At a ceremony in Los Angeles, the Recording Academy was keen to overcome the bad press from last year when, after a male-heavy winners list, Academy president Neil Portnow was quoted as saying female performers needed to “step up” if they wanted a better showing.
This year, host Alicia Keys was joined on stage in the opening address by Jada Pinkett Smith, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama, who received a standing ovation before she began a monologue about the importance of music to identity.
“From the Motown records I wore out on the Southside to the ‘Who Run the World’ songs that fuelled me through this last decade, music has always helped me tell my story,” the former first lady said.
“Music helps us share ourselves, our dignity and sorrows, our hopes, our joys. Music shows us that all of it matters.”
In a later bit, Keys talked about the time she lost a Grammy to John Mayer.
She said Mayer told her, at the time, that it should have been her award. She said he actually broke the statue in half and gave her a piece.
Mayer came back on stage with that Grammy in hand on Monday, and the pair hugged, with Mayer joking the statue was “the best joint-custody agreement in showbusiness”.
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It was a clear attempt by the Academy to make up for criticisms it has overlooked women — and particularly women of colour — in favour of men, and to acknowledge the outcry over Portnow’s comments last year, which came after he was asked about the lack of female winners at the 2018 Grammys.
Women who want to be musicians, engineers, producers or music industry executives needed “to step up, because I think they would be welcome,” he told Variety after last year’s ceremony.
Though Portnow later walked back those comments and said they were taken out of context, many saw it as evidence the Recording Academy chief did not understand the more deep-seated barriers facing women in the industry, which studies show is overwhelmingly male.
Big names like Pink and Sheryl Crow were among those to criticise Portnow, who later announced he would make this year’s ceremony his last as Academy president.
Hip hop claims first Song of the Year gong
Album of the Year went to Kasey Musgraves for Golden Hour, a coup for the country-pop singer, who beat more commercially successful and well-known artists like Drake, Post Malone and Cardi B.
Song of the Year went to Childish Gambino for This Is America, the first time that award — one of the big cross-genre categories — has gone to a hip hop artist. This Is America also picked up Record of the Year and Best Music Video, hardly a surprise given the virality of that clip last year.
The Grammys, while ostensibly music’s night of nights, are viewed with scepticism by some in the industry, particularly those working in hip hop, which is the biggest genre in popular music but has historically been overlooked in the main categories.
Drake has boycotted the ceremony two years in a row, and even ridiculed the process a few years ago when his song Hotline Bling, which features no rapping, was named Best Rap/Hip Hop Song.
He did appear this year, accepting the award for Best Rap Song for God’s Plan — which does feature him rapping. However, he didn’t get to finish his acceptance speech.
Dua Lipa won Best New Artist, beating Greta Van Fleet, H.E.R and others. She said she was honoured to have been nominated in a category full of other women.
“I guess this year we have really stepped up,” Lipa said, in a direct reference to last’s year controversy.
Mr Portnow also acknowledged the mood of the night in his own speech:
“We must seize this unique moment to make change within our own industry.”
Meanwhile, it was a mixed night for Australian nominees.
Melburnian Sarah Aarons, who co-wrote the US number one hit The Middle by Zedd, Maren Moris and Grey, lost in the Song Of The Year category.
Sydney producer Fisher, whose song Losing It came in at number two in this year’s Hottest 100, lost in the Best Dance Recording category to Electricity by Silk City and Dua Lipa feat. Diplo and Mark Ronson.
However, Paul Mabury, an Australian songwriter and producer based in Nashville, won in the Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song category for his work on Lauren Daigle’s You Say.
Best Music Film was won by Quincy, about the producer Quincy Jones, the co-director of which was Australian Alan Hicks.
Hugh Jackman also took home a Grammy for his The Greatest Showman, which won Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual media.