In its 10 years of existence, the Grammys’ best rock performance category has included 46 nominees — only 10 of which have been women, and only one of which, Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, won. But at this year’s Grammy ceremony, that pattern will finally change: Phoebe Bridgers, HAIM, Grace Potter, Fiona Apple, Big Thief (fronted by singer Adrianne Lenker) and a solo Howard make up the category’s first ballot of only women or female-led acts. Four of them also appear in the best rock song category, where Tame Impala is the lone male-fronted act nominated.
That evolution follows another promising change at the Recording Academy itself: In November, it welcomed a new class of 1,345 voting members, 40% of whom are women, after an effort to expand and diversify. And in a year when the pandemic rendered the usual industry gatekeepers less all-powerful, the nominees figured out how to put themselves in front of as many of those voters as possible, and on their own terms.
Bridgers planned to spend last spring opening for The 1975 on an arena tour. When it was canceled, she turned herself into a headliner, taking “advantage of the fact that she wasn’t one person on a huge stage and instead had a blank slate,” says Robby Morris, creative director at Bridgers’ label, Secretly Group. She played an NPR Tiny Desk concert in a digitally rendered Oval Office for an audience of over 1 million; three months later, on The Late Late Show With James Corden, she performed the now Grammy-nominated “Kyoto” from her bed, green-screened into Carnegie Hall.
Despite having to halt her own tour in March, Potter made her electric onstage presence hard to ignore: For six months, she livestreamed Twilight Hour concerts every Monday, attracting over 300,000 views — more than 13 times the number of fans she would have reached by the end of her live tour. “To see her cover Led Zeppelin or get her Flying V [guitar] out, and then also concentrate on [new album Daylight] — it all came together to remind people of what a force Grace Potter is,” says Stephanie Hopson, project manager at Potter’s label, Fantasy Records.
Though HAIM had to cancel the majority of its shows set at Jewish delis across the country promoting Women in Music Part III, the sisters found inventive ways to engage with fans — like teaching the signature “wancing” (walk-dancing) moves from their music videos on Zoom. Those interactive events, as Columbia Records senior director of marketing Betsy Whitney puts it, let listeners “fall in love” with HAIM’s “point of view and their sound,” not with “just a traditional marketing plan.”
It may well have helped that many of rock’s usual male suspects weren’t even part of this year’s Grammy conversation. Acts like Foo Fighters, Jack White and Bruce Springsteen (each with at least 25 nominations and 10 wins each) didn’t release eligible albums, which, as radio programmer Rosemary Welsch of WYEP Pittsburgh points out, left less room for “the laziness of the voter” drawn primarily to recognizable names. Then again, the quality of these women’s albums may have simply spoken for itself: All were among 2020’s biggest critical hits, with four receiving a Metacritic score of 85 or above.
“There are and always have been amazing female artists in the field that deserve to be recognized,” says Grammy rock and alternative genre manager Brian Clasby. “The voters’ job is to identify the year’s best music in the field — and they felt that the best performances in the category came from these particular artists.”
This article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.