I’ll come right out with it — I didn’t watch most of the Grammys.
That might be a bold admission to make for the Co-Managing Editor of the Daily’s Arts section, but I honestly don’t think you can blame me for it. I mean, let’s be real, any organization that was still nominating the Dave Matthews Band for Album of the Year in 2010 clearly exists in some sort of dystopian mytho-poetic realm where — as they say in “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
Every single year, the nominations for the myriad Newspeakian Grammy categories are announced (“Urban Contemporary” anyone?), the public makes known its revulsion toward the various irrelevancies that invariably make their way into those categories, and we then let loose a paradoxical torrent of blind rage and complete dejection when the awards go to the wrong people.
So why do we keep watching? I ask myself that question every year, and I struggle to find any answer other than that, at this point, we’re just in the habit of doing it. Or, even worse, maybe we like it.
But I’m not really here to talk about why we keep engaging in the sadomasochism that is watching the Grammys. That’s a question for psychologists, or maybe E. L. James.
I’m here to talk about the one interesting thing that did happen at the awards show on Sunday night, which, unsurprisingly, came from one of the few consistently interesting people in the constellation of modern pop culture: Kanye West.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Grammy Award for Album of the Year went not to the obvious winner in that category , according to any possible criteria by which to judge it (Beyoncé), but to Beck’s Morning Phase.
The incredulity in the room was palpable as the 44-year-old rocker walked on stage, his eyes darting nervously from the audience to the presenters — he would later state that he thought Beyoncé was going to win the award — when, suddenly, Kanye walked up in front of him, reached his hand toward the microphone and then stopped short. He held up his hand in a gesture of pause, flashed a smile, turned around and went back to his seat. It was over almost as soon as it began, but those brief moments (and Beyoncé’s stunning homage to “Selma” and, by extension, the entire “Black Lives Matter” campaign) were without question the most memorable, the most real things that might be drawn from such a vapid and out-of-touch affair.
I would think that the beauty of Kanye’s “interruption” should speak for itself, but the response from social media and a good number of pop culture commentators — the real reason why I’m writing this piece — has astonishingly focused on the supposed audacity of doing what every halfway honest consumer of pop music wanted to see happen in the first place.
In an interview with E! after the awards show, Kanye clearly explained his motivation for the silent outburst:
“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 Beyoncé, 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 Beyoncé album and they feel like it takes them to another place.”
To me, that’s not a speech that smacks of egotism and privilege (Kanye does, after all, give up his awards when he feels he doesn’t deserve them). He points out, correctly I think, that creating a piece of artwork that sells 2.2 million copies in 2014, going on to become a global pop culture phenomenon in the process, is an act of transcendence, something that only a handful of people have ever been able to achieve. No matter what might be said about Morning Phase, Beyoncé did something Beck can not do and will never do in his musical career. Kanye simply demanded that we be honest with ourselves and own up to that fact.
Sure, I’ll concede that there might be something presumptuous about ordaining oneself as the universal arbiter of pop culture. But isn’t it obvious that getting caught up on Kanye’s egotism ignores the bigger picture here? Aren’t we missing the forest for the trees? And, again, he didn’t say anything we weren’t already thinking ourselves:
“I’m here to fight for creativity tonight,” West said. “That’s why I didn’t say nothing, but y’all knew what it meant when Ye walked on that stage.”
You knew what it meant, don’t blame him for doing it.