Two baby boomers watch the Grammysa New Yorker magazine cartoon that a friend shared on social media this week pretty much sums up the annual Grammy situation for many of us these days.
As a wise friend said, a sure sign that we're getting older is that we know more people in the “In Memoriam” segment than we do 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!”
Joni, of course, refers to Joni Mitchell, who made her Grammy debut at the age of 80. Resplendent in a black velvet shirt with gold embroidery and a black beret, she sat in a plush armchair and tapped her walking stick with a diamond-encrusted tiger's head as she sang. her iconic song from 1966 Both sides now. The voice, of course, didn't have the old bell-like clarity it was famous for. At first I longed for that. But then I realized that this version had something the original didn't: decades of life experience baked into it. It gave the song a certain spice that the original never had. After recently suffering a near-death experience due to a brain aneurysm, Mitchell had now truly seen life from both sides. When she sang “Well, something's lost, but something's gained in everyday life,” the internet exploded.
She got a standing ovation, but these Grammys had more of a retro feel than just Joni Mitchell. Billy Joel sang, as did Tracy Chapman and Annie Lennox. Yet the Grammys weren't just a nostalgia fest.
My longtime 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 underneath was what really stood out to me. She wrote, “Actually, I'm proud of myself because I loved Rodrigo's song about getting her driver's license. The writing was so much more advanced than her twenty years.
Rodrigo is Olivia Rodrigo, also nominated this year for her song Vampire and the album ENTERPRISES. And Abramson was right. The songwriting is indeed refined, about a young woman who gets her driver's license but loses her lover.
I don't think you meant what you wrote about me in that song.
Because you said forever, now I drive alone along your street.
In a strange way, Rodrigo's Drivers license it feels like it's a goddaughter of Tracy Chapman's Fast carboth part of this edition of the Grammys.
You have a fast car
Is it fast enough so we can fly away?
Still have to make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way.
From twenty-year-old Olivia Rodrigo to eighty-year-old Joni Mitchell, the evening somehow turned into a sisterhood of the Grammys.
Women won comfortably in all categories. Taylor Swift won her fourth Album Of The Year award, making her the first artist, male or female, 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 three-woman band, took 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 male-dominated Grammys, ex-President of the Recording Academy Neil Portnow said that if more women wanted to be nominated and win Grammys, they needed to go a step further. At the time, 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 as if they had triumphed.
Although the media made headlines like “Female Dominated Grammys” and “Women Sweep the Grammys,” Los Angeles Times wrote in an op-ed that it is still not the “Year of the Woman” in the music world. It cited a USC Annenberg study that found that despite these major wins by women, only 19.5% of all songwriters on the 2023 Billboard Hot 100 songs were women. That is an increase from 14.1% in 2022, but there is still a long way to go. Some songs involved a team of as many as eleven writers, all men.
Annenberg's research would not surprise us in India. Generations in India have lived for decades under the hypnotic spell of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. The men they sang with changed over the years, but the sisters remained in charge. Their super-sized cultural footprint also obscured the fact that most of the people writing the songs and composing the melodies were men, and I dare say that is still the case.
It feels strange to still have to do some kind of bean count in 2023 when it comes to gender equality in something like the Grammys. Unlike the acting awards at the Oscars, the Grammys do not practice gender segregation. Music has never had a shortage of female stars. Lucy Dacus from Boygenius once told it GQ that the idea of women in music “shouldn't be remarkable at all” and her bandmate Phoebe Bridgers added that “it's not a genre”. In fact, the trio (Julien Baker was the other band member) bonded because they were simply fed up with being constantly compared to each other in endless “women in rock” copy. Even though they had very different styles, the media kept pitting them against each other as if they were competing for some sort of Miss World tiara. Their older musical sisters from a different 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 signature styles not to complement each other, but to create together. They never formed a bond like Boygenius, but there was always something truly powerful about seeing them together, feeding off each other's energy. I remember listening to that CD Trio again and again. And thanks to the Grammys this year, I discovered boygenius.
It's important not to look at the Grammys through overly rose-colored glasses, but there was something very different about these “female-dominated” Grammys. It wasn't just about the wins. There was also the quiet but determined way in which the women made political statements without having to resort to grandstanding. The Atlantic Ocean called Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs' enchanting duet of her blue-collar ballad Fast car a “magical, unifying moment” for an “angry and divided nation.” In the “In Memoriam” section, Harry Belafonte, the most politically outspoken star on the list, was reduced to just a photo. He received no special greeting. But as Annie Lennox ended 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 message on X: “Respect for Annie Lennox. Too bad it took so long this awards season for a celebrity to say this. Singer Esperanza Spalding wore a Palestinian keffiyeh. boygenius wore red pins representing the Artists Call For Ceasefire Now (a petition demanding an end to the war in Gaza). The red AIDS ribbon was once everywhere at these awards; it had almost become the must-have fashion accessory for anyone who wanted to be half-cool. People looked askance at the star who wasn't wearing one. The Artists Call For Ceasefire Now pins are nowhere near as ubiquitous in a world where the daily horrors in Gaza are carefully and deliberately pushed out of view. On Grammy night, those red pins were truly red badges of courage.
It was a 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 forces us to play it safe. For once, what they wore on the red carpet felt secondary, because they finally made something as cliché as an awards show feel relevant to our trying times. Unlike Taylor's Swift antihero, they stared directly into the sun, daring the rest of us to look in the mirror.
Cult Friction is a bi-weekly column about issues we face all the time.
Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr