Long sidelined at the Grammys, women in rock claim their due

NEW YORK (AFP) – The Grammys’ rock categories normally ooze testosterone, but this year, women-led acts have seized the mic.

It is a significant shift that comes just a few years after Neil Portnow, the former CEO of the Recording Academy, was roundly derided for saying women should “step up” to achieve fair representation in the music industry, in which they’ve long been sidelined.

For the first time ever, the Best Rock Performance category – a field that’s existed since 2012 – is comprised entirely of solo women or female-led acts: Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, sister group Haim, Brittany Howard, Grace Potter, and the Adrianne Lenker-fronted band Big Thief.

Lenker, Apple, Howard and Bridgers are all also up for Best Rock Song, and the three latter acts received nominations for Best Alternative Album. Potter scored another nod for Best Rock Album.

Women moulded rock’s evolution – blues pioneer Big Mama Thornton, for example, was the first to record Hound Dog, the seminal hit now strongly associated with Elvis Presley.

But in the mid-20th Century, the fledgling genre’s image “pretty quickly got taken over by men”, said Evelyn McDonnell, a scholar focussed on pop culture, music and gender.

“You really saw that division: what the lads with the guitars did was rock, and what girls in the bouffants did was Motown or pop,” the Loyola Marymount University professor told AFP.

Phoebe Bridgers, shown here performing at an outdoor concert in September 2020, is up for Best New Artiste along with several rock Grammy. PHOTO: AFP

Yet women have always been influential in rock: Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, Stevie Nicks and Debbie Harry are just a few key household names that have led the way.

While Bridgers and the Haim sisters are relative newcomers on the scene, Apple – whose 2020 record Fetch The Bolt Cutters was hailed by the music authority Pitchfork as “an unyielding masterpiece” – first found success in the late 1990s, with Potter breaking out a few years later.

For much of Grammys history, the rock prizes were separated by gender, with the Academy in some odd years merging the fields – citing a lack of female acts to nominate.

Starting with the 2012 ceremony, the Academy stripped gender distinction altogether, in rock along with pop, R&B and country.

Since then, in the Best Rock Performance category, only one woman has taken home a trophy: Howard, who won as the frontwoman of the band Alabama Shakes in 2016.

The Recording Academy has long been accused of supporting white, male acts at the expense of everyone else – and in recent years has appeared to take baby steps towards change.

This month, the Academy announced it was conducting a university-partnered study to analyse women’s representation in the music industry, with data intended to improve accountability and facilitate reforms.

For McDonnell, the legions of women in the rock and country fields are long overdue – and perhaps a sign of real change.

“I hope these are shifts in consciousness – not just affirmative action-like glitches,” she said.