Tracy Young has made herstory as the first woman nominated in the category of Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical at the Grammy Awards.
For Young — who has spent more than 25 years in the music industry, and who was recognized for her Pride radio remix of Madonna's "I Rise" — the nomination is "overwhelming."
"First of all just to be recognized, I feel like I won already," she told The Advocate in a recent interview. "If I do win, that would just be a bonus."
A win for Young would also be a major victory for women and LGBTQ people. For Young's entire career in the music industry, the lesbian DJ has worked in a field dominated by mostly straight men — particularly in music production and remixing.
This lack of representation reflects itself in her category. Since the Grammys first launched Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical in 1998 (that year, the trophy went to Frankie Knuckles, the "Godfather of House Music"), not a single woman has received a nod — a span of over 20 years.
"It's just hard for women to break through in this industry," Young said. "It's just very male-dominated and I think always been that way."
Young's commitment to her craft is one of the reasons she was able to have a breakthrough. She has worked to create remixes of hits by over 100 top artists, including Lady Gaga, Cher, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and Madonna, with whom she has 14 collaborations. Over 50 of her tracks have reached the number 1 spot on the Billboard Club Chart Hits.
"Music for me is not an option. That's the only thing I know how to do. So it has to work for me," Young said.
Young points to a number of factors that need to be addressed in order to tackle this disparity at the industry level. One, those in power in the artists and repertoire department — essentially, talent scouts at music labels — need to look beyond the "usual suspects" like men in creating a remix.
Mentorships are also key to breaking into this field — and one of the reasons women have been encountered hurdles to entry. Young counts one of her own mentors as key to her beating the odds.
"Madonna has been a huge supporter of my music and my career," Young said. "I'm not sure if I would have been able to break in without her."
"You would think in 2020 there would be more women in the forefront. It's going to take those secure men that aren't threatened by a powerful woman to hire those people," Young added. "Look at Madonna. She gets beat up all the time for being a strong woman and having a mind of her own. They don't give her an easy time, but it can be done."
Madonna has been a longtime role model for Young. The pair met around 25 years ago through a mutual friend, Ingrid Casares — an out club owner and ex of Sandra Bernhard's who was memorably featured in Madonna's Sex book kissing the pop icon.
At the time, Young, who got her start DJing frat parties at the University of Maryland, had been trying to find work in Washington, D.C. But all too often, she would be told by club representatives, "You're a girl. Girls don't DJ." However, Casares agreed to pass on Young's demo tape — on a cassette, in those days — to the pop icon. She did. And Madonna was impressed.
"Madonna liked the girl DJ," Young said with a laugh. "Then my career just blew wide open."
Young would go on to DJ the premiere party for Madonna's film The Next Best Thing and then her wedding to Guy Ritchie. The pair have been creative collaborators ever since. In fact, when it was announced Young would be receiving a Grammy nomination, Madonna texted Young. She told her she was proud of her.
"She's super sweet," Young confirmed. "I know she probably doesn't want people to think she's sweet, but she's sweet."
In fact, Young's remix of "I Rise" would be the only Grammy nomination featuring Madonna's name from the icon's latest album, Madame X. Although critically praised, it was snubbed by the Recording Academy — yet further evidence of bias in the music industry toward women of a certain age.
Yet this bias is not contained to the straight world. Young also says members of the LGBTQ community may be unappreciative of the icon's contributions to music and the movement. "She basically opened a can of sexual freedom for the world to see," Young said. "I don't think she gets the credit for what she's done for the gay community."
Of course, anyone who undercuts Madonna is ignorant of history. The Advocate ranked the "Vogue" singer as the greatest gay icon in a 2012 cover story, which chronicled her many contributions: her liberation of sexuality in pop music, her activism during the AIDS crisis when most celebrities were silent, the impact of gay visibility in her Truth or Dare tour documentary, and her ongoing fight against stigma. She won a GLAAD award for her lifelong allyship last year.
It's fitting, then, that "I Rise," which Young remixed, is Madonna's love letter to LGBTQ people. “I wrote ‘I Rise’ as a way of giving a voice to all marginalized people who feel they don’t have the opportunity to speak their mind," Madonna said about its release on the eve of WorldPride last year. "This year is the 50th anniversary of Pride and I hope this song encourages all individuals to be who they are, to speak their minds and to love themselves.”
For Young, the ability to collaborate with such a legend and be part of her history leaves the DJ momentarily speechless. "I couldn't be happier that it's a Madonna song that I was nominated for and to be part of her legacy. I have no words for that," she said.
That her remix of "I Rise" has become a staple of Pride's playlist is also important to Young, who has spent her career spinning music at Pride celebrations around the world. "Music is Pride," Young declared, citing anthems like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" by Sylvester, "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" as integral to festivities. She pointed to C&C Music Factory's "Pride (A Deeper Love)" as a personal favorite.
"The gay community has always come together on the dance floor in celebration of music," Young said. "When we have those songs and they come on, it's like we're free."
However, Young, who has had a front-row seat to Pride, from the AIDS crisis to a post-marriage equality world, has seen a disappointing change in the annual event that began with an uprising at the Stonewall Inn.
"In recent years, [Pride] is more of a party and I think that we've lost sight of some of the messages that we were fighting for in the earlier days," Young said. "We've made progress, but sometimes I think the message is lost, at least from my vantage point."
"I don't think people know the history anymore," she added. "We do drag, but people don't know why they do drag or where it came from. That part makes me a little sad."
Happily, Young is herself now officially part of LGBTQ history. The city of Miami Beach declared December 11 to be Tracy Young Day, in celebration of the artist's contributions to the music scene of South Florida, where she presided over much of the nightlife. "I'm gonna cry. It's just amazing," Young said of the proclamation. "All the hard work is finally paying off and it's been 30 years."
However, Young also recognized that success takes a village, and she expressed thanks to those who supported her throughout the years to help her rise.
"You don't get to become a Grammy nominee overnight. It takes a lot of work and a lot of perseverance, especially as a woman," Young said. "And I feel like if I could think every person who has been on this journey with me to get to this point, trust me, I would."
"I'm just a girl from Virginia with a love for music. And to have made history and to be Grammy nominee for a Madonna song [tells the world that] if you have a dream and you go for it, you can do it."
Listen to the Tracy Young Pride remix of Madonna's "I Rise" below.