“It’s all about women this year.”
That’s how Recording Academy president Neil Portnow described the 2019 Grammy Awards. And of course, there’s a level of irony to that statement: You may remember that after receiving criticism for last year’s lack of women nominees, Portnow said that women in music need to “step up,” sparking both a storm of backlash and a conversation about gender discrimination within the industry. This year, at least half of the nominees in each of the four major categories — Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Album Of The Year, and Best New Artist — are women. The nominations may as well have been announced with a sign flashing “damage control,” but it’s still better representation nonetheless.
If you look further down the list of nominees, though, you’ll find some genres that the new diversity task force seemed to miss: Rock and alternative. And it’s this music that the Grammys apparently still perceive to be very white and very male. Four out of five of the nominees for Best Rock Song are men, with the exception being St. Vincent (with Jack Antonoff). Even more alarming, all five albums nominated for Best Rock Album were made by all-male bands. When it comes to Best Alternative Music Album, the divide is marginally better, with three nominations for men and two for women (Björk and St. Vincent).
The criteria for these awards, like the criteria for what it means to belong to a genre in general, is confusing. St. Vincent is nominated for Best Rock Song, but her album falls under the alternative category. If you look back to previous nominations lists the trend has persistent roots — only two or three women are generally nominated in these genres each year, and are more often than not slotted into the alternative subgenre. In Grammys history, only two women have won Best Rock Album — Alanis Morissette in 1996 and Sheryl Crow in 1997 and 1999. Women, it seems, have a harder time easily fitting into the Grammys definition of rock considering a woman hasn’t won that award in two decades
The thing is, it’s hands down apparent that women made the best rock, alternative, and indie albums last year… so who’s going to tell the Grammys? Have they not been reading the trendy women in rock articles? In her piece for Noisey, Lauren O’Neil wrote, “Rock is a genre which has always shut women out — its annals are full of the faces of men, and year on year, interchangeable, pallid all-boy five pieces are tipped as the new saviors of indie, usually by male critics. And despite the fact that… women have been making diverse types of guitar music since rock’s inception, it’s still much harder for female artists to break through into wider consciousness as rock musicians.” This larger cultural notion applies to the Grammys: A ceremony that is supposed to reflect culture but often fails to look beyond old, traditional or outdated ideas. Artists like Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Lucy Dacus, and the latter’s group, Boygenius, in which she plays with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, were some of the most impactful rock artists of the year, but they are all but absent from this year’s event.
Mitski’s only nomination for her biggest album to date, Be The Cowboy, is for Best Recording Package, which, while the artwork was indeed lovely, isn’t an acknowledgment of the music. Though the record experiments more with pop and country sonics than her previous records, it’s still ultimately a rock album, made by a rising rock star. Its title is a subversion of that old trope of the “ideal swaggering Clint Eastwood cowboy,” as she told GQ, “In my daily life I tend to be the quintessential Asian woman, so I thought, ‘What if I was a tough white cowboy?’” On the flip side of that quote, the Grammys think rock music should unironically Be The Cowboy. Arctic Monkeys are cowboys, this year’s five-time nominated Greta Van Fleet could even be cowboys, the kind of guys Mitski sings about in “Come Into The Water,” when she wistfully wonders “Maybe I’m the same as all those men / Writing songs of all they’re dreaming.”
Unlike those idyllic composers, the women who were most prominent in rock this year write candidly about their lives, with lyrics both existentially sad and wryly funny in the same couplet. The music is deeply personal to each individual artist, but inevitably ends up reflecting the culture into which it was released. 2018 was another particularly politically distressing year to be a young woman in America — the songs can speak to those who are sad or anxious or lost but still funny and bold and ambitious. Many of these artists are pushing back against the more superficial notions that lead to comparisons (“I think that being compared because we’re both young women is annoying,” Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail told Noisey) and it’s ultimately arbitrary to group all these women together — but luckily for us, some grouped together themselves.
Supergroup Boygenius made some of the best music this year, full of standstill lyrical moments and three-part harmonies that could bring a tear to even the most cynical eye. While Boygenius’ record came out past the deadline for eligibility for Grammy nominations, they released earlier singles including “Me & My Dog” (Uproxx’s No. 1 song of the year) in August, making it perfectly viable for a nod. Independent of the group, Dacus’ album Historian came out in March, and its single “Night Shift” is certainly deserving of, at least, the acknowledgment that it is one of the best rock songs of the year. It’s just as epic as any of Mitski’s men “writing songs of all they’re dreaming,” as it starts softly and builds into chaos.
Even if the Grammys doesn’t see these artists as rock contenders, they certainly could have qualified for an alternative nom, where women are seemingly more welcomed. The alternative category was founded to acknowledge rock music that was “heavily played on college radio stations” — Mitski’s Be The Cowboy is the longest-running No. 1 album on college charts. The point, however, isn’t to argue that Mitski, or any artist, needs a Grammy nomination. The Grammys is ultimately an event that rewards good music, yes, but also heavily focuses on popularity and star power. While many of the prominent women making rock music this year received a fair amount of major press coverage and radio play within the college circuit, that doesn’t translate to mainstream success and household name status. While we’re beginning to see inklings of change with the way these artists are being embraced, the industry at large still provides far more opportunities to male rock musicians.
The Grammys aren’t necessarily the disease, rather a symptom of the way the greater music industry dismisses women in rock (and women in general). As the Diversity Task Force works to make the Grammys voting base younger and more full of women and people of color, perhaps more artists who exist outside the norm will be recognized. These women certainly don’t need the Grammys to reaffirm their talent and success. But, if the awards are supposed to reflect the culture, then their inclusion, this year especially, should’ve been vital. In rock music, it was “all about women this year” — and even though that may be the same messaging the Grammys is trying to project, it’s not what they’re rewarding.