I didn't watch the Grammys this year, but of course, it was hard to escape the brouhaha that erupted on Monday morning, as the internet argued over Kanye West's remarks following the show. If you've been trapped under a rock since the weekend, Beck won Album of the Year over the likes of Beyonce and Sam Smith. Kanye accused the Grammy voters of "disrespecting artistry" and maintained that Beck ought to hand the Grammy over to Beyonce.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been pretty interesting; on the one hand, I have a lot of musically-inclined friends (being a musician for thirty years will do that) who basically wanted to tell Kanye to sit down, shut up, and let Beck have his moment. After all, if you're going by "artistry," it's fair to point out that any given song on Beck's "Morning Phase" had one writer--Beck--while any given song on Beyonce's self-titled album had several writers. Beck plays several instruments, Beyonce none. The arguments go on and on.
On the other hand, I have friends who are not musicians, but who are music fans and very involved in the feminist blogging scene, and they point out that to recognize an album that wasn't Beck's absolute best album in his long list of albums over Beyonce's strongest album to date is clearly misogyny and perhaps even racist. Look, they have been writing...we reward the white guy for putting out his not-best album over the woman putting out her best album.
I don't necessarily see it that way. The musical side of me sees it as, "Well, Beck's sixth-best album is still a better work of art than Beyonce's best-ever." I believe that's how most of the Grammy voters must have voted (or, as pointed out in this article, which I read to my choir today, it could be that Beck's album resonated more with a crowd of aging voters who grew up listening to Bob Dylan). And obviously, this opinion is entirely objective. Keep in mind that I've been drinking the "this is what good music sounds like" Kool-Aid since I was seven years old, and before that, I was raised by parents who listened to the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, John Stewart, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Dolly Parton...the list goes on and on. Note that none of these artists sound a thing like Beyonce.
I make no secret of the fact that my attitude towards most popular music these days is to tolerate it at best, openly loathe it at worst. For every "Happy" by Pharrell I buy on iTunes because it makes great commute-time listening, I buy at least 10 other songs that don't get radio play on any stations in the Sacramento area.
But enough about my opinions. What I really set out to write on this post was how I took this debate to my choir class today, and how awesome it was as my class opened up and shared their opinions.
Of course, the first question was, "Who is Beck?" I sang "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me..." and got a roomful of nods and "Ohhhh, yeah." I pointed out that that particular song is 20 years old, and that I was in high school when it was on the charts, wearing mom jeans and a lot of flannel.
I started out by reading the above article to them; then I played "Pretty Hurts" off of Beyonce's album and "Morning" from Beck's, both YouTube videos that show the lyrics on the screen. I chose "Pretty Hurts" because it is very meaningful to a lot of girls and women ("what's in your head, it doesn't matter...") and "Morning" because the lyrics are very poetic and sad.
The ensuing conversation was enlightening. About half the class seemed to think Beyonce deserved Album of the Year, and the other half believed Beck rightly won. The most common theme in their arguments was "Beyonce is more culturally relevant right now...most of us don't even know who Beck is!" and "I appreciate that Beck is the one writing all of the music, and putting so much of his soul into it."
The best part was that the conversation stayed incredibly respectful and kids with differing opinions even acknowledged some agreement with those who were opposite them. It was truly a discussion, not an argument. It was never heated, simply passionate, because these kids love music. At the end of it all, we came to a class consensus that the question really isn't "Who is the better artist?" but rather, "What are the Grammys really there to reward--current cultural relevance, or true musical artistry?" I think we all agreed, in the end, that the award is almost pointless, because it will always boil down to personal preferences of the voters--and those preferences, as I mentioned above and one student cleverly pointed out on her own, are based on a lifetime of experience, and what kind of music we are exposed to on a regular basis from the time we are young. "That's why I like Journey and Chicago," she said. "My parents listen to that stuff all the time, and have since I was little."
What I originally intended to spend maybe 15 minutes on ended up taking 45 minutes--and no one minded. The time had flown by, with hands flying up to add to the conversation more and more--even from kids who don't always speak up in class. So if anything, instead of deriding Kanye West for his comments, maybe I ought to thank him, for giving me fodder for an excellent choir conversation that made my kids think about how they judge music.
So thank you, Kanye.