The Grammys That Should Have Been
Weekly Cleanse 02.14.17
I n a recent commentary for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote ever-so-kindly of Donald Trump: “there is no music in this man.” The brief piece was written one week prior to our new President’s inauguration, and the weeks since have seen a flurry of activism and protest from all corners of the creative world. Even the venerable Meryl Streep, of all people, famously became victim of a Trump tweet following a speech at the Oscars just a few short weeks ago.
Music, of course, has always been political. But 2016 took from us countless titans whose departures remind us of the fickleness of what we do as musicians — in their deaths, and in our grievance, we find a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. So if 2016 wasn’t enough to get artists fired up and ready to go, then the whirlwind of morally outrageous activity emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has certainly helped. But, in the same way that the story of the 2016 election showcased two entirely different Americas, the 59th Annual Recording Academy awards illustrated a story of two entirely different industries.
In the days running up to “music’s biggest night,” reports began to swirl that artists such as Kanye West, Drake, and Frank Ocean would boycott the event — the latter citing his decision as his very own “Colin Kaepernick moment,” and all three for reasons which should be fairly obvious. The political arena has entered arena shows, and all who are seated in that arena are expected to participate (even The Oscars faced similar controversy last year). It had been the hope of many that with an album as undeniably earth-shattering as Beyonce’s Lemonade nominated for Album of the Year, the Recording Academy could assert itself as a progressive and mindful force once again. Indeed, it could not have been an easier decision — not simply based upon the merits of the artists in question, but upon the simple fact that Lemonade will, in a sense, forever sit at the nexus of those two Americas — the fiery and determined feminist icon faces off against the purveyor of the milquetoast piano ballad. (I do love Adele, please keep reading.) So we held onto the hope that after a year of horrible loss for music and a renaissance in its powers for social commentary, perhaps the Recording Academy — the other side of the industry, the men in the suits — would make the right call just this once.
Alas, these hopes were misguided. Adele swept in every category. #GrammysSoWhite really did happen. Perhaps it was always destined to happen. Despite the fact that Beyonce managed to snag the award for Best Urban Contemporary Album (whatever the f*ck that even means), despite the fact that Anderson .Paak and A Tribe Called Quest literally and figuratively destroyed the walls which (only figuratively) separate us, the larger context of the story makes these feel like little more than cheap consolation. The last black female artist to win Album of the Year was Lauryn Hill in 1999. The last black male artist to win, the great Herbie Hancock, won nearly ten years ago for an album of Joni Mitchell covers — the Adele of her time. Last year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly lost to Taylor Swift. Kendrick Lamar also lost to Macklemore, if you can remember back to the days of “Thrift Shop” — and if you can’t, that’s the entire point.
This is an issue that has been left unaddressed for far too long. The thing to remember is that the night’s most prescient statements were made by the artists themselves — whether in their absence or in their performance. But the Academy itself refused to side with its artists, the only reason it has for existing. If there was ever a “make-or-break” moment for the GRAMMYs, whose cultural relevance over the past decade has been questionable at best, then the 59th edition was that moment.
Unsurprisingly, the Academy failed us. They failed their artists. Most importantly, they failed themselves — by disregarding their duty to follow in the path of exactly what timeless music is remembered for: it’s power to affect change on all scales, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. The same power that allows Adele to elicit tears also allows Q-Tip and Kendrick Lamar to rally crowds for their cause. And it is our cause. But the message from the Recording Academy on Sunday night couldn’t have been more clear: it is not theirs.