After the 60th annual Grammy Awards wrapped on Sunday, Neil Portnow, the president of the Recording Academy, took a moment to respond to criticisms that the ceremony had been too male-centric.
“It has to begin with … women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level,” Portnow told Variety. “[They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome.”
The comments immediately drew controversy for Portnow placing the blame for the gender disparity on women artists, rather than on the shoulders of the majority-male Grammys board of directors. But Portnow — and the Grammys themselves — are no strangers to bad press.
In recent years, the Grammys (like the Oscars) have been undergoing some very public growing pains as they struggle to remain vital and relevant while trying to diversify their voting members and the kinds of artists they recognize. Below is a rundown of some other issues and controversies that Portnow, who has presided over the Recording Academy since 2002, has been forced to publicly address in the past few years.
2012: Drama over category cuts
In an effort to streamline a bloated number of prizes, the academy announced in 2012 that it had made the decision to trim the number of Grammys from 109 to 78, eliminating some of the more obscure categories and rolling others up into one award.
The move sparked a backlash from a community of artists concerned that the move effectively cut some of the show’s most diverse categories, which ultimately led to civil rights activists like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cornel West threatening to lead protests against the awards ceremony.
“Sometimes inclusion is inconvenient but it’s the right thing to do,” Jackson said at the time.
In response, Portnow defended the cuts as a move intended to make the coveted awards more prestigious, but offered to set up a meeting with Jackson.
“We are receptive to meeting with the Rev. Jackson to explain how our nomination process works and to show the resulting diverse group of nominees it produced for the 54th Grammys — many in the musical genres he cited in his letter,” Portnow said.
2016: The Lauryn Hill debacle
Portnow got into a high-profile tiff with music legend Lauryn Hill in 2016, after she abruptly cancelled a scheduled surprise Grammys appearance just hours before the ceremony.
“It’s a disappointment to us and a disappointment to her,” Portnow said, before insinuating Hill had simply bailed on the show. “Our intention was, and we were ready, right up to the moment of the performance, for her to step up on stage.”
But in a counterstatement issued in response, Hill’s camp had a different characterization of the events.
“The Grammys announced a performance by Ms. Lauryn Hill prematurely and without approval,” a representative for Hill wrote. “Ms. Hill had concerts all weekend, leaving no time to prepare, and was uncertain she would even be able to make it to LA in time to rehearse for the event. Any performance that could have happened was never confirmed, and should not have been advertised as such.”
At the very least, the optics of the public spat were bad; here was the head of the academy pretty clearly blaming a last-minute scheduling conflict on an artist — an artist who not only has a devoted fanbase, but who also had previously made Grammys history, when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill became the first hip-hop album to win album of the year in 1999. Portnow’s deflection no doubt contributed to the murmurs that the academy had a race problem, something that would come to a head the following year.
2017: “I don’t think there’s a race problem”
In 2015, Beyoncé lost out on album of the year to Beck, and in 2016 Kendrick Lamar was passed over for the same prize in favor of Taylor Swift. By the time 2017 rolled around and Beyoncé was again snubbed for the night’s top honors — this time losing song, record and album of the year to Adele — musicians and viewers alike were ready to revolt over the show’s apparent lack of deference to artists of color.
But Portnow brushed off accusations of diversity issues within the Grammys voting structure.
“No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. Remember, this is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity — it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy. ... It’s always hard to create objectivity out of something that’s inherently subjective, which is what art and music is about,” Portnow told Pitchfork in an interview, adding that his approach to music is “you almost put a blindfold on and you listen.”
2018: The year of our Lorde
If Hollywood has rallied behind the #MeToo movement — staging elaborate displays of solidarity like the all-black sartorial directive at the 2018 Golden Globes and the creation of the “Time’s Up” Legal Defense Fund — the 60th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night proved how far the music industry has to go in addressing sexual misconduct and gendered power disparities head-on.
Although Roc Nation senior vice president Meg Harkins issued a statement days before the ceremony encouraging women to wear white roses as a symbol of solidarity, the initiative felt toothless, especially in the context of a ceremony that awarded many more male nominees than female and which did not include a performance by Lorde — the only female artist nominated for album of the year.
In a statement, Portnow downplayed the significance of Lorde’s absence on the Grammys stage Sunday.
“Every year is different, we can’t have a performance from every nominee — we have over 80 categories,” Portnow said, according to Billboard. “So we have to realize that we’ve got to create something that has balance, and so on and so forth. And what you saw was our best judgment of how to do that.”
On Twitter, however, Lorde’s mother, Sonja Yelich, appeared to suggest the snub was indicative of a larger issue.
“This says it all,” she tweeted, alongside a New York Times excerpt reporting that only 9% of the 899 people nominated in the last six Grammy awards had been women.