I don’t like the Grammys. I’ve known this for years, and I make no secret of it. When an institution bestows an award on the Baha Men but withholds from Patti Smith, Morrisey, Public Enemy, Bjork, Notorious B. I. G., Tupac, and Katy Perry, I have some doubts about legitimacy.
Every year I promise myself that I won’t get my hopes up and every year I fail. This year was no exception. Can you blame me? When the list of nominees was released, it all looked so hopeful. Tame Impala! D’Angelo and Kacey Musgraves and Wilco?! And of course, the messianic Kendrick Lamar with an impressive eleven nominations.
But when the big night was over, when the glitter settled and the sound technician was presumably fired, it turned out that the evening was the usual disappointing affair it’s always been.
There were a number of moments that made me shake my head in exasperation. But no moment in the evening caused me to feel visceral anger like Taylor Swift’s win over Kendrick Lamar for album of the year, and her subsequent acceptance speech. The decision was many things–maddening, disappointing, short-sighted, flagrantly stupid–but it was not at all surprising.
Before I go any further, I feel that I should clarify that I LOVE Taylor Swift. I have screamed along to You Belong With Me more times than I can count. In high school Speak Now was one of the four CDs in my car. Last year on my birthday, I listened to 22 on repeat because that’s just what you do. As a person, Taylor seems lovely, charming, and kind. And while I wish more little girls wanted to be Janelle Monae or Kathleen Hanna, I don’t begrudge Taylor her status as a role model.
But despite my appreciation, I can freely admit that when you peel back its record-breaking sales and its ubiquitous radio presence, 1989 is a deeply conventional pop album. Swift herself is a deeply conventional pop star. Her voice is workable, but not particularly impressive, even compared to contemporaries like Katy Perry. Her stage presence can tend towards wooden and she made an entire video about how she can’t dance. Overall Taylor Swift is a talented songwriter with a decent voice whose success is in no small part based on her public persona as a “regular girl” who’s “super relatable.”
To Pimp a Butterfly, on the other hand, is anything but conventional. It is a seismic, astute, celebratory portrait of blackness in music. It is deeply relevant to the current political climate and timeless in Lamar’s singular virtuosity. Protesters sing Alright at #BlackLivesMatter marches. In many ways the album seemed to soundtrack one of the most radically transformative sociopolitical movements of our time. It is, in other words, the album of the year.
1989 was certainly a great album but it was not the great album of the year. It was not even the great pop album of the year (surely Grimes’ screwball opus Art Angels takes that prize). And yet, Taylor was deemed the winner. Forgive me if I share Tori Kelly’s non-verbal sentiments on the matter. The fact of the matter is that the Grammys, and the media in general, celebrate white performers for mediocrity while devaluing the technical excellence of artists of color.
Taylor’s acceptance speech was largely described as a clap back at Kanye West’s track Famous, in which he asserts, “I feel like me an’ Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” Certainly Taylor is within her rights to shut Kanye down. Even serious Kanye fans seemed to publicly respond to such deliberate provocation with a resounding “really dude?”
The Swift-West clash infamously began, of course, at the 2009 VMAs, when Kanye rushed the stage during Taylor’s acceptance speech for the Best Female Video award to assert that Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (“one of the best videos of all time”) should have won instead. As we all probably remember, the media went berserk and Kanye was eviscerated by everyone up to, and including, President Obama.
But while his conduct was no doubt stupid, you have to admit that in hindsight he kind of had a point.
The video for You Belong With Me features Taylor as a “total nerd” who pines for the cute boy literally next door. Unfortunately, the cute boy is dating another girl, also played by Taylor, but in a bad Ashlee Simpson wig. This other version of Taylor is a real tart who wears blue eyeshadow(!) and drives a sports car(!!!). Eventually the boy realizes what he’s been missing when Nerd-lor shows up to the dance in a beautiful white dress and confesses her feelings.
If you didn’t remember any of that, I don’t blame you. But remember that this video–truly a monument of simplistic, heavy-handed story-telling–beat Single Ladies. All of the stunning choreography and iconic cinematography in the world couldn’t help Beyoncé beat a video about a girl who finally becomes romantically viable by taking off her big nerd glasses.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. White artists build entire careers off of their perceived authenticity or even blatant amateurism. Look at Jennifer Lawrence. Look at Macklemore. Look at Sonic Youth and the Sex Pistols and even Nirvana. White artists have a lot of leeway for mistakes and experimentation.
In contrast, artists of color are not allowed the leeway to simply be “raw.” At amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre, a man called “the executioner” was employed specifically to sweep performers who did not meet audience standards offstage. The crowd at the HBO Def Comedy Jam was so hostile to performers that Bernie Mac opened his set with the now famous line, “I ain’t afraid of you motherfuckers” just to get them on his side. Beyoncé has so successfully convinced the public that she is virtually inhuman, that people were upset when she sang a song about having sex with her husband.
This year’s Grammys wasn’t the first time that Taylor has benefited from this system. Which made it all the more disappointing to listen to an acceptance speech in which she threw out lines like, “someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you, and the people who love you who put you there.”
Obviously Taylor Swift did not create this disparity. It has existed for a long time in entertainment. She did not give herself the award, and she has certainly worked hard to get where she is now. However I can’t help but be disappointed whenever I see Taylor, or any white celebrity for that matter, yammer on about inequality in “the industry,” while never actually addressing the fact that they are direct beneficiaries of this inequality.
Some might say that the Grammys don’t matter, that they don’t affect music in any real way. In some sense, that is true. Kendrick Lamar probably won’t stop making albums because he lost this one award this one time. Yet as music fans we should be critical about the ways in which institutions legitimize artists and we should push back against a system of judgement which pays more attention to an artist’s body than their music. We have to if we ever want to stop being disappointed.