At the Grammys, Sexism and Scandal Undermine Onstage Progress

Billie Eilish accepts the Best New Artist award from Alicia Keys and Dua Lipa onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

There's no denying that the 62nd Grammy Awards made history with performances by more talented women of different genres, generations and walks of life than any award ceremony in recent memory.

Minutes into the show, Lizzo performed a virtuosic flute solo as part of a medley with orchestral accompaniment, and hit the high notes of "Cuz I Love You" with panache. Later, with her bourbon-soaked, husky voice, Tanya Tucker claimed her place as country music royalty with a rendition of "Bring Me My Flowers Now" with Brandi Carlile on piano.

Billie Eilish's whisper-sung "When the Party's Over" and Demi Lovato's gut-wrenching "Anyone" drew tears. Sheila E. rocked out on the timbales during a tribute to Prince. And jaws fell to the floor as H.E.R. nimbly switched from dexterous piano playing to a wailing guitar solo that would've made any Rock & Roll Hall of Famer proud.

Yet hovering over these top-tier displays of talent were the recent allegations of sexism and corruption within the Recording Academy, which presents the Grammy Awards, from Deborah Dugan, the organization's first female CEO.

After being put on administrative leave for allegedly fostering an abusive work environment, Dugan responded with her own accusations. She said she was ousted for speaking out against sexual harassment from the Academy's general counsel, Joel Katz. She also said that the Academy's previous CEO, Neil Portnow—the one who infamously said women need to "step up" in response to questions about sexism in the music industry—had been accused of rape, and that the Academy had covered it up. (Portnow denies the allegations.)

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Dugan also dropped a bombshell claim that the Grammy voting process is rigged, a rumor that's long floated within the music industry, but had never been acknowledged by someone from within the Recording Academy.

These allegations roiled the entertainment world in the days before the Grammy Awards Sunday night, and, according to reports, led Taylor Swift to cancel a secret performance slated for the show.

Host Alicia Keys, whose relaxed, heartfelt presence guided the broadcast, appeared to indirectly reference the controversy.

"We refuse the old systems, feel me on that," she said after acknowledging that it had been "one hell of a week."

She continued, "We want to be respected and safe in our diversity; we want to be shifting in realness and inclusivity. So tonight we want to celebrate the people, the artists who put themselves on the line and share their truth with us."

Yet aside from Keys' comments, the scandal was an elephant in the room throughout the ceremony. And the majority of artists' silence points to the catch-22 women and other underrepresented people face when it comes to gaining access to prestigious institutions with histories of racism and sexism. The Recording Academy is so powerful that, in order to rise to the highest echelons of the music industry, underrepresented artists hardly have a choice than to play by its rules and gloss over its shortcomings.

On one hand, the Grammys' many impactful performances by women artists have the potential to shift industry culture by leading by example. Yet they also serve as great PR for the Recording Academy at a time when it's questionable whether it has taken meaningful steps to fix its culture of sexism from within.

(The show wasn't without its issues: massively gifted vocalist FKA Twigs silently pole danced while Usher sang a tribute to Prince, prompting outcries on social media. And few women of color won awards in the televised categories despite being well represented in onstage performances.)

So what needs to happen for meaningful change to occur at the Recording Academy, and in the music industry more broadly? Perhaps Dua Lipa said it best when presenting the award for Best New Artist with Keys. "There are so many stellar female producers, artists, songwriters, engineers," she said. "And if you’re in the business, and you’re hiring, raise your sights to the amazing, talented women out there, because we all deserve a seat at every table."