Grammys' nod to domestic violence: Helpful or hypocritical?

The Grammys, punctuated by a video statement from President Obama and a powerful spoken-word performance by Brooke Axtell, signals how dramatically perceptions around domestic and sexual abuse have shifted in the past year.

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    Brooke Axtell speaks at the 57th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles.
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On Sunday night, the music industry's most celebratory evening took a very public stand against domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Grammys' gesture was welcomed but not universally applauded.

To some, any effort to raise awareness of sexual assault is helpful, and an event with the cultural weight of the Grammys is a good place to start changing cultural acceptance. 

To others, it smacked of hypocrisy. If the Grammys were serious about combating domestic violence and sexual abuse, they would start by addressing the behavior of some of the artists in their midst.

But the awards show, punctuated by a video statement from President Obama and a powerful spoken-word performance by Brooke Axtell, a performance artist who was a victim of sexual trafficking as a child, signals how dramatically perceptions around domestic and sexual abuse have shifted in the past year. Following a first-ever ad about domestic violence during the Super Bowl, the Grammys' take illustrates that momentum has strongly shifted to sympathy for the victim in contrast to the quiet acceptance of years past.

The White House has been pushing the "It's on Us" campaign for several months in an effort to encourage bystanders and others to speak up against sexual assault and hopefully help end the problem of sexual violence on college campuses, in particular.

“Artists have a unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters,” said Mr. Obama in the video Sunday. “And all of us, in our own lives, have the power to set an example.”

It's unclear how effective public service announcements like Obama's are, but some women's groups say they're grateful for the increased attention and dialogue.

"Musicians are in influential positions as role models, and music is a powerful medium," said the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in a statement. "We know that one PSA during one awards show won’t end violence against women. We also know that many seemingly small acts can lead to big change. What messages would young people learn if their favorite artists used their voices to sing about consent or respect? Wouldn’t it be great if musicians stopped releasing songs that degrade women and fuel stereotypes about sexism and violence?"

Reactions from viewers, however, were more mixed. Many noted the irony of the awards show campaigning against domestic violence even as it honored musicians like Chris Brown and R. Kelly, both of whom have been accused of violence against women.

Mr. Brown famously assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna just before the 2009 Grammys, and both musicians canceled their performances. Brown was blacklisted from the next two Grammys, but performed again in 2012 and was one of the nominees this year.

Some viewers compared the Grammys to the National Football League, which has come under fire this year for turning a blind eye to domestic violence charges against players.

"That is to say important and necessary message but as with similar NFL messages, heal thyself first," tweeted commentator and feminist Roxane Gay, after another tweet in which she noted: "But Chris Brown and R Kelly. Are both nominated tonight...."

The Grammys' choice to nominate artists associated with violence spoke louder than the antiviolence messaging, some said.

"The Grammys – legally, technically – don’t have to punish anyone for anything," wrote Jessica Goldstein on ThinkProgress Monday. "Yet the Grammys are constantly reminding us that they can be about so much more than music.”

"If they’re going to take the stance that music can and should be a force for social and political change in the world, they have an obligation to be a part of that change, even when it’s difficult," Ms. Goldstein concludes.


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