The 2016 Grammys and the Morning-After Anger

By Aaron Bumgarner

Kendrick's performance was riveting

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.

Taylor Won

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.

Kendrick Lost

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.


Entertainment Reads (August 12th, 2014)


Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

I did take last week off, so we’ll have TEN links this week. Enjoy.

In things I wish I wrote: Amy Nicholson tells you to support female-driven movies by not going to see Lucy. (LA Weekly)

In political correctness: Shaq is being sued because he made fun of a man’s appearance, much of which is altered due to a condition. (

In it’s complicated: A music festival in Ohio dropped R. Kelly from its lineup due to complaints from other bands and sponsors, seeing as many still think he’s guilty of child pornography. (Pitchfork)

In more NBA: The first deaf NBA player is passing on his wisdom to hearing-impaired children. (Deseret News)

In maybes: Noah Berlatsky explores the idea of a transgender woman playing Wonder Woman in a movie. (Comic Book Resources)

In I must like the NBA a whole lot: The San Antonio Spurs (they’re a basketball team, you may have heard of them) hired a woman (Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Stars) as an assistant coach last week. (48 Minutes of Hell)

In it’s been complicated for a long time: Brian Eno has opinions on Israel and Gaza. (Stop the War Coalition)

In N.W.A. would be proud: Spike Lee is mad at the NYPD, and he’s letting them know through art. (BuzzFeed)

In college sports: So the NCAA lost a court case, and college sports conferences are autonomous. Wow. (Grantland)

In the tragedy in Missouri: Celebrities speak out on social media about Mike Brown’s slaying. (Rolling Out)

Bonus not for fun: Robin Williams was a great actor, and he died yesterday. Noel Murray has a moving tribute to his artistic legacy. (The Dissolve)

It’s Miranda Lambert’s Country

A Break from Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

By Aaron Bumgarner




Young girls have a lot of options from which to choose when looking for an idol or a role model in the music world today. But if I had a daughter, I’d be thankful for artists like Miranda Lambert and Beyoncé. Neither is perfect; I don’t think Lambert and I would agree on America’s gun laws, and, if I were a father, I’m sure I’d be uncomfortable with my daughter relating to Beyoncé’s overt sexuality. But both singers have released albums of substance within the last year, albums that declare their womanhood to the world with artistry and conviction. I’d be happy having my daughter look up to either of them. (What gives me pause with Beyoncé is that she’s married to the man that released Magna Carta…Holy Grail.)

I’m not a father though, so my only frame of reference for this discussion is my middle-school students. Granted, it’s a lot easier to imagine my students listening to Beyoncé than to Miranda Lambert, given that 90% of them are Latino. I’m not saying that Latinos don’t listen to country music. I have a Latino friend that really enjoys country music. But he’s not a middle schooler living in an urban area and heavily influenced by peer pressure. So I’m going to go ahead and assume that most of my students don’t listen to Miranda Lambert.

But I wish they would! I want my female students to feel empowered to make their own life decisions. I want them to see that women can have the power to start their own businesses. I want them to see that a woman can be married and not be subservient to her husband. I want them to see that a woman can take ownership of her sexuality and not be exploited. I want them to love themselves enough not to define themselves by their relationship to a boy. And I don’t want them to find their identity in their beauty.

Miranda Lambert addresses all these issues and more on her new album, Platinum. She subverts the daddy-daughter song in “Girls” with a chorus of “If you think you’re the only one she’ll want in this world / Then you don’t know nothin’ ‘bout girls”. In “Bathroom Sink” and “Gravity Is a B***h”, Lambert deftly explains that she won’t let what she sees in the mirror become how she defines herself, while extolling the virtues of both her personality and her beauty on “Platinum”. Instead of the crazy ex-girlfriend anthems that have become so popular in country music (and which she’s already mastered), she kisses off boys that ain’t worth her time in “Two Rings Shy” and “Little Red Wagon”. And the only time she explicitly mentions her marriage to Blake Shelton is in a song about her own similarities to a different woman, Priscilla Presley. The lyrics end up hardly being about Shelton at all.

This is an album by a woman about being a woman, regardless of any men. Platinum is all the more impressive when you consider what a boys’ world country music is. Since 2000, over twice as many men in country music have had Number 1 albums on the Billboard 200 than women. Subjectively, it’s hard for me to think of who the women on that list would be aside from Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, whereas I could think of 7 of the men off the top of my head. It’s even worse in pop music; there may be a lot of female artists in the Top 40, but name one female producer making hits right now.

The worst part about this is the lack of role models for young girls to look up to. Just like there aren’t enough black women starring in movies to inspire young black girls, there aren’t enough women (white or black) making waves in the music world for young girls to respect, and the few that are tend to be presented through the male gaze. If I want my female students to take ownership of their lives and have confidence, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum is a great place to start. Too bad they don’t listen to country music.

Entertainment Reads (July 1st, 2014)

Best entertainment links of the week

Each week on Tuesday we’ll post our favorite links to articles from the pop culture world. They’ll at least tangentially pertain to education or sociological issues in general, and they’ll be from the past week. There will be a few bonus exceptions though, usually in the form of a link that was too fun to pass up. Because we too like to have the fun.

In people who should know better: Gary Oldman apologizes on Jimmy Kimmel Live for things he said in Playboy magazine that were offensive to the Jewish people, the homosexual community, and anyone who has heard of Mel Gibson. (Los Angeles Times)

In student-athletes: Lester Munson outlines what you need to know about the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA trial regarding the NCAA’s ideas about amateurism. (ESPN)

In student?-athletes: A good rundown of the NCAA’s recently re-opened investigation into the University of North Carolina’s academic scandal. (News & Observer)

In great movies: Spike Lee reflects on his 25-year-old masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. (Vanity Fair)

In the scourge of the Internet: An interesting blog post on Internet comments. (Some Came Running)