SZA, Billie Eilish, Boygenius, Olivia Rodrigo, Ryan Gosling and More Light Up Variety’s Hitmakers 2023 Celebration

Variety's Hitmakers 2023
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Boygenius made a connection with Joan Baez. Billie Eilish was giddy at the sight of Bernie Taupin. Olivia Rodrigo and St. Vincent linked arms as kindred spirits, while SZA and her team made the road to global chart domination look easy. And then Ryan Gosling slipped in with a tribute to “Barbie” soundtrack producer Mark Ronson that yielded an instant-classic monologue from the Oscar-nominated actor on the origin of “Kenergy.”

“To Ken is to give more than is necessary or required to reflect so that others might shine,” Gosling told the crowd Saturday at Nya West in Hollywood during Variety’s annual Hitmakers brunch saluting the artists, executives, publishers and talent representatives behind the year’s top 25 most-consumed songs.

“Up until six months ago, the entire world gave zero fucks about Ken,” Gosling continued. “He was just this 70-year-old crotchless doll with no house, no car, no job, and no voice and look at him now! He has a Grammy-nominated power ballad and the voice of an angel. What happened? It’s simple. He met Mark Ronson, and his life changed forever. But he wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last.”

Mark Ronson, winner of the Soundtrack of the Year award, and Ryan Gosling pose at Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.
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From the rising talents to established stars, Hitmakers recipients noted the hardships and the privileges of being able to make a living in music.

“Being a hitmaker is having the public believe what God and your inner circle already sees in you,” SZA, this year’s Hitmaker of the Year, told the crowd.

Early on in her career, she was advised to be patient. “There will be a time for you to do your thing. They’ll play you one day,” SZA recalled being told. “It did come.”

SZA accepts the Hitmaker of the Year award on stage during Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.
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SZA’s longtime manager and label chief Terrence “Punch” Henderson got the nod for executive of the year. Henderson, president of indie label Top Dawg Entertainment, was frank about the bind that those who work in support of artists can find themselves in if they’re not careful to set boundaries. “It’s tough being an executive sometimes. It’s a thankless position. If something goes wrong, it’s all your fault. If something goes right, it’s none of your fault.”

Rodrigo was hailed as Storyteller of the Year for the success of her sophomore album “Guts.” St. Vincent free-associated the description “precious angel baby muffin” from the stage. She also observed that “Olivia’s songs pull off the magic trick of sounding like all of us at once but also uniquely just like her.”

Baez presented the Group of the Year kudo to Boygenius members Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, describing them as “three women who have personally and musically stolen my heart.” The younger musicians were clearly stunned to receive such a tribute from a “living legend,” as Baker described Baez.

Dacus noted the importance of the artistic and friendship bonds that the three women have forged through their work together as Boygenius. “We have saved each other from a lot of loneliness,” she said.

Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers of Boygenius, winners of the Group of the Year award, and Joan Baez attend Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.
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Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was on hand to present the Producer of the Year kudo to Metro Boomin, the prolific producer behind the album “Heroes & Villains” and the “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” soundtrack. “When I think of myself today as a producer, I would want to grow up and be you, Metro,” Edmonds told the producer born Leland Tyler Wayne. “This means the world — god bless,” Metro Boomin told the crowd.

Sabrina Carpenter, the former Disney Channel star who has lately toured with Taylor Swift, was recognized with the Rising Star award. She echoed SZA’s observation about the importance of slowing down, even for young artists in the early stages of their careers. “Something my mom always said to me as a little girl that really annoyed me: I am the tortoise,” Carpenter said. “In moments of frustration and confusion that can feel like a let down. It turns out it’s a very good thing. I loved getting to know the mindset of a slow rise.”

Taupin, the legendar writing partner of Elton John for more than half a century, presented Eilish and her brother and collaborator Finneas with Film Song of the Year for “What Was I Made For?” from “Barbie.” Taupin tipped his hat to the brother-sister duo. “True songwriting teams are a dying breed, and these two thankfully have resurrected that art,” Taupin said. “Equipped with an idea, a pen, some paper and a piano. what they’ve managed to achieve already in their young lives is nothing short of astounding.”

Eilish was bowled over by the time she and Finneas came to the stage. “You are the fucking Hitmaker! You’re the fucking guy!” she said to Taupin.

Eilish also told the crowd that the call to work on a song for the “Barbie” soundtrack was a blessing for the songwriting duo. “I feel lucky we were thought of to make this song. It really saved us from a creative meltdown. It was just what we needed in our writers block,” she said.

Billie Eilish and Finneas accept the Film Song of the Year award at Variety’s Hitmakers.

The Changemaker of the Year tribute went to country singer Maren Morris, who has faced public battles with the country music establishment for her outspoken views on social and cultural issues. The singer behind “Bones” and “The Tree” linked her story to a long line of female artists who were told to “shut up and sing.”

Michael Sticka, president of the Grammy Museum, was presented with the Music Education and Advocacy Award presened by City National Bank. The leader of the downtown Los Angeles facility said fundraising is nearly complete to allow all students in the K-12 grades to attend the museum free of charge. “The future of music and the next generation of hitmakers is very bright,” Sticka said.

Collaboration of the Year honors went to Latin music stars Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma for “Ella Baila Sola.” Pedro Tovar, frontman of Eslabon Armado, told the crowd that he prayed at his parents’ home altar to be gifted with a song that could become a global smash. “Two weeks after that I write it – it came quick and easy. Shortly after that it became our No. 1 song,” he said.

Conan Gray, a YouTuber who is pursing a singer-songwriter career, delivered the Label of the Year laurel to Republic Records, which had an array of hits from Taylor Swift to Metro Boomin. “We’ve proudly built the best team in the business,” said Jim Roppo, Republic co-president, who accepted with co-president Wendy Goldstein.

Victoria Monét accepts the Triple Threat Award on stage during Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.
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Victoria Monét was deemed this year’s Triple Threat Award recipient, given her blossoming work as an artist, songwriter and producer.

“The biggest threat is not exploring and engaging in your full spectrum of creativity,” Monét said. “No matter how hard people try to box you in, box them out,” she urged the crowd.

Songwriter of the Year bragging rights was taken by Ashley Gorley after a year in which he wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen hit songs. Gorley said his prolific year reflects a changing Nashville. “I’m excited to see genres blurring and boxes and rules blurring,” he said.

Conan Gray and Olivia Rodrigo pose for a photo at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Billie Eilish talks with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Honoree Marren Morris hugs Maggie Rogers on stage at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Victoria Monét at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Flavor Flav and Babyface attend Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.

PinkPantheress and Sabrina Carpenter on the red carpet at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Damian Pacheco, Brian Tovar, Pedro Tovar and Ulises Gonzalez of Eslabon Armado accept the Collaboration of the Year Award on stage during Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.
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Lucy Dacus, Joan Baez and Phoebe Bridgers at Variety’s Hitmakers.

Olivia Rodrigo and St. Vincent take a selfie at Variety’s Hitmakers presented by Sony Audio.
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From Variety US