Beyond the big contests featuring Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars at the 60th annual music awards on Sunday, the broader cultural question is how the show — and, by extension, the music industry itself — will address the #MeToo movement over sexual misconduct. While Hollywood has presented a united front, raising the bar for award-show activism with the flashy debut of the Time’s Up campaign, the music world has so far lacked any similar momentum.
Outside of a Grammy performance by Kesha that is expected to allude to current conversations around gender — and the possibility of an impromptu headline-grabbing speech — there was little planned for the show before a grass-roots email campaign started on Wednesday, urging attendees to wear a white rose as a symbol of “hope, peace, sympathy and resistance.”
“I saw what they did at the Golden Globes, and I thought it was powerful,” said Rapsody, a nominee for best rap album who signed on early to the white rose idea. “When you’re given a platform and people look to you as someone that has influence, it comes with the territory. It’s the right thing to do.”
The Grammys, the biggest tent in an increasingly fragmented industry, represent a high-profile opportunity to mobilize and connect with an audience of millions. But in recent months, as once-almighty men in entertainment and politics have been felled by revelations of misconduct, galvanizing women in those fields and beyond, figures at the top of the music business — another notoriously male-dominated industry — have remained largely untouched.
Though Russell Simmons, a hip-hop luminary, was accused of rape by multiple women, the music world has seen no mass outpouring from victims. Nor has there been any organized activism like Time’s Up, in which hundreds of prominent women, including Taylor Swift, introduced a legal defense fund.
“Over all, I think the music industry has been shockingly underinvolved in this movement,” said Minya Oh, the New York radio personality known as Miss Info.
Without an impactful response on Sunday, when all eyes turn to music, the industry risks being left out of the cultural conversation of the moment. More than two dozen top-tier female artists, from first-time Grammy nominees to decorated veterans, declined to comment when asked about the #MeToo movement’s effect on music and how it may play out at the awards show. Many female executives, too, were reluctant to speak on the record.
The white rose campaign began at an unlikely spot: a Mexican restaurant in Lower Manhattan where a dozen female music professionals gathered on Monday night. Over guacamole and fajitas, they resolved that if no one else in the industry was going to organize a Grammy campaign over sexual harassment and equality in the workplace, then they would do it themselves.
“We all checked,” said Meg Harkins, a marketing executive at Roc Nation, who led the ad hoc effort with Karen Rait, who works in promotion at Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records. “We went to Time’s Up. Maybe there is something happening with them that we are not aware of? There wasn’t anything, so we felt very much empowered to move forward with this.”
By Thursday afternoon, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper and Khalid had committed to signing a letter and wearing a white rose to the ceremony. (Though Time’s Up did not initiate the white rose campaign, the organization publicized what it called the “organic industry-initiated show of solidarity” in an email to supporters.)
At the ceremony, the theme of survival and perseverance will be carried largely by Kesha, who became pop’s symbol of the fight against sexual assault when, in a 2014 lawsuit, she accused her producer, Dr. Luke, of inflicting years of abuse. (Dr. Luke, whose real name is Lukasz Gottwald, in turn accused Kesha of fabricating the story in an attempt to escape her recording contracts.) Kesha will perform her redemption ballad “Praying” in a segment that is to also include Ms. Lauper, Ms. Cabello, Julia Michaels and Andra Day.
Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammys, said that the performance would not “specifically” address the #MeToo movement but that the association with the news was deliberate. “Even though her story goes back several years,” he said, “the reality of what happened over the last four or five months will put a different spin on the way people will view it.”
Still, the lack of a more insistent call to arms by an agenda-setting pop star, or the industry writ large, has struck observers and insiders as baffling, with some offering explanations as to why no #MeToo-style reckoning has swept through the music industry the way it has Hollywood.
For one, there is simply a fear of reprisal in a business in which women are underrepresented in the studio and the executive suite. On Thursday, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California published a report analyzing the personnel behind Billboard’s top songs from 2012 to 2017. Over all, it found that 78 percent of the 1,239 credited artists were men. Women made up only 12 percent of songwriters and 2 percent of producers.
Of the 899 people nominated in the last six Grammy Awards, the report found, 9 percent were women. (This year, Lorde is the only woman nominated for album of the year; she is not scheduled to perform.)
That structure has historically discouraged women in the business, said Dorothy Carvello, a former record executive who is the author of the forthcoming book, “Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry.”
“Women are afraid to come forward,” Ms. Carvello said. “It’s a male-dominated business, and it was a lesson watching these men manipulate women and close ranks to keep their jobs.”
In the last year, there has been a steady hum of news about sexual misconduct in the music world, with BuzzFeed’s investigation into R. Kelly and Ms. Swift’s victory in a lawsuit against a radio host she accused of groping her. Beyond the mainstream, lesser-known musicians and executives have faced more localized consequences.
But there has been no antagonist on the scale of a Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer to trigger a broader movement.
“Women in the music industry almost expect a certain level of abuse as a rite of passage, a price that one has to pay to be in this business,” said the activist and cultural critic Dream Hampton.
In this age of instant social media backlash, artists and their handlers may also default to a general conservatism and avoid touching hot-button issues.
“Savvy people on their teams will all tell any artist or any celebrity or any powerful person, just don’t get involved,” Ms. Oh said. “Unless you have your own story to tell that you really want to share to empower other victims, I think the overriding, overwhelming advice is stay out of it.”
Musicians, perhaps more than actors, do have the opportunity to address social issues directly in their work, on their own terms. Lady Gaga, who has spoken in the past about her experience with sexual abuse, presaged this moment with the 2015 song “Til It Happens to You,” from the campus-rape documentary “The Hunting Ground.” At the Oscars in 2016, she performed the song surrounded by survivors of sexual assault.
And last weekend, a powerful and personal poem read by the singer Halsey at the Women’s March in New York went viral. Called “A Story Like Mine,” the poem detailed a lifetime of proximity to abuse: “It’s 2018 and I’ve realized nobody is safe long as she is alive/and every friend that I know has a story like mine,” Halsey told the crowd.
The Grammys, too, can be a site for activism, with performances in recent years featuring Macklemore presiding over same-sex marriages, Kendrick Lamar in a chain gang and A Tribe Called Quest breaking down a Trumpian wall. But it is also a variety show, as its organizers know.
“There are people who are going to watch the show who are caught up in the #MeToo movement and will expect us to address it in one way or another,” Mr. Ehrlich, the show’s producer, said. “But there is a large part of the audience that will tune in because they just want to be entertained.”
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