Let’s start by agreeing that the Grammys are silly. Award shows are pretty silly in general. Until it became a professional obligation to watch “music’s biggest night,” I didn’t, not even when people I cared about happened to be honored somehow. My opinions on what records are meaningful haven’t, to my knowledge, been directly affected by who wins, who loses and who isn’t even nominated. I’m as pleased as anyone to see deserving acts get acknowledged by the institutional establishment, but I’m not unduly disappointed when that fails to happen. This is an industry shindig. This is a promotional event. This has very little to do with what music is “good.” I don’t look up to Stevie Wonder because he won Album of the Year three of four years from 1973 to 1976; I look up to him because he’s Stevie Wonder and he made music that transcends anyone’s stamp of approval.
So my first reaction to Kanye West rushing the stage last night after Beck defeated Beyoncé and others for the Album of the Year award was, basically, that West seemed to care about the Grammys way, way more than anyone probably should. My confusion deepened when he confirmed he was serious about protesting Beyoncé‘s failure to win that particular award. Didn’t he realize she was above the Grammys? Wasn’t that what her graceful performance of gospel classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to usher in the night’s long-overdue close only further proved? Aren’t the greatest artists usually recognized after their own time, anyway? Who makes art for the awards? Was it relevant that Beyoncé still won three Grammys?
But West was right. Some of his post-show rhetoric might’ve been a bit overblown, but he was right. Beyoncé’s victory would’ve mattered. Her failure to win matters. Good people can disagree about what the best album is of a given year, but somehow the institution found a way to throw its weight otherwise behind Sam Smith, who was an Album of the Year short from snapping up the top four awards — a feat last accomplished by, um, Christopher Cross in 1981. As the example of soft-rocker Cross suggests, and West of all people must recognize, the Grammys don’t necessarily anoint the top talent of a year. But it matters who gets access to that establishment caprice — and not just because of the usual post-show sales gains. The Grammys need not be logical, or even credible, but they do need to prove they’re equal-opportunity. As fickle as our institutions may be, they shouldn’t signal that they’re closed off to people who deserve entry.
Race and gender are issues here, but they’re not the only issues. Clearly, it’s not that Album of the Year never goes to women: Just ask Adele, the Dixie Chicks or Norah Jones. Herbie Hancock won belatedly with 2007′s River: The Joni Letters. OutKast won belatedly with 2003′s Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Ray Charles won posthumously with 2004′s Genius Loves Company. Beck, too, would be entitled to such tardy recognition — I’ve seen few arguments that his pleasant Morning Phase matches his earlier peaks such as Odelay or Mutations — but why can’t the fluke victory go the way, occasionally, of the person who is both creatively pioneering and commercially relevant? And, while we’re at it, yes, who looks different from music industry executives?
If not Beyoncé, who? If not her self-titled album, which is both a daring, cohesive artistic statement — encompassing ideas about feminism, married life, grown-up sensuality, motherhood and miscarriage — and a business event that reverberated through the rest of the music world, then what?
Not that everything is about West, but would even recording with Paul McCartney be enough to position him for an Album of the Year? What path might Rihanna have? Will D’Angelo finally win outside the R&B category for a duets album decades from now? That’s to say nothing of the many worthy performers who’ll probably never make it into the Staples Center in the first place. When Lauryn Hill won Album of the Year for 1998′s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that was a previous century, a previous millennium; so, too, Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard soundtrack. It’s 2015. Prince was on stage saying, “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” Beyoncé was about to sing as part of Common and John Legend’s tribute to the civil rights movement. Why are we living in Christopher Cross’s world?
West is right because the institutional support the Grammys represent, however flukey, should fluke occasionally toward the side of the night’s standout performer. West is also right because that support should fluke occasionally in a way that aligns with the Grammys’ self-righteous moral posturing. As Maura Johnston notes over at The Guardian, the list of the most powerful people in music is top-heavy with white men. Who wins a particular Grammy isn’t going to change that. It’s not going to turn “music’s biggest night” into “music’s best night.” But a symbolic victory wouldn’t hurt.