In February 1999, Lauryn Hill all but swept the Grammys: She came into the evening with ten nominations for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and took home five wins, including the first-ever hip-hop album of the year award. That day, The Recording Academy’s then-president, Michael Greene, confessed that while he had loved Hill’s album, he had wondered “if the academy membership would get it. But they got it. They got it big-time.”
Hill’s win wasn’t the only major breakthrough in 1999. Every album of the year nominee was either female or female-led: Hill, Shania Twain, Madonna, Sheryl Crow and Garbage, fronted by Shirley Manson. And all but one of the record of the year nominees were women, with Céline Dion winning for “My Heart Will Go On.” When asked what she thought of women’s dominance at the show, Dion hesitated at first, then went for it: “It’s wonderful that there are a lot of women coming forward in politics and show business. Good for us.”
But if academy members really “got” something that year, they quickly lost it. In the 20 years since, no woman in hip-hop has won the show’s top prize. (In fact, only one other rap album has: Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Six women artists — including Adele and Taylor Swift — have won on their own.) And the closest the Grammys has come to a similarly inclusive album of the year field was last year, when no nominees were white males — and only one, Lorde, was a woman. As if to grind salt into the wound, after January’s show, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow said that if women musicians wanted better representation, they should “step up.”
But in 1999, for once, the heel was on the other foot — the culmination of a gradual rapprochement between the Grammys and women artists. Only one album award was won in the 1970s by a woman (Carole King), and 0.5 in the 1980s — that half-Grammy going to Yoko Ono in 1982 for her part in Double Fantasy with John Lennon (and it would have been a quadruple fantasy for anyone to imagine she was the central figure on the academy’s mind there). From Bonnie Raitt in 1990 to Hill in 1999, by contrast, women would win the album hardware six times — a majority by a squeak. The systemic barriers to participation, recognition and power that women face in the industry didn’t just disappear for that decade. So why were the 1990s different for female visibility at the awards?
With the Grammys, part of the explanation is always what else is being omitted. Youth culture in the early and mid parts of the decade was dominated by the sounds of alt-rock and rap, which were unlikely to be most sonically conservative Grammy voters’ cup of Black Label. (No one would have predicted that Nirvana’s former drummer, Dave Grohl, would someday become the unofficial mayor of Grammyland.) So Raitt’s win at the start of the decade was a harbinger of voters’ frequent resort to more nostalgic music as an alternative to alternative, which provided an opening for some female artists (see also Natalie Cole’s 1992 win for Unforgettable… With Love).
But women were also a moving force in several true pop trends of the decade. The mid-1990s were prime time for a new generation of power-ballad divas, yielding Whitney Houston’s 1994 album win for The Bodyguard’s soundtrack and Dion’s 1997 triumph with Falling Into You. Indeed, one of the surprises of the ’90s is that this prize never went to Twain, who spent the era bringing a similar belter’s sensibility to country and practically remade the genre in her image in the process.
In between, a hint of grunginess snuck into the album winners’ roster as Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill took the prize in 1996. But her style overlapped with another key sound on the rise in mid-’90s pop, which came from a cohort of folk-influenced, nouveau-hippie female singer-songwriters. Both sides would be highlighted in 1999, with the noisier Garbage and the rootsier Crow representing a wider-than-ever spectrum of sounds from women artists.
It’s also impossible to analyze the women’s-year phenomenon at the 1999 Grammys without recalling that it came about in the middle of Lilith Fair’s run as one of the biggest attractions on the summer festival circuit. Sarah McLachlan’s brainchild was not just a visible manifestation of women’s musical prominence — it also brought third-wave feminism (though usually lightly worn, like a saffron sarong) to the music industry, asserting that a woman’s place was not only center stage behind a microphone but also at the helm of her own career and as a power broker behind the scenes.
While Lilith Fair started off conspicuously pale-complexioned in 1997, it grew more intersectional in its next two editions, featuring artists like Neneh Cherry and Erykah Badu. It was all part of a period during which “alternative” retained some coherent meaning, not just as a format label but as a conscious cultural project beyond mainstream bounds. Those kinds of interventions contributed to an atmosphere in which even Grammy voters could grasp the importance of a figure like Hill, as well as her music, which drew together many sonic strands of the decade and which still carries a charge today.
It’s dispiriting to think it still might take a movement to win a slate of brilliant women the honors they deserve — but the upside is that we’ve got one, in #MeToo and Time’s Up and in their allies against harassment and unequal treatment. And in answer to 2018’s letdowns, the Grammys expanded the nominations from five to eight for each of 2019’s biggest prizes. Will that be enough to correct the academy’s run of bad calls and reawaken the spirit of ’99? One can only sing along with Hill: “Guys, you know you’d better/Watch out.”