By Aaron Bumgarner
You’ll be easily forgiven if you decided to skip watching last night’s 58th Grammy Awards. I’m not going to recap the entire awards show, because recapping something that lasted 810 hours sounds like a lot of work. Instead I’ll focus on the big moment, the one that had Twitter all aflame, the one that perhaps should have had me seething but instead just made me further resigned: Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for Album of the Year.
I saw a lot of angry people on Twitter afterwards; chances are, if you’re reading this, you were one of them. I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but allow me to provide a little context, first in favor of what happened and then in condemnation of it.
The temptation in the face of Taylor Swift beating Kendrick Lamar one year after Beck beat Beyoncé is to lump last night’s show in with #OscarsSoWhite or to simply cry racism. That’s not wrong, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, Morning Phase, the Beck album that beat Beyoncé’s self-titled statement album last year, is lightweight stuff. It won’t be remembered even as one of Beck’s best albums, let alone as one of the best albums of 2013-2014.
1989, on the other hand, is an industry monolith. For 2014-2015, Taylor Swift ruled the world with that album as her scepter. She was dominating the industry on Adele’s 21 levels. Did we really think that the industry as a whole wouldn’t vote for an album as successful as 1989? Swift’s Album of the Year victory isn’t questionable in the same way that Beck’s was.
And on top of that, the little thing that Swift mentioned in her acceptance speech (no, not that little thing) about being the first woman to win this award twice is no small matter. In the 58 years that award has been given out, 18 women have won it, and that’s including toss-ups like John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Fleetwood Mac, the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack (which was probably actually given to T-Bone Burnett, but featured a lot of women), and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. Maybe you noticed that everyone who came up onstage with Swift was a man. That’s very indicative of the music industry as a whole.
As much as Swift may feel like she’s a part of the establishment to you, she is one of few women in the industry who can truly take ownership of her business, and the fact that the Academy is recognizing her matters. We should celebrate that. There are multiple points of discrimination in the music industry, just like in the outside world, that need addressing. We can celebrate progress in one area without neglecting other areas.
And yet I’m still shaking my head that an album like To Pimp a Butterfly was snubbed. I don’t want to jump to conclusions and claim institutional racism without knowing the facts first, so let’s look at Grammy history for a second. This isn’t like the Oscars; because the Grammys give so many awards and split those awards into different genres, you can’t just count the number of black nominees versus white nominees. But Album of the Year is the Academy’s premiere award, and… well, only 16 people of color have won it. Remember, this was the 58th Grammys.
The last person of color to win it was Herbie Hancock, which makes it sound like it happened in 1968, but don’t worry, it was 2008. There was actually a relatively rich 10-year period from 1999-2008 (it feels like forever ago, but it wasn’t that long!) in which 6 people of color won: Lauryn Hill, Santana, Norah Jones, OutKast, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock. Of course the last 8 straight have been white… but still.
I think what we’re seeing is a complicated kind of discrimination, and it appears rooted less in blatant dislike of a people and more of a resistance to a culture. It’s telling that the last African-Americans to win Album of the Year were Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock, both of whom were pioneers of their specific genres and had crossover success to the pop charts in spite of their blackness. When those men were young, I can imagine parents turning up their noses at their music and covering their kids’ ears in fear of what kind of effect their black music might have on them.
And yet over time Charles and Hancock became part of the good old boys’ club, and their music was celebrated. Our perspective on those artists reflects how much their work has permeated the industry since then and become part of what we think of when we think of the establishment. Hip-hop, as much as it dominates the charts, is just now beginning to seep into the foundation of the industry. I wonder if the Grammys don’t see hip-hop the way Bill Cosby did in the ‘80s and ‘90s: “Pull up your pants, boy!”
So Did We Lose or Win?
The Grammys’ awarding of Taylor over Kendrick isn’t a rejection of Kendrick but a continued rejection of hip-hop culture. No rap album has won since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, which is fine, except that rap has been the dominant pop music medium since then. The lack of hip-hop winners is a resistance to admit that black culture has won.
The memes of audience members watching Kendrick’s outstanding performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” highlight this nicely. The Academy appears to be holding onto the supposed whiteness of rock and pop and folk, even though you can trace much of those genres’ roots back to black artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if Grammy voters were shocked to find out last night that Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes was black.
People are going to tell you that the Grammys don’t mean anything. And in a larger sense, in the bigger picture, maybe they’re right. In 25 years, we’re going to look back on the 2010s and remember Beyoncé and To Pimp a Butterfly (and good kid, and channel ORANGE…) as some of the most defining albums of the decade. It won’t matter that they didn’t win the big award at the Grammys, which will be remembered as out-of-touch and tone-deaf and white (and male!). But in the here and now, those of us who recognize that it is black culture that is producing the most vital and vibrant art of our time are tired of having to hang our heads the morning after.