaking bluegrass singer Alison Krauss’s career record of 27 Grammys thanks to wins for “Savage”; her own “BROWN SKIN GIRL” music video; and for R&B performance with “Black Parade.” Another black woman artist, H.E.R., won Song of the Year for writing “I Can’t Breathe.” That was all good. But the Grammys old ways were apparent in the big show-ending awards. Album of the year went to Taylor Swift’s surprise drop, folklore — her 11th Grammy win. The album was praised, but remember that the Weeknd wasn’t even in the running here, which made the category seem incomplete. And, as the New York Times pointed out, the last Black artist to win album of the year was Herbie Hancock in 2008 — for a tribute to white singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell — and the last Black woman was Lauryn Hill in 1999. So the Taylor Swift thing felt awkward. But the real squirm-inducing win last night was 19-year-old Billie Eilish nabbing Record of the Year for “everything I wanted” — her second consecutive win of that category. It’s a good song, but the award so obviously belonged to Megan Thee Stallion and Beyonce for “Savage” that Billie was forced to give one of THOSE acceptance speeches (see Adele crying to Beyonce in 2017, and the Macklemore/Kendrick Lamar humiliation of 2014.) Pitchfork transcribed Billie’s words to Megan:
“This is really embarrassing for me,” she said. “Megan, girl… I was gonna write a speech about how you deserve this but then I was like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to choose me.’ I was like, ‘It’s hers.’ You deserve this. You had a year that I think is un-stoppable. You are a queen—I want to cry thinking about how much I love you… You deserve everything in the world, I think about you constantly… You deserve it.” She then asked everyone to applaud Megan before continuing her acceptance speech.
I guess the Recording Academy’s committees are so committed to their white supremacy that they’d rather humiliate a white artist than honor a Black artist. But zOMG! I can’t stand this kind of second-hand embarrassment. This is why I don’t watch reality shows! This also made it impossible for me to simply write about Grammy fashion. But now I’m finally ready to announce my prestigious Best Dressed/Wear What You Want combo award for the 2021 Grammys. There are two runners-up. I normally favor eye-catching — nay, traffic-stopping — looks more than “pretty” ones, but first runner-up Noah Cyrus’s Schiaparelli Couture gown has both qualities.
Completely over-the-top costume-y looks and trompe l’oeil pieces always get a “hell, yeah” from me so I’m obsessed with second runner-up Phoebe Bridger’s Thom Browne skeleton dress. Phoebe is into skeletons, so why doesn’t she have any of my Memento Mori skull jewelry? I’ll give the skulls some bones for company if that’s what she wants. I’ve always wanted to do a rib-cage design. C’mon, Phoebe, call me.
As for my top prize, you might have guessed it if you’re one of my OG readers and you know I’ve got a whole “boob and butt bow” category on this blog. I have to hand it to Megan Thee Stallion for her bright orange gown with a major butt bow and a thigh-high slit. I think we can call this shade of orange neon too, so mega-bonus points for that.
I didn’t know the gown was by Dolce & Gabbana till the show was over, which is good because the brand lost its luster for me after the designers spouted some anti-gay shit in 2015. But I admit that the designers came through with this custom-made Grammy look for Megan. It’s both glamorous and powerful. This is the kind of gown you wear when you know you deserve to win! Secret committees, beware!