The fear about writing something on last weekend’s Kanye-Beyoncé-Beck incident at the Grammys is that it will just add to the noise. I’ve gone back and forth about whether to say anything at all, but there are some things I’ve noticed about this manufactured controversy that haven’t been brought up. Little moments like these are, when all is said and done, incredibly ethereal. It doesn’t take long for them to just drift into the ever-expanding iCloud of pop culture trivia: it’s there, it exists, but it’s far from weighty. Still, they often present "teachable moments," at least when the air is still pregnant with them. And there are three things merit saying before this particular moment is finally filed under “yesterday’s news”:
What Kanye West did at the Grammys on Sunday was ultimately harmless. That there are actually outlets who think otherwise speaks to the utter banality of entertainment media. Banality is never devoid of ideology, however. Yes, there is racialized paternalism in the rhetoric over Kanye’s “misbehavior,” as there always is. And yes, said paternalism has gotten more and more transparent given that: a.) it’s long ago come to be thought of as “typical pop star behavior,” and b.) it’s come to be particularly expected from Kanye. (One turgid example of this scolding pattern is to be found in the public admonishments of Shirley Manson, who apparently either doesn’t know or just doesn’t care how racialized it is to call the behavior of a black man “savage” and label him as entitled.) In fact the only thing that’s “unexpected” from the little 60 second incident is how mild it was. All he did was walk up to the stage, shrug, smirk and walk away. It was essentially a joke to the audience and the media alike. Fudging this into later off-hand comments about creativity -- which Kanye has since clarified and back-pedalled -- is lazy. So is talking about his “ego” in the context of an industry that is built on papering over the essence of alienation with shallow concepts like “genius.”
The joke worked because it was easy to have the rest of us in on it. Others have described Kanye’s walk-up as a moment when he basically communicated to us “I don’t have to say it, do I?” And he didn't, because we all knew who the other, clear shoe-in nominee was. Does this mean that Beyoncé was better than Morning Phase? What does “better” even mean? Ultimately, it is incredibly difficult to do a one-on-one comparison between the two because they are from different genres and were trying to achieve very different things aesthetically. And it should not be forgotten that the National Academy of Arts and Sciences is not a neutral actor in all of this. Those sharing memes insisting that Beck is somehow demonstrably “better” than Beyoncé are frankly oblivious. I would recommend folks read this post at “Culture and Shit.” Not all of it is as precisely worded as I might prefer, but it does make a prescient reminder that on an anthropological level, music has been and to a certain extent continues to be a collective and collaborative mode of expression. The special class of artistic geniuses, standing alone on a pedestal and gracing us with their exquisite creations, does not exist. That Beck played all or most of the instruments on Morning Phase while Beyoncé worked with a team of songwriters and other artists to make her self-titled album does not give one artist or the other any greater merit.
What Beyoncé definitively had that Morning Phase did not was a massive impact on the cultural conversation as a whole. It was talked about more, blogged about more, dissected more and found its way into the popular vernacular more. “I woke up like this” is a meme. It would be wildly off-base to say that Bey is the one singular reason that “feminist” became a buzz-word of 2014, but it we also can’t deny that one of the main manifestations of the idea and word in pop culture came via the discussion of her songs and her performances. And yes, Beyoncé out-sold Morning Phase by at least four-to-one and charted much better. We can cynically say that both this and the greater impact among pop culture came thanks to the fact that Beyonce had better marketing than did Beck, but this still begs a big question. On what valence did the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences decide that Morning Phase was a better album? If it’s not sheerly sales and market-share, then fair enough, though we’d be naive to say that’s not NARAS’ primary concern as a trade and industry group. If general cultural impact isn’t a factor, then fair enough again, but we’re then left with a question about whether NARAS gives much of a damn about its own relevancy past what it’s merely able to buy. Maybe the vote got split, but this also poses the questions as to who thinks Pharrell, Sam Smith or the terminally Wonderbread Ed Sheeran has had as big a cultural impact as Beyoncé’s album. Even Beck, to his credit, thought something smelled fishy.
Analyzing and understanding this isn’t “a distraction.” Yes, a lot of us easily tire with talking about popular culture, based on the fact that it’s spectacle, it’s lesser than “real art,” we think that too many of us use it as a substitute for having a solid analysis of how racism and sexism work in our daily lives. Fine. Nobody’s twisting anybody’s arm to be part of the conversation. Moments like these may not fundamentally reshape the contradictions of capitalism. And there certainly does come a point when talking about them becomes circular and therefore at the expense of other issues (my instincts tell me that we’re about to reach critical on that scale if we haven’t already). But there are also those among us who are probably bending things too far in the other direction by labeling it all a distraction. Both seem to me to fail Base and Superstructure 101.
My sense is that what leads to dust-ups like these being discussed into a dead-end isn’t that they’re being discussed per se, but that they’re being discussed too much on the terms laid out by the culture industry, media, et al. We can place the lion’s share of the blame for that at the door of the culture industry itself, which doesn’t even want to admit that it’s an industry, let alone that it does fit into and is impacted by a much broader economic and political infrastructure. In the end, the crux is that music’s essential character as a collective activity can never really live in harmony with structures like NARAS, which keep themselves relevant by bolstering the “genius” perception of creativity.
Yes Kanye-Beck-Beyoncé-gate is barely even a crack in the edifice, but when the gaping chasm of American race has opened as unavoidably wide as it is right now, even small cracks can’t stand alone. The challenge for a left that wants to be both sharply relevant and culturally engaged is to rebuild a framework that can explain moments like these without either minimizing or overblowing them. Seems to me that’s a necessary step if we ever want to collectively rush the stage at the Staples Center and announce that NARAS has been placed under popular control.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go return this soapbox. It’s rented.