On Kanye, Beyoncé, Beck, and Artistry

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When Kanye West momentarily took to the stage as Beck was handed the award for Album of the Year at the 57th Annual Grammys, his quick grin and ready departure suggested that this was but a joke: a lighthearted reference to his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, upon Swift being selected for Best Female Video ahead of Beyoncé. Kanye’s briefer, wordless interruption on Sunday night put Beck in a slightly awkward position. It meant that while Beck was in the process of receiving the major award of the night, he wasn’t the centre of anybody’s attention; and without knowing Kanye’s mind, there was the palpable possibility that he was protesting in earnest. Still, given the broad similarity with the events of 2009 – with Beyoncé again losing out on an award which she was the favourite to receive – Kanye’s act could easily have been perceived as self-referential play, all in good fun, and it could have been enjoyed or at least readily forgiven. However, after the ceremony, Kanye took to the media to explain himself, asserting:

‘The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us […] Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé. At this point we tired of it because what happens is when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats in music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. 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.’

Depicting his words as a ‘fight for creativity’, the explicit focus of Kanye’s intervention was nothing more than the music. Kanye was stressing his view that artists, at the peak of their powers, are not being given their due by the Grammys; and that for this year in particular, Beyoncé’s self-titled work was of greater artistic value than Beck’s Morning Phase.

Kanye’s invocation of ‘real artists’, ‘artistry’, ‘art’, and ‘musicians’ has caused much consternation. Statistics have been rolled out in the past few days in a self-righteous endeavour to deride and reject Kanye’s view. It has been pointed out, for instance, that Beyoncé was the product of sixteen producers and twenty-five writers, while Morning Phase featured just Beck as both writer and producer (though his album was mixed by numerous engineers); and that Beck played seventeen instruments on his album, whereas Beyoncé provided only her voice. The distinction between a posited authentic musicianship – conceived as the act of playing live instruments – and production which this sort of thing implies is troubling. It ignores the fact of music today, where so much of what we hear has not been played and recorded by live performers, but produced via computers. It negates the beautiful vitality of this, which is that it allows great music to be made by individuals, in small groups or at home in their bedrooms, who do not have the means or the desire to engage with instrumentalists. It equally elides many aspects of the history of music creation throughout the twentieth century.

If the ability to play an instrument, or the occurrence of live instrumentation on an album, is conceived as constituting authentic musicianship or artistry, what do we make of, say, Björk’s Vespertine, for which in 2001 she arranged strings and harp, but for the first time programmed her beats using Pro Tools? Do we devalue artists like Grimes, How To Dress Well, and Zola Jesus, whose experimental music made from the confines of their rooms – on albums including Visions, Love Remains, and Stridulum – has in recent years pulled and frayed the boundaries of popular forms? Looking back further, it appears that attitudes to production – which has always played a crucial role in the recording of music – are wont to vary considerably. It would seem that Phil Spector, for instance, defined by his ‘Wall of Sound’ which backed female performers in the 1960s from the Ronettes to Tina Turner, has frequently been accorded the status of creator; different from the more discretely musical reputation enjoyed by George Martin, often portrayed as the ‘Fifth Beatle’; and different again from the more dismissive attitude being show towards the array of producers on Beyoncé.

Perhaps some of these different attitudes are merited. On the one hand, perhaps we are simply used to valuing the work of a single creator over the minute accretions of assorted collaborators. On the other hand, however, it seems that there is a willingness to shift the boundaries of musical authenticity when it comes to the making and the production of music more or less when it suits, and often against new forms and along lines of gender and race. Today, prioritising live instrumentation and marginalising the worth of production serves as an easy means of dismissing much sample-based rap and R&B.

This fits within a broader discourse of tired and unsustainable arguments about the nature of music. If someone who sings only is not allowed the status of musician or even artist, but is reduced to labels like ‘performer’ or ‘entertainer’, how do we retrospectively view a Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra, or the frontmen of a horde of classic rock bands? If musicianship and artistry equate to the ability to play instruments, it follows logically that we should value most of all those whose abilities are most comprehensive and most proficient. What do we make of the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys utilising dozens of session musicians, a sizeable number of whom remain uncredited? What of the punk ethos, whose precursors included bands like The Stooges, and which – despite producing a diversity of acts, the CBGB’s scene in New York in the 1970s comprising Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and Television alongside The Ramones – had as a central component a belief in self expression and the virtue of anyone getting up and having a go? What of the Velvet Underground who, despite their proficiency and John Cale’s background in the classical avant-garde, used only two basic chords for some of their most acclaimed compositions? What of the drone music of La Monte Young, which could involve holding a single chord for hours on end? If we define ‘musicianship’ and ‘artistry’ around the ability to play musical instruments, we end in an absurd position where musical ‘artistry’, or indeed ‘musicianship’, have nothing to do with the ability to actually make good music.

A skewed focus on live instrumentation has consequences for the sustainability of the music business and the economic self-sufficiency of artists. Against the struggle to sell records and downloads, live shows have become fundamental for artists seeking to earn a living. But there is much to bemoan about artists being forced to undertake endless cycles of touring; and it is unclear why the willingness or the ability to accurately recreate one’s sound in a live setting should be a prerequisite for a career as a musician. Music which is tethered to live performance, and shorn of some of the freestanding technical innovations and imaginative experiments of the studio – large scale or small – would be so much for the worse.

If the above comparisons of Beyoncé and Morning Phase would contrast Beyoncé’s voice only, and her reliance on a flurry of producers, with Beck’s instrumental prowess and his relatively small group of friends and associates, they also invoke the issue of songwriting. This is another false demarcator of musical authenticity. Many of our greatest musical artists have never set pen to paper, interpreting instead the songs set down by others. And good lyrics come in all manner of forms, and are but one aspect of good music. Are The Rolling Stones inherently better or more authentic than Elvis, because they wrote their own songs, while Elvis – by and large – did not? Some lyrics may persevere outside of the immediate context of the songs they inhabit – although many of the best lyrics do not stand up on the page, because the practise of setting words to sounds is markedly different to the practise of poetry or short story or novel writing – but this is a matter beyond music. We can praise a musical artist’s ability to write words; but when it comes to music, what matters is what we hear.

In turn, a similar strain of argument can be made about singing itself. A voice which is always in tune, and with the flexibility to embark upon demanding changes in key, does not necessarily possess the expressive qualities that go hand in hand with great music. This is an argument I have sometimes had in the past with Beyoncé. On uptempo songs like ‘Crazy In Love’ and ‘Countdown’, vocal theatrics and a hectic onrush of sounds have stood in place of a thoroughly convincing flow; while her live performances can sometimes seem exercises in self-possessed ostentation, and can subsequently sound lifeless. The slower tempo and the sensual quality of Beyoncé well suits her vocal prowess. The album does not merely gesture towards, but stands assuredly as a fully fledged album: a cohesive artistic statement, which eschews singles for songs whose pieces course consistently through one another. Beyoncé’s voice moves effortlessly through rich tones and textures. The thematic concerns move persuasively back and forth between a married couple’s bedroom (and kitchen and on), and the public sphere which would seek to delimit women.

But while Beyoncé is an accomplished work and a very good album, musically it does not innovate and it only fleetingly excites. ‘Pretty Hurts’ is a superb opener, featuring Beyoncé’s starkly elegant, drawn out vocals, and the best line on the album in the darkly humorous ‘pageant the pain away’. Later there is the exceptional run of ‘Rocket’, which is at once soulful, sultry, commanding, and decidedly pretty, and arguably Beyoncé’s greatest vocal performance; ‘Mine’, which Drake helps to lift; and the glittering, anthemic ‘XO’. Other compositions pass by maintaining the mood, but without being particularly memorable; ‘Flawless’ is notable for its interlude more than its music; and while there is nothing amounting to a misstep, Beyoncé’s vocals sound a little stretched on ‘Drunk In Love’. In many ways this only shows how far popular music has come, but the method of splitting individual songs into several discrete parts is one already well established by The-Dream, Kanye, and Kendrick Lamar.

The arguments which have been made in Beck’s defence are especially perverse because they are hardly, one imagines, the sort of arguments he would be inclined to make himself. Yet for his apparent criticism of Beck’s artistry, it is equally hard to believe that Kanye – who has always had an eye towards indie rock, whether namechecking Modest Mouse or frequently working with Justin Vernon – hasn’t listened to and enjoyed, and even been influenced by Beck’s output, especially given Beck’s reputation in the late 1990s as alternative music’s most genre-bending artist, from Odelay onward incorporating sampling, R&B rhythms, and hip-hop beats. It is also true that Kanye scorned Morning Phase amid a period of his own engagement with acoustic accompaniment, as on Rihanna’s wonderful, warm, and husky ‘FourFiveSeconds’.

If Kanye’s intent was to focus on the music, we can see how the response to his comments has propelled often politicised debates. And in a certain sense the narrow limits of his remarks seem to have encouraged others to express an unfettered politics on his behalf. While there has been from the one side the attempt to validate Beck’s artistry – but unfairly at the expense of Beyoncé – from another perspective there has been an endeavour to navigate the unspoken racial dimension of his words. This was after all a Grammys in which three of the televised performances – those by Pharrell; by Beyoncé; and by Common and John Legend, whose ‘Glory’ was commissioned for Selma, the historical drama based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel and Martin Luther King, Jr. – featured the hands up gesture which has come to symbolise feeling among black people following the death of Michael Brown.

That Michael Brown was murdered there can be little doubt: murder is what it means to shoot an unarmed man six times or more, twice in the head, from distance – whatever Darren Wilson’s equivocations. I am not convinced that the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ slogan, or the hands up gesture, adequately express the vital sense that – as Prince pointedly stated on stage at the Grammys – black lives matter. Brown’s murder is not mitigated in any way if in fact he did not put his hands up. The gesture therefore seems to muddle and undermine as it seeks to simplify: for those who assert, amid uncertain evidence and contradictory testimony, that Brown didn’t have his hands up when shot, it allows them to dismiss the larger cause. The gesture also seems to implicate a deferential attitude which undercuts the essential points about violence, brutality, and the value of all human life. I realise, however, that the gesture has taken on a symbolic value which some feel can be separated from the facts and uncertainties of the Michael Brown case; and that on a principal level it affirms the idea ‘I am a person, not a threat’. And perhaps it simply isn’t my place to question the symbolic value of the gesture or its utilisation.

At such a moment, academy institutions have faced a barrage of well justified criticism over their constitutions and selection criteria. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came under attack in mid-January after announcing the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards, to take place in just over a week, on 22 February. Of particular concern was the failure of Selma to receive nomination in any major category beyond the enlarged Best Picture; the fact that of the twenty total actors nominated for the ceremony’s four prestigious acting awards, all are white, and indeed only one – Marion Cotillard – is from outside the United States and England; and the makeup of the academy was also cited, with its 5,765 members almost 94% white, 77% male, with a median age of 62, and only 2% of its members black and less than 2% Latino. More, every nominated director, screenwriter, screenplay adapter, and original score composer is male, as are the directors responsible for the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.

Something similar emerges from the Grammys. Herbie Hancock in 2008 was the last black artist to take home the Grammy Award for Album of the Year; and we have to go back to 2004 and OutKast for the last contemporary black musicians to win the award. Since then, mundane music from U2, Dixie Chicks, Adele, and Mumford & Sons has beaten out albums by Alicia Keys, Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and, most notably, Kanye West, who was nominated for his first three albums, but has yet to win. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus – two genuinely great albums – failed to receive nomination. Likewise in the category for Record of the Year, Ray Charles in 2004 – in collaboration with Norah Jones – was the the award’s last black winner (though Pharrell and Nile Rodgers featured on Daft Punk’s 2014 success, ‘Get Lucky’). Before Charles was Seal in the distant past of 1996.

In opposition to the tangible marginalisation of black and female artists, a construct is built – and apparently a highly accurate one – of the establishment as old and white. It seems grossly unfair, however, to manoeuvre Beck into position as part of this establishment. And the unfortunate aspect of Kanye’s briefest of interventions was that it did this to some extent: impelling an atmosphere of us against them which he consolidated in his comments after the show, and which seemed to strand Beck on the wrong side of the divide. Reviews and commentaries in the show’s aftermath which heralded Kanye for enlivening a staid ceremony became caught up in the same process. Without the widespread popularity which Taylor Swift and Beyoncé enjoy, and as a white male, Beck was implicitly suspect and available to criticism. Where rejoinders acclaimed his artistry, his person was held at a distance.

It is worth noting that beyond the wider political dimensions, the more basic power narrative on display was one where Kanye upheld the position of a powerful clique at the immediate expense of Beck, who in the surrounds of mainstream popular music stood relatively vulnerable. There is an important discussion to be had about the music business, academy institutions, and race; and there is much to be said too for artists being celebrated in the moment, and for an end to what feel like retrospective awards. The Grammys are stiflingly conservative, still too rock-oriented when it comes to their decision making despite a willingness to showcase other genres, and they tend to repeat the same acts. It is unfortunate that Morning Phase is one of Beck’s least sonically alert, and less acclaimed works; of his and Beyoncé’s albums, there is more to be said for Beyoncé’s: both for its standout tracks, and for the manner of its surprise release, accompanied by seventeen bright and vivid music videos. Still, Kanye’s words felt less like an impassioned plea on the behalf of innovative or marginal music, more like the promotion of his friends.

Out of these entanglements, Kanye has made a bow. By late Monday he had moderated his post-show suggestion that ‘Beck needs to respect artistry’, remarking instead to reporters in passing ‘Come on, man. I love Beck. But he didn’t have Album of the Year’. For his part, after the ceremony Beck responded only with generosity:

‘I was just so excited he was coming up. He deserves to be onstage as much as anybody. How many great records has he put out in the last five years, right? […] I still love him and think he’s a genius. I aspire to do what he does.’

Then on Wednesday morning, during an interview with Ryan Seacrest, Kanye further clarified his thoughts, in the process issuing something of a retraction. Saying that the ‘voices’ in his head encouraged him to take to the stage, he stated that he refrained from taking the microphone out of respect for Beck: ‘Beck is one of the nicest guys and one of the most respected musicians in the game. There’s nothing that I will want to do as a fellow musician to disrespect him in any way […] Obviously Beck is one of the most respected artists, and respects artistry’. And then he added, by way of anecdote, ‘But Taylor Swift came up to me right afterwards, literally right afterwards, and tells me that I should have went on stage. This is the irony of my life’. If there is a desire in Kanye to be loved, there is also an instinct to push and provoke and sabotage which is inseparable from the extent of his art. He is entertaining, he is vital; and as Beck says, he makes exceptional music. And Kanye too is right as, in the same interview, he appositely – and almost aphoristically – put it:

‘It’s just a little jolt of truth, right? And then you know, everyone feels better after the fact, or everyone is way more famous after the fact, or everyone sells way more albums after the fact, and then Kanye just goes on being an asshole to everyone.’