ARIA Awards 2021: Change cannot stop at a gender-neutral Best Artist category

This year’s ARIA Awards will be the first without the gendered categories of Best Female and Male Artists. But there’s still a long way to go

In September, ARIA announced its return for 2021 – and a landmark change, namely replacing the Best Female Artist and Best Male Artist categories with a non-gendered Best Artist category. In a statement, chief executive Annabelle Herd – the body’s first female CEO in its 38 years of history – declared that “the time for separating artists based on gendered categories that exclude non-binary artists altogether has passed”.

And that is, on the face of it, a change that is as smart as it is necessary. Australian music has plenty of talented non-binary and gender non-conforming artists like Tash Sultana, Lonelyspeck, Imbi The Girl and G Flip, and any organisation attempting to represent our national record industry would be missing a trick if they excluded an entire section of the population because of a hoary, rigid gender binary.

There’s always a “but”, though, isn’t there?

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The Brit Awards explained what that “but” is earlier this year when challenged by Sam Smith – who was a big Brit winner in male categories before coming out as non-binary – as to why they weren’t following the likes of the Billboard and MTV Awards in adopting genderless categories.

“The Brits are committed to evolving the show and the gendered categories are very much under review,” they told Billboard. “But any changes made to be more inclusive need to be just that — if a change unintentionally leads to less inclusion, then it risks being counterproductive to diversity and equality. We need to consult more widely before changes are made to make sure we get it right.”

Now, the Brits might be dragging their heels on that consultation rather more than is necessary because they’ve reportedly been consulting since 2019. But the question of how ARIA plans to ensure that its awards ceremony doesn’t become Australia’s November Celebration Of Cis Men will not simply fade away with the gender-neutralisation of important categories because, it’s patently obvious that we haven’t exactly reached gender equality in Australia. Not in lifetime earnings, not in political representation, and not in music, which remains strongly male-dominated.

That’s not just within the industry, as was made horrifyingly clear with the recent allegations about Sony’s Denis Handlin and the treatment of (mainly but not exclusively) women under his reign at the label, but in the winning of those wonderfully pointy ARIAs themselves.

For example: in the 34 years of the awards, how many times would you guess a band with female members took the gong for the ostensibly gender-neutral category of Best Group? Half? A third?

Ha, no, obviously not. It’s three.

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The Black Sorrows (featuring Vika and Linda Bull on backing vocals) in 1990, Killing Heidi in 2000 and Sheppard in 2014. And that’s it.

And yes, bands with non-male members have been nominated in the past, but this year the award for Best Group will be a fight between AC/DC, Midnight Oil, Gang of Youths, Rüfüs Du Sol and the Avalanches. (Though it must be said the Oils are nominated alongside their First Nations collaborators on ‘The Makarrata Project’, who include Jessica Mauboy, Kaleena Briggs and Alice Skye.)

“It’s patently obvious that we haven’t exactly reached gender equality in Australia. Not in lifetime earnings, not in political representation, and not in music”

There are other ways pendulum has swung back to status quo at this year’s ARIAs. In 2020 there were a slew of new and unexpected artists getting ARIA nominations, as most of the acts that could afford to postpone their releases until less pandemic-restricted times did so. A year ago I suggested that 2021 would mark a reversal of the refreshing trend we saw in that first pandemic hell-year, and that’s pretty much what we’ve seen, even if the virus itself isn’t quite as eliminated as we hoped 12 months ago. Hey, speaking of which: weren’t we meant to have a completed vaccine rollout by now?

As predicted, we have fewer Alex The Astronaut and Gordi-style artists this year, accompanied by a return of your Crowded Houses, Kylies and Nicks Cave. Not completely, of course – there are still plenty of breakthrough artists, especially in the hip hop and hard rock/metal categories – but compared with 2020, this is much more the sort of ARIAs where your dad would go “oh yeah, I’ve heard of them – dear god, are they still doing records?”

Progress may be slow and incremental, but perhaps what we can take heart in is that there is progress nevertheless. Herd has acknowledged that the introduction of the Best Artist category is but “one step in the continuous journey of reassessment, progression and ultimately evolution that we are committed to undertake”, and she has also flagged plans to rejig the ARIA judging panel in order to ensure that it’s a diverse and representative body. That, hopefully, will go some way to ensuring a dual commitment to excellence and inclusivity cascades down the other awards categories.

The process has begun. It can only get better from here.

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