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The Grammys: a question of privilege and exclusivity

Written by Megan Cadwalladr

The Grammy awards are a big night for music lovers, with the very best of the industry all gathered in one room to celebrate the incredible soundtracks of everyone’s year. Unsurprisingly, the awards show always takes over the headlines - and the recent 2023 Grammy’s were no exception.

Beyonce officially broke the record for the most Grammy wins of all time, Viola Davies gained the coveted EGOT status (a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award), and Harry Styles earned the album of the year award.

However, Harry Styles - previously a member of One Direction and now a global music icon - has also gained some controversy following his acceptance speech for his critically acclaimed album, ‘Harry’s House’. He began his speech by sharing his admiration for the other nominees, whilst expressing his gratitude for the honour. Styles then went on to say “this doesn’t happen to people like me very often” which has earned him a great deal of backlash on Twitter and other social media platforms.

Viewers were quick to question his intentions with that statement: things like winning awards do in fact happen to white, cisgender men like Harry very often. One user tweeted “Harry Styles saying this doesn’t happen to people like me very often, while being a rich cis white man after Kim Petras’ speech about being the first trans person to win a grammy is so tone deaf”. This user was referring to Kim Petras’ ode to the transgender community, after being the first transgender person to win a Grammy in the best pop duo/group performance category. Other viewers went on to highlight how only three black women have won album of the year in the Grammy’s 65 years, with the last win being Lauryn Hill in 1999. Since this, Beyonce has been a front-runner for the award with her albums I Am Sasha Fierce, Beyonce, Lemonade, and Renaissance. In light of this, it is understandable that Harry’s comments could be perceived as tone-deaf, and unrecognising of his privilege. But is this negating the various other forms of privilege that alters musicians’ success in the industry? Class plays a big role in a person’s privilege in many aspects of life, including success in the music world. This is timely to recent discussions on social media surrounding nepotism, following a New York Magazine article that analysed its role in the entertainment industry. Styles came from a single-parent household, with no links to the music industry, and so, arguably, it is fair for him to recognise the unique nature of his success.

It does appear that Styles had no ill intent with his comment. Fans were quick to defend him, arguing that he was merely referring to the fact that just over 10 years ago he was an ordinary teenager competing in a British talent show. Harry often refers to this in his own concerts, recognising that gaining such incredible success doesn’t happen to ordinary people from a small village all that often. If Harry continually disregarded his humble origins, it is likely that many people would label him as ungrateful. It is understandable that he would want to pay tribute to his achievements whilst winning one of the most sought after awards in the music industry.

The most likely explanation to this controversy it that this sentiment was Harry’s intention at the Grammy’s, and he was not referring to his role in the industry as a white man. However, his comment was undeniably insensitive to many of the other nominees, of whom this sort of thing truly does not happen to very often.

Following the backlash, Harry has made the effort to recognise this privilege. The 2023 Brit awards took place less than a week after the Grammy’s, during which Harry won all 4 awards he was nominated for. Whilst accepting his award for artist of the year, he stated “I’m very aware of my privilege up here tonight, so this award is for Rina, Charli, Florence, Mabel, and Becky”. This comment has hopefully shown that he will begin to make more of a conscious effort to recognise his privilege in the industry.

This controversy has opened up some discussions about inclusivity in the music industry. This issue has, of course, been occurring for as long as the industry has prevailed. The Grammy Recording Academy has received many concerns regarding gender and diversity in recent years. The Academy has vowed to change this, by expanding its voting members to become more diverse and representative.

The issue of gendered representation has been a big discussion during this year’s awards season. In 2021, the Brit Awards made the decision to ditch its gendered categories, with the aim of becoming more inclusive. Unsurprisingly to many, this led to an all-male nominee list for artist of the year at the 2023 Brits. Musician Tim Burgees tweeted that it is “one step forward, three steps back” for the industry. As previously mentioned, Styles dedicated the award to female artists who were certainly deserving of being nominated. Charli XCX spoke out during an interview at the Brits red carpet, stating that she had a number 1 album, and that female artists are doing everything right. This is no issue of ability or success, but rather the biases of the industry’s institutions.

Issues regarding inclusivity are at the core of the music industry. This is a long-standing issue that has certainly been made clear during this year’s awards season. Therefore, whilst Harry Styles likely had pure intentions with his comment about “people like me”, it is very telling of many artists’ inability to recognise their privilege. As a music lover myself, I hope to see more change generated by these institutions, making the industry far more inclusive for everyone.

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