The Importance of Kanye’s “Jerk” GRAMMYs Comments: What Makes Music GOOD?
The daily newspaper that is my Twitter feed recently informed me that The College Dropout, Kanye West’s debut album, celebrated its eleventh birthday on February 10th. With the release of the rapper’s “Through The Wire”-spurring LP back in 2004, West also launched his label GOOD (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music — a cheeky moniker that appears arrogant at first glance but holds deeper meaning once the acronym is broken down. Fast forward to just over a decade later, and Kanye’s gone from critically-acclaimed artist and producer to essentially a mockery of his former self in the public eye. He’s still held on to millions of fans as his image continues to be ridiculed, but their praises fall on deaf ears as many people are up in arms over the latest hijinks he’s brought to the table.
If you haven’t heard by now, ‘Ye’s comments about Beck winning Album of the Year at the 2015 GRAMMYs over Beyonce at an E! News after-party have ruffled the feathers of the Internet. Here’s the quote in question:
“I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists, to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry and he should’ve given his award to Beyonce. Because when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration and we as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyonce album and they feel like it takes them to another place.”
It should also be noted that Kanye stormed the GRAMMYs stage when Beck accepted his award, pulling a “Kanye 2.o” (referring to his now-famous act of interrupting Taylor Swift, at Beyonce’s defence, at the 2009 MTV VMAs) but not actually taking the mic from under him — just alluding to it. Sparking laughs out of his followers and respecters, the rest of the world felt the need to criticize him on attempting to pull this “rude” move once again, and of course following it up with the thoughts above. Not that it matters to his naysayers, but Kanye covered up his headline-making opinions to waiting paparazzi when he touched down in New York fresh off The GRAMMYs a day later:
“No, I wasn’t saying Beck, I was saying the Grammys! Beck knows that Beyonce should have won. Come on, man, I love Beck. But he ain’t have Album of the Year.”
Whether or not this cover-up was truthful, it really wasn’t necessary, because the damage has been done. I have been scouring the web for days now; scanning many comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Disqus alike just to see what kind of hate the public has for this man. As mentioned in this article, I’ve gotten “jerk,” “ass,” “rude,” lacking “class” and “taste,” “talentless,” “Autotuned mess” — I could go on. But this article wasn’t made to regurgitate Kanye’s ever-growing global backlash. Now that a backstory has been established, the conversation about what makes music “good” is what I’m hoping to nail.
For some context as to where my head (and heart) stands on this issue, I have been working as a content editor in popular music for four and a half years now. I’ve loved pop for most of my life — my first personal cassette tape was The Spice Girls’ debut and I played it till the ribbons came out — but the world told me to stop loving the genre when I went to middle school. Puberty is truly a terrible time when most kids just want to “fit in” and “be cool,” so I dropped a lot of what I was listening to and picked up what everybody else liked (at the time, it was rock staples like Alice Cooper and Guns N’ Roses…insert eye roll here). However, in the mornings and when I got home from school, the television was set to MuchMusic & MuchMoreMusic respectively, giving me my pop fill while I brought a burned CD of 70s and 80s-era rock in my Walkman to class to show off to friends at lunchtime.
Nowadays, I love pop more than ever and I’m not ashamed to admit it. This personal movement has not only stemmed from my job in the industry, but the rising social impact that the Internet has pioneered on coming to terms with what you like and not letting people bring you down because of it (this tumblr post is a great example). That being said, there are some aspects of pop that I simply cannot get behind. I’m way too old to begin to understand the boy bands of today, Meghan Trainor grinds my gears to no end, and every time I hear Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” my stomach hurts because he’s just slightly off beat in my books. But I feel the same about so many other genres of music. The continuous argument about rock being dead is definitely true in some parts, but some of my favourite albums of 2014 ended up being rock ones. I also loved — and despised — music in the revered genres of hip-hop, alternative, and Americana genres from last year. These points aren’t added to make me seem like some genre-spanning music curator; they’re to support the fact that pop music still isn’t considered, in reference to Kanye’s label, GOOD music. Pardon my French, but how come pop music keeps getting the shit end of the stick when it comes to criticism?
Let’s go back to Kanye’s initial reaction to Beck taking home the AOTY GRAMMY for Morning Phase. Have you heard Beyonce’s fifth self-titled LP Beyonce? Chances are you’ve heard at least one or two singles, with tracks like “Drunk In Love” and “***Flawless” spawning lyrics that basically defined 2014 (Surfbort and I woke up like this, anyone?). This album achieved the impossible. Team Bey released the full thing on iTunes at the end of December 2013 — typically the worst time for music to come out because it’s pretty much too late to make Best Of The Year reviews—without any of it leaking to the public. She also revealed a new persona on this LP, and while to me it comes off as a little too Drake; it’s a confident, clear sound that I can’t see any other pop artists making the successful transition to in their careers. Heck, it would be like if Drake suddenly decided to put out a rap album (kidding, kidding…well, just a little bit.) With all of this impressive info, it’s definitely true that this album could do nothing for you. It’s also a fact that Bey’s not the sole person behind this project. A rather infantile BuzzFeed post highlights that Beyonce had 25 writers (including herself) on board as opposed to just Beck on his Morning Phase effort. Off the bat, this seems like a huge win for Beck on top of his GRAMMY for AOTY, but I’d like to share a point that my friend made when we were G-Chatting about this issue earlier:
I could play 348 instruments, bang them all to high hell, and not deserve Album of the Year. I could write the finest poetry since Robert Frost, call it lyrics, and not deserve Song of the Year. I could write something on my own and not deserve Artist of the Year.
Whether or not you have 20+ writers on a song versus one, or whether or not you have a whole team of studio executives behind you versus you self-producing out of your basement, what makes music GOOD music is how it sounds. It doesn’t matter how you made the album, how long you’ve been around as an artist, or even your IQ or background. I’ve found myself hating the most critically-acclaimed pieces, while adoring the ones swept under the rug, and vice versa. GOOD music is good. To you. To how you hear it. And when it comes to pop, it can be GOOD music too. In fact, I encourage the public to consider that nine times out of ten, a song is considered popular music because it’s appealing to the masses. And whether you like it or not, that requires effort and recognition. John Lennon’s “Imagine”? That’s a pop song, and it’s a GOOD song. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”? That’s a GOOD pop song, and it wasn’t even written by her.
So, back to Kanye’s GRAMMY comments. Were they worth getting so mad about? Writers like Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz are being told they “shouldn’t write about music” just because she had the audacity to admit her feelings about this years’ GRAMMYs. Let me put it this way: looping back to John Lennon — who had a very strong stance on music — what if he were alive today and went on a rant about one artist deserving a GRAMMY over another? Do you think the world would be as upset about it? Probably not, but that’s because Kanye’s reputation as a “jerk” has been constant ever since his T.Swift interruption. To me, instances like that one are all apart of pop music. As consumers, don’t we crave shock and awe to gossip about? There are plenty of other “jerk” musicians (Ryan Adams, Mark Kozelek, Chris Brown, Courtney Love to name a few) who aren’t put up on a pedestal quite like West. It was all because he did something that he believed in, on live television, that “ruined” the evening of poor innocent Swift. He was essentially banished by the public after that moment for doing such a thing, which is so baffling to me. Did people stop buying Chris Brown’s records after he physically assaulted Rihanna? Do people continue to call Ryan Adams a musical genius even after he insults his audience right to their faces and throws a fit when he doesn’t get his way on stage? Again, I could go on.
The one point that people seem to be hung up on over Kanye’s quote is “musical artistry,” which to Kanye means “the whole package,” and how Beck should have given the award to Beyonce. No, Kanye, he shouldn’t — Beck won and it’s his to keep— but take a look at Beck’s response to Yeezy if you haven’t already:
Absolutely I thought she was going to win. Come on, she’s Beyonce! You can’t please everybody, man. I still love him and think he’s genius. I aspire to do what he does.
I read a handful of comments online that praise Beck for his “tasteful” and “classy” response, with people going even further claiming that they’d like to see Beck get angry and just tell Kanye to stick it. He won fair and square thanks to his own version of “musical artistry.” But would they really like to see Beck’s negative reaction? Something tells me that if Beck “aspired to do what Kanye does” when it comes to his placid public interaction, we’d have a bunch of hypocrites on our hands. I bet that if Beck discussed his Scientology religion on a daily basis with the Internet, people would be turned off. Keeping quiet and polite when you’re a famous musician is safe; naturally, but it sure doesn’t keep the pop world moving forward. I like my pop stars outspoken and true to themselves. How else is the world going to change from prim and proper on the outside / curiously perverted on the inside to just balls-out wild and weird — which is what I believe humans truly are — without people of stature making it the norm?
Kanye makes GOOD music. Beck makes GOOD music. Beyonce makes GOOD music. Some pop music is GOOD music. Some rock music is BAD music. I know a lot of the Internet still doesn’t agree with me, but I hope to at least make a start in halting this blatant criticism of Kanye West and his outspokenness, and focus our attention on these awards shows themselves. This meme just proves a further point that trophies are given out over a faulty criteria, and if the public notices that, maybe we can change it so the official standards fit into 2015 and beyond— or even do away with award shows entirely. We’re not going to play with them anymore.