When the Grammys aired on Sunday, it ended up being an especially grim version of an awards show that has existed in a state of slow decay for years. Kobe Bryant’s sudden death loomed over speeches at the Staples Center, and a series of confounding performances from artists like Camilla Cabello and Blake Shelton, with Gwen Stefani, were a new low for a show that has been consistently ghosted on by music’s biggest artists, from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift. But as artists stepped up to the stage to accept their golden trophies, often weepy with joy, barely any of them mentioned or even alluded specifically to the crisis happening within the Recording Academy that chose them as winners.
For the past two weeks, Deborah Dugan, the former president and CEO of the Recording Academy, has been waging a war with the organization since she was fired just 10 days before the awards show. Filing an exhausting 44-page document to the EOCC last week, Dugan alleged intense sexism, racism, and harassment within the “boys club” organization, claiming that former CEO Neil Portnow raped a recording artist and that the Grammys voting process was corrupt. “If you open your mouth, you’re gone,” another female colleague, one forced to resign after being sexually harassed by a board member, told Dugan, as cited in the complaint.
It’s exhilarating to see the Recording Academy’s failures as a sexist and racist institution dissected so intensely and so publicly. That’s because the Recording Academy has operated, for years, in relative secrecy about its membership breakdown despite the immense power its nominations carry in the industry. But Dugan’s war with the Recording Academy runs the risk of playing out in secret, too; on Wednesday, she sent a letter to the Executive Committee of the Board of the Academy arguing that she voluntarily be released from an arbitration agreement she made, which would require legal proceedings to be confidential. “The public and the music industry have the right to know what is going on behind closed doors at the Academy,” she writes.
The music industry does have a right to know what happens behind the Academy’s closed doors, but do they want to? I ask that sincerely. It’s difficult to take in Dugan’s claims, to feel invigorated by the opportunity to reimagine what a healthy Recording Academy can look like, and not also be reminded that the breadth of these complaints is a testament to how many times people within the Academy looked away—and to remember how many artists, as few did on Sunday, walk up on stage and not acknowledge that this whole spectacle might be bullshit, according to the CEO and President. Artists outside the official ceremony did speak out, but they were few and far between: Diddy called out the Academy in a speech at the pre-Grammys gala saying, “Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be,” and artists and celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Sheryl Crow tweeted in support of Dugan.
“I’m half and half on it,” Tyler the Creator said after he won a Grammy he’s prized for years, in response to a question about the voting corruption. (He was one of the few to acknowledge the Academy’s failures.) “I’m grateful what I made can be acknowledged in the world like this... [but] half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment.” His comments echoed other black artists like Diddy, Frank Ocean, and Solange, who’ve called out the Grammys in the past for its racism. But for other artists, it’s easier not to think about who actually nominates and votes for these awards and just focus on the performances and the speeches; and those nominated do it as much as viewers might. The industry has made the Grammys an institution, and an institution it may remain forever, the players within it accepting, and accepting, and accepting awards like zombies, even as the statues lose their luster.
To casual Grammys viewers and music fans, the blow-up at the Academy might feel like a journey deep into the weeds of the industry. But the transparency of Dugan’s statement—and the transparency she demands from the legal fight that proceeds it—is a significant fork in the road when it comes to the music industry’s wider dedication to dismantling deep misogyny and racism within the Academy, record labels, and more. The MeToo movement, aside from a handful of major, powerful stories about single actors, has yet to collapse the music industry with the same intensity as it has in television and film. And why would it, considering so many artists, producers, and members within it speak of the music industry’s ills in vague platitudes and gestures towards “badass females” sitting in award show audiences. “It’s been a hell of a week,” Alicia Keys said at the Grammys, which the press claimed as a reference to Dugan’s complaints.
In this silence, it’s hard to shake the feeling that many in the music industry and the Recording Academy would like to let the music be music. That a closer look at the racial or gender breakdown of a voting body, or a recording session, or a music publication, is just a distraction. “The Academy falsely asserted that the Grammys were being ‘stolen’ by me,” Dugan wrote in her letter, another way of saying that Dugan’s comments were a way to pull people away from the music. But for too long, the Grammys has used the awards ceremony as a veil obscuring the way things really work, throwing a diverse crop of artists on-stage and then segregating them into limiting genres, staging pseudo-feminist performances while women were harassed at the Academy. The complex hierarchies and mechanisms behind award shows, labels, and streaming services, that allow some artists success and popularity, and not others, is unglamorous, but fans and artists have to go down into the basement sometime.
When Portnow made his sexist comments in 2018, they were so frustrating that I wondered if it weren’t better for more women artists to simply walk away from an Academy and its ceremony that continually denigrated their talent than try to participate in it. But a brutal, messy dissection of the Recording Academy for the world to see is what the music industry needs, no matter how many of its members and disciples would like to pretend it’s made progress. A full view of that process is necessary, as Dugan’s fight ultimately goes far beyond the Grammys and the Recording Academy. It is a potential blueprint for what transparency in the music industry could look like when someone actually starts a fire for once, out in the open for anyone else who’d like to fan the flames.