Following last year’s mass gay marriage, the Grammys got political again during last night’s ceremony. Beyoncé, Common, and John Legend honored Selma and all that the film represents, while Prince shouted out “Black Lives Matter” from the stage. Sam Smith thanked the man who inspired all his love songs, in the process acknowledging his sexual orientation in pop’s most public arena. Most pointedly, Katy Perry, President Obama, and activist Brooke Axtell presented a three-part PSA and performance against domestic violence and sexual assault. It was a touching gesture, but with Chris Brown, R. Kelly, and Eminem all up for (and, in some cases, winning) awards last night, it also felt disingenuous coming from an Academy — and an industry — that continues to support real assailants.
Obama’s PSA started somewhat abruptly; there was the President, explaining his administration’s anti-sexual assault initiative, “It’s On Us.” While his sudden appearance sparked confusion at first, by the time Obama finished his address, it felt big for an awards show — the pinnacle of American celebrity culture — to give airtime to serious discussion of such an important issue. “Artists have a unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters,” Obama explained, citing the statistic that one in four women is a victim of domestic violence.
Instead of really hearing the message, my Twitter timeline quickly turned to jokes about Chris Brown going to the bathroom (it turns out that he was in his seat). Brown trended. The clowning seemed to turn slightly towards the presentation itself, like much of awards-show Twitter banter.
Brooke Axtell, an activist with Allies Against Slavery and a survivor of human trafficking and sexual abuse, followed with a brief, captivating reading of an original piece that urged victims to speak out. “Authentic love does not devalue another human being,” she said. “Authentic love does not silence shame or abuse. If you are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t honor and respect you, I want you to know that you are worthy of love. Please reach out for help.”
Katy Perry then broke into a solemn yet visually engaging performance of her Prism ballad “By the Grace of God,” a song in which she considers suicide. (“That song is evident of how tough it really was at a certain point,” Perry told Billboard. “I asked myself, ‘Do I want to endure? Should I continue living?'”). It should have been among the night’s most moving moments. Instead, I found myself thinking about where I was a week earlier: watching the very same singer celebrate the crowning jewel of an organization — the NFL — that does very little to punish its stars for violence against women. And those feelings about Brown lingered.
I’m not alone in wondering if Perry was an odd choice. Slate asked Axtell this weekend:
Do you worry that people might see your Grammys performance as a PR stunt—as a way for Katy to gain social-justice credibility? I’ve been given the freedom to write my own speech. If I were just there to stand up as some sort of prop to promote her, I don’t think I’d be given so much range and freedom to have my own content. They accepted the first version that I sent them. It’s exactly what is going to be performed. Not a word has been changed.
Is social consciousness a requirement of “respectable” awards shows now? A few weeks ago, the Golden Globes offered up commentary on Bill Cosby, transgender rights, and Charlie Hebdo, yet outrage came when Selma was snubbed in every category but one. Certainly, it matters what kinds of messages these institutions allow to be broadcast. Anti-violence messages need to be heard loudly and frequently. In the case of the Grammys last night, the airing of the PSA and performances is a step in the right direction. But is it so much to ask that the Academy practices what’s preached on its stage? Or is the stage rentable for whatever message the producers feel is particularly relevant this year?
Awards shows are entertainment, pure and simple — but entertainment has a unique ability to raise awareness for important ideas in pop culture. Giving Brooke Axtell and the It’s On Us initiative a platform is a laudable thing to do, but it’s not enough. The Grammys have nominated Chris Brown almost every year since 2007. They took a year off in 2010, following Brown’s attack of Rihanna. He didn’t have an album out that met the cutoff date for nominations anyway, so his late-2009 release, Graffiti, picked up nominations in 2011. Going back a bit farther into Grammys history, Phil Spector — whose abusive relationship with his ex-wife, Ronnie Spector, was public knowledge for decades before he was convicted of murdering Lana Clarkson — won a Trustees Award as recently as 2000. And from Jimmy Page to R. Kelly to Dr. Luke, that’s just scratching the surface.
There’s always going to be a divide between art and the people who make it. In recent years, controversial figures like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have forced fans to separate these men’s personal actions from the merits of their work. That’s some personal reckoning that needs to happen on the level of individual fans. But for the Grammys to claim domestic abuse and sexual assault as pet causes while welcoming abusers at their ceremonies, and even rewarding them with trophies, just feels hypocritical.