History is written by the victors, though this isn’t always true at the Grammys. What we remember about ceremonies gone by is more often who didn’t win but should have (see: the receipt seen ’round the world when Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar in the Best Rap Album category four years ago), who stormed the stage in protest (Kanye vs. Beck, never forget), or who created an indelible off-script moment that sticks with us long after we forget who took home any of those golden gramophones (PRAISE SOY BOMB). In time, I’ll probably forget who won this year’s Best New Artist (it was 21-year-old Alessia Cara, the only woman to accept a solo award Grammy during the telecast, for her bright-eyed songs of youthful uplift) or the other three major categories (the swaggering cherub Bruno Mars, deserving in Song and Record of the Year, though unfortunately besting Kendrick Lamar’s far superior Damn. for Album of the Year). But one thing I am damn sure going to remember is the image below, with precision and pain, like it’s tattooed on the inside of my skin.
About two hours into the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, Kesha (a two-time nominee on Sunday) performed “Praying,” her wrenching and transcendent 2017 ballad that is largely assumed to be about her former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke. It was teased—before a commercial break, by a female announcer with a placating, “side-effects-may-include” tone of voice—as a performance that, vaguely, “speaks to our times.” Janelle Monáe introduced it with an impassioned speech reminding the audience that the music industry is not immune from the widespread patterns of sexual harassment and abuse that have been exposed in many other industries over the past few months (though she did not mention any perpetrators by name). Then out came Kesha, solemn in white, flanked by a Greek chorus of talented women that included Cyndi Lauper, Andra Day, Camila Cabello, and Julia Michaels.
Especially in the beginning, Kesha seemed overwhelmingly nervous; she sang in a controlled staccato like she was just trying to get through it. But then something powerful began to rise in her and, as if lifted up on the wings of the women flanking her, she ended the performance soaring. When it was done, she collapsed into sobs, engulfed by the women around her in a group hug. I will, for a long time, be haunted by the sliver of her anguished face could be seen through this strong but not impenetrable wall of women. She looked like she could barely stand.
Last year Kesha released Rainbow, an excellent, personality-driven pop album that was much more frequently jubilant than sad. (Ed Sheeran’s Divide triumphed over it in the Best Pop Vocal Album category, and his “Shape of You” beat “Praying” for Best Pop Solo Performance. He was not present to accept the awards.) And yet, ever since her comeback performance at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, when she sang a stoic but soulful cover of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” Kesha has, time after time, been trotted out to perform her trauma before the industry that enabled its source in the first place.
On Sunday, this felt particularly egregious. “No words, all love,” Sony Music Global tweeted right after she was done, with a GIF of the hug. For years, Kesha was involved in a legal battle with Sony over whether she would have to continue to work with the man she’d accused of sexual assault. No words, indeed.
Earlier this month, the Golden Globes—the first major awards show to take place in the aftermath of our massive, national reckoning regarding sexual harassment and assault—wore its performative wokeness on its sleeve. Women dressed almost uniformly in black and many brought activists as their dates; some men bravely risked fingertip pinpricks by affixing “Time’s Up” buttons to their tuxedos (several of whom were called out for hypocrisy and swiftly accused of their own cases of alleged sexual misconduct). It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was unavoidable. “Will the Grammys Have a #MeToo Moment?” The New York Times wondered last week. It didn’t seem likely, statistically speaking: Though it feels a little archaic of the Oscars and Golden Globes to gender the acting awards, it at least ensures there will be a decent number of women giving acceptance speeches. The Grammys, not so much. (I have already mentioned it, but it is so staggering that it bears repeating: Alessia Cara was the only woman who won a solo Grammy during the telecast this year.) “Of the 899 people nominated in the last six Grammy Awards,” the Times reported, “9 percent were women. (This year, Lorde is the only woman nominated for album of the year; she is not scheduled to perform.)” The day that piece was published, Lorde’s mom, Sonja Yelich, tweeted a picture of the article with that quote circled by a blue ballpoint pen. “This says it all,” she wrote.
“Using social media during the ceremony—increasingly an integral part of the viewing experience—felt a bit like being part of one large whisper network,” The Cut’s Anna Silman wrote, astutely, the morning after this year’s Golden Globes, “providing a counter-narrative to the ceremony in real time, puncturing any glossy image of solidarity or progress.” I had a similar feeling watching this year’s Grammys, which felt glaringly disconnected from the larger cultural moment, and during which the loudest of those online counter-narratives was about Lorde’s treatment in comparison to her fellow nominees. According to Variety, all of the other (male) Album of the Year contenders—Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, and Childish Gambino—were offered solo performances (the only one to decline was Jay-Z). Lorde was offered a spot “performing with other artists but not solo,” and she declined. (There is some speculation that this might have been during the Tom Petty tribute, with Lorde singing “American Girl.” She is from New Zealand.) Lorde had a prominent seat during the night’s festivities, and she seemed to be having fun—swigging sips from a flask and sewing an essay excerpt by feminist visual artist Jenny Holzer onto her gown. But, as the night went on (and as Sting and … Shaggy took the stage for what seemed like their seventh duet of the telecast), plenty of viewers saw Lorde as a victim of the show’s hypocrisy. A rallying cry rang out: “#freeLorde.”
In 1998, the 40th Annual Grammy Awards featured a “Lilith Fair medley,” which, in honor of the then-lucrative all-female concert tour, included three of the night’s biggest nominees: Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin, and Paula Cole. “Oh, I hated it, I’ll be honest,” said Cole (who took home Best New Artist that night), in a recently published Billboard oral history of the 1998 Grammys. “[T]hey squished us in some stupid medley.”
“I didn’t see the point in lumping the girls together,” said Colvin, who that night took home two of the major awards, Record and Song of the Year. “I’m grateful to the Association, but I thought it was a little sexist.”
“Thinking back on it today,” Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich told Billboard, “I don’t know if I would have done that segment again. I mean, 20 years later, the idea of putting people together just because they’re women doesn’t feel as timely as it would have 20 years ago.”
Smash-cut to Lorde taking sips from a flask. Throughout the night, the Grammys reminded us that its gender parity sensibilities are as stale as they were 20 years ago. The night, to be sure, had some blazing highlights: Kendrick Lamar’s tour de force opening performance (intercut, hilariously, with Dave Chappelle rap-splaining the spectacle to the regular Sunday night viewers of CBS); Childish Gambino’s soulful, show-stopping rendition of “Terrified”; SZA getting her moment to shine (even if, as the night’s most nominated female contender, it was a particular bummer that she lost every award she was up for); and Pink’s lovely, uncharacteristically un-acrobatic staging of her ballad “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.” Oh, and I’d like to prematurely congratulate Cardi B on her 2019 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album:
Still, all night, I kept coming back to the raw spectacle of that Kesha performance. (For all its power, it shared some qualities with that Lilith Fair medley, especially when you consider that several of the “backup singers” had achieved things that warranted solo performances themselves: Julia Michaels was up for several of the night’s major awards, and Camila Cabello currently has both the no. 1 song and album in the country.) It felt as though Kesha had been called upon to absolve the night of some unspeakable sin—aural sage to be burned on the floor of Madison Square Garden. When she collapsed into that hug, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor she’d been called upon to perform, not just that night, but throughout the past year, as the music industry has paid lip service to #MeToo but skirted around its knottier problems (and the dynamics that failed Kesha in the first place) to an extent that it’s actually making Hollywood look enlightened by comparison.
I love “Praying,” and I also don’t feel that I ever need to see Kesha perform it on TV again. There are plenty more colors on Rainbow than this deepest shade of blue. Why not the one that goes, with a kind of profane defiance, “I’m a motherfuckin’ woman!”