The tectonic force that unearthed hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment and swept from the public square as many prominent alleged abusers has largely left the music industry unscathed. Largely, but not entirely. The music producer Russell Simmons, for example, faces claims from at least six women involving alleged abuse or assault over a quarter century. Confronting those allegations–and the fact that he was once honored by the Grammy Museum and hosted well-attended industry parties around the awards show–would be hard. It would be far easier to wear a symbolic white rose in solidarity with the victims of abuse and neglect. Guess which course last night’s Grammy attendees took?
Of course, the recording industry did not entirely miss this unique historical moment. There was speechifying. Despite the fact that the music industry’s old oaks have largely withstood the cleansing fires of this new age of candor, artists like Janelle Monáe confirmed that her business was not without its predators and victims like Kesha enjoyed earned prominence. But displays of valid indignation today only serve to emphasize how pervasive the institutional pressures that kept the preyed upon from speaking out once were. In many ways, those old pressures persist, but in ways that are visible only from a distance.
The “Me Too” movement has become about more than exposing and condemning sexual harassment and violence. It has become a movement dedicated to burying the notion that the powerful can escape censure from their peers if their public persona is agreeable enough or if they have the right politics. In that way, the Grammys failed spectacularly to meet the measure of this moment.
Undeniably, the most talked-about segment of Sunday night’s Grammys telecast was also its most ill-considered: a skit centered on the “spoken-word auditions” for the audio version of Michael Wolff’s dubious Washington tell-all, Fire and Fury. Reading from this factually-challenged account of the earliest days of the Trump White House gave recording artists an opportunity to cast aspersions on the president, but the sketch’s participants might come to regret it. The book’s author had appeared on HBO with Bill Maher on Friday where he strongly insinuated that the president was having an affair. Because this claim lacked any substantiation, he couldn’t put it in his already thinly-sourced book, which should have told everyone all they needed to know about the allegation. Wolff told viewers to seek out a specific reference in his book for clues to his riddle, and they dutifully obliged. The scavenger hunt led observes to conclude that Trump’s supposed paramour was United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Haley was compelled to spend the weekend insisting to reporters that she did not, in fact, sleep her way to the top, but was respected and valued by her colleagues in the White House based on her merit alone. She insisted that, again, Wolff got not only the headline but the basic supporting facts wrong. Haley had every right to publicly lament the politicization of the awards ceremony, particularly considering her ordeal.
The trivialization of Haley’s experience tainted this sketch, but it did not alone cast it in poor taste. It was the sketch’s payoff that should have led cooler heads to eighty-six the bit before it ever aired.
After a cavalcade of celebrities had read aloud from and riffed on Wolff’s book, the sketch reached its crescendo when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared as the final guest star. Clinton’s appearance held obvious political and comedy value, but it cheapened the night’s thematic condemnations of predatory men and their enablers.
Only 48 hours earlier, the New York Times revealed that Hillary Clinton herself intervened on behalf of a 2008 campaign staffer—her faith advisor, Burns Strider—who was accused of improper conduct involving a young woman. Strider was alleged to have repeatedly sexually harassed his subordinate and, when this came to the attention of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, she immediately took it to the candidate and recommended Strider’s dismissal. But Hillary Clinton overruled her campaign manager. Instead, she docked her faith advisor’s pay and sent him off to counseling. His accuser was reassigned. After the campaign, Strider went to work for Clinton ally, David Brock, to prepare for the former secretary of state’s 2016 bid. Strider’s career was cut short, however, when he was again accused of harassing the young female aides in his orbit.
This sketch had no higher purpose than getting under the president’s skin, which isn’t a difficult task. In the process, however, it undermined the moral authority associated with yet another industry’s efforts to get right with its past and atone for the silences that were maintained in the pre-“Me Too” era. The Grammys should have scrapped the sketch, but misjudgment on the part of these entertainers is forgivable. It’s the malpractice on Hillary Clinton’s part that is not.
It was Hillary Clinton’s complicated legacy on matters involving accusations of infidelity, imbalanced power dynamics in relations involving subordinates, and the character of Bill Clinton’s accusers that rendered her unable to make Donald Trump’s indiscretions a campaign issue. Her continued presence on the political stage compels her fellow Democrats to strike a cautious balance on the subject of sexual assault. In the process, they water down their message and come off sounding more mealy-mouthed and opportunistic than righteous. Hillary Clinton cannot be expected to exercise the discretion necessary to help her fellow Democrats move forward in the Trump era, and so it will be up to them to see what works and what doesn’t. The inconsistency on display at the Grammys did not work.