This is for Kennedy.
In 2014, Taylor Swift accepted the Billboard Woman of the Year Award. In that speech, as reminded by Billie Eilish on Thursday during her own 2019 Woman of the Year Award speech, Taylor said, ”somewhere right now your future Woman of the Year is probably sitting in a piano lesson or in a girls’ choir, and today, right now, we need to take care of her.”
For me, that girl is Kennedy.
A few months ago, on a flight between Denver and Burbank, the pilot hopped on the intercom to share that he had been adopted by a 5th-grade classroom. In addition to imparting wisdom about career goals, life, and aerodynamics, the pilot promised he would gather letters from folks experienced in their field. Now, let it be known: I was going to jump up regardless of the career. I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to write a 5th grader a letter, obviously. The pilot ran through the list of potential careers: Electrical engineer, movie production, dolphin trainer, singer-songwriter…and before my brain could say maybe, my arm reached up for the call button. Soon, I found myself somewhere between Colorado and California scribbling and rhyming about songwriting.
I was supposed to share what I knew, but Kennedy was the one who imparted wisdom to me. In her letter, she wrote: “I like to write songs because it helps me to get my emotions out and figure out feelings that I don’t necessarily understand. If I were a songwriter I would hope to inspire people to stand up for themselves and see the good in things that might be hard to see.”
Kennedy wanted to know about the state of the industry and the work of a singer-songwriter. And so I wondered: what would young Kennedy, a girl in 5th grade from somewhere near Denver, have learned, witnessed, or absorbed, as a young songwriter from the 2019 Billboard Women in Music Awards?
If she was there, Kennedy would have been warned, through Taylor Swift’s scorched earth speech for her Woman of the Decade Award, about what can happen in an under-checked industry full of “unregulated” advantage and “unfairness,” to use Swift’s words, but also how one can fight back, simultaneously protecting future artists and discovering the women that have your back.
If she had been there, Kennedy would have noticed that when you have a voice, you can take action, and through that action, you can change the world. Brandi Carlile, the 2019 Women in Music Trailblazer, and actual trailblazer literally making “trails in the woods with my four-wheeler,” believes that “all the world’s problems, from poverty and homelessness to war and climate change, can be solved by educating and empowering women.” And it can start with songwriters and media. “Women have to have a voice at radio, they have to have a voice that can get to the general public. And nights like tonight are pushing us even closer to making that happen,” Carlile shared during her speech.
If she was in the Palladium, Kennedy would have seen what it was like for colleagues and peers to give standing ovations instead of fans: lower energy, quieter, respectful sort of honors, without the yelps of fans but with the claps of agreement.
If she was there, Kennedy would have learned that there is strength in doing things even when you’re scared. It still always surprises me when a performer, seemingly poised, confident, and strident on the outside, reveals they were intimidated about it all. Alanis Morissette, Icon Award Honoree, shared her own vulnerability and applauded others who continue onward despite it: “I want to salute the women who go to work, who are really, really sensitive, and are terrified and still go.” While on the carpet, singer Justine Skye shared that artists looking to do their best work should “go with their instincts” and trust themselves. It might also be helpful to carry the same kind of positivity and gratitude as artist Destiny Rogers, attending her first event of this kind, ready for an evening full of networking and connection. “I’m just excited to just see a bunch of talented women,” Rogers enthused, “I’ve never attended anything like this before. So this is really fun, and it’s going to be a great night. I’m super excited to be a part.”
If she was there, Kennedy would have learned about the dualities that exist in this world; that being a fierce independent feminist can coexist with the reality that it takes a village to exist. During Morissette’s Icon Award speech, she paused and noted that her mouth was dry. The person who sprinted up quickly to deliver the cure (water) was her husband, and as she immediately continued with thanks to partners, my brain screamed in revolt: Even in a show about women, we thank men for allowing us to do what we do? My irrational response was fierce independent; the feminist first and the realist second. Of course. We all need help to do this thing called life. It takes a village and we can still be independent. That’s how both this industry and life works. The feminist in me also clapped, loudly, from the press table, at Morisette’s final line: “Thank you, patriarchy, for crumbling and falling.” Cheers.
If she was on the pink carpet, Kennedy may have noticed how ironic (Alanis Morisette pun intended) it was that Fiji Water girls carrying trays of plastic water bottles with straws took photos on the carpet just moments before Maggie Rogers strode through, carrying her own reusable water bottle (She shared her pink carpet photo on Instagram, with the caption “F*ck Plastic.”)
If she had been there, Kennedy may have seen how many different genres across the spectrum of music were being celebrated, and what that could mean for our future, one with global impact and digital influences. For Nicole Wyskoarko, EVP of Urban Operations at Interscope Geffen A&M, the future could entail the blending of genres and more influence from the digital realm. “I think genres [will] continue to blur, which is really exciting.” Wyskoarko shared before the Awards Show. “We’re going to get to a point where it’s going to be incredibly challenging to use these names and these categories to define what the art is. It’ll be exciting to see the global impact and, you know, we continue to have more countries jumping into the digital world…It’ll be interesting to see how we all continue to become more global on the music side, just even with the creative influences.”
If Kennedy had been in the host venue, the Palladium, she might have had the dinner, but not the Jnsq wines or Patron tequila cocktails (the Sparkling Rosita). Those were for adults. But she would have been enraptured, like the rest of us, watching Rosalia, Billboard’s Rising Star, showcase her talent. Rosalia was introduced by singer Lauren Jauregui, who shared earlier how inspired she was by Rosalia’s “work ethic, her musicality, and just the way how involved she is in her music is just super great to watch other women do that and be present in their art and share that with the world unapologetically.”
Speaking of living with no apologies, If Kennedy was there, she would have seen what it was like be unapologetically you a la Billie Eilish, who owned the stage and threw everything out of the window by calling out the length of everyone else’s speeches (“Y’all speeches were long as f*k”) while also noticing that presenter Cyndi Lauper and Woman of the Year Billie Eilish have almost the same color neon in their hair.
And she would have noticed, like many did, the need to still have this kind of an awards show.
On her way in to host the Billboard Women in Music Awards at the Palladium, where she will return to headline a show in just a few months, an excited Hayley Kiyoko said that she was ready to “share this evening and celebrate so many incredible, hard-working women in the industry.”
“I think that until this business and the entertainment industry is really 50/50 in terms of people sitting at the table, we have to have these moments,” ICM Partner Concerts Agent Yves Pierre shared. “A lot of times, we have women that work hard and they toil away for years on end and don’t get recognized. And you want to be recognized you want to be applauded.” Wyskoarko also noted the significance of these awards. “It’s so important that we take moments like this to acknowledge ourselves, to acknowledge the women in the industry, to make sure that we’re seen and heard and, you know, everyone remembers that we exist and the accomplishments we’ve done. I’m so appreciative that billboard does this every year to take the time to acknowledge all of that.”
At the end of the evening, I stand at the back of the Palladium, scanning the final guests and breathing in the aura. I grab a Rosita. Brandi Carlile’s “Every Time I Hear That Song” quietly emanates out of the speakers. And because Brandi talked about her two daughters, I am briefly humored by the memory of two little girls absent-mindedly running up and down the pink carpet, unknowingly destroying video interviews. I take a sip, a virtual cheers, and I think, this is for them.
And this is for Kennedy.