Being a fan of Kanye West isn’t always easy. The same heart-on-sleeve, unfiltered passion that makes his artistic output so remarkable–and yes, you can count me among those who proudly consider it so–is also the source of a seemingly endless parade of media gaffes, controversies, and foot-in-mouth moments. And while most of the time, West has his heart in the right place (George Bush didn’t care about Black people!), every once in a while his actions can leave even his most ardent defenders at a loss for words.
I was naïve enough to think, however, that last weekend’s Grammy Awards ceremony shouldn’t have been one of those times. Yes, Kanye briefly stormed the stage after Beck’s accomplished but sleepy Americana record, Morning Phase, received the award for Album of the Year over the category’s (and Kanye’s) apparent favorite, the self-titled fifth album by Beyoncé. But it seemed pretty clearly to be a (clever!) riff on one of Ye’s greatest gaffes, his meme-inspiring interruption of Taylor Swift’s Best Female Video win at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Plus, Beck–whose initial reaction to the announcement made it obvious that he’d been expecting to lose as well–appeared amused by the whole thing; and in any case, getting mad at Kanye West for interrupting awards speeches at this point is like getting mad at the wind for blowing.
But then Kanye gave a post-show interview revealing that he (maybe?) wasn’t joking after all, arguing that Beck should “respect artistry” and give his award to Beyoncé. And that’s when everybody lost their goddamn minds. Paul Stanley of stadium-rock Muppets KISS, apparently suffering from severe laser pointer flashbacks, said on Facebook that Beck should have kicked Yeezy “right in the nuts” and told him, “Get the fuck off MY stage!” Shirley Manson of ’90s alt-rock outfit Garbage took to Facebook as well, writing an open letter to Kanye that accused him of making “a mockery of all musicians and music from every genre, including your own.” And blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald told radio host Dan Le Batard, “When Kanye gets to a point where he can actually put a couple of notes together either vocally or two bars of valid music playing an instrument, then he might have a right to criticize somebody else.” This, of course, all in addition to the usual flood of opprobrium from op-ed writers and Internet commenters–though this time, at least to my knowledge, the President of the United States has remained silent on the issue.
I’m not interested in picking apart whether Kanye’s comments were “right” or “wrong”–both because far too many other would-be pundits have attempted to do so and because, as always, they were a little of both. Kanye West isn’t an essayist or an orator; we don’t (or at least, we shouldn’t) look to him for highly nuanced discourse. His genius is in capturing the feelings of the moment–even, indeed especially, if they seem to be only his feelings–and communicating them concisely and memorably: he’s effectively a living, breathing Twitter account. What I’m much more interested in, then, are the reactions to West’s post-Grammy rant, and what they reveal about the speakers. Because, when you look past the massive lightning rod that it is Kanye’s ego, it’s clear that so many people couldn’t have been so upset just because Kanye West was rude to Beck. This controversy is about something–actually, several things, including race and gender, though I’ll let more qualified speakers tackle those particular issues. For me, what the Kanye/Beck/Beyoncé Grammy moment is about is the crisis of a certain paradigm for evaluating musical artistry: a paradigm that Beck has come, improbably, to represent.
To understand this aspect of the debate, it’s worth revisiting Michael McDonald’s comments. In questioning Kanye’s credibility to speak on issues of musical “artistry”–Kanye’s words, you’ll recall–McDonald took a tack typical of members of his generation and questioned his musical ability: as a rapper and producer, West neither conventionally sings (though as he proved at the Grammys, he does try) nor plays any instruments. McDonald did concede that West’s (and, one imagines, Beyoncé’s) work–which he referred to dismissively as the “whole kinda cut-and-paste thing”–is “a certain kind of art form all by itself,” but continued, “I don’t know if I call it songwriting from a musician’s standpoint.” Beck, on the other hand, “is a consummate musician. He plays instruments, many instruments. He can make his own record without having a fleet of computer operators onboard.”
This comparison between the supposedly intrinsic worth of Beck’s self-composed, largely self-performed, self-produced record with Beyoncé’s more conventionally “pop” approach–which did employ a “fleet” of co-writers, producers, and yes, probably even “computer operators”–was a recurring theme in the social media discourse around the Grammy controversy, eventually taking the shape of reductio ad absurdum parody (see above). And the tableau of Beck accepting the award from Prince–the gold standard for the all-playing, all-writing muso-auteur–only to have it symbolically tarnished by the arrival of loudmouth, untalented jackass Kanye West, could not have been lost on viewers of the ceremony who shared McDonald’s “musician’s standpoint” on musical artistry. How dare Kanye call Beyoncé a “true artist,” the argument went, when she needs an entire coterie of producers to accomplish what Beck can do with just a floppy hat and an acoustic guitar?
But this easy equivalency of superior “artistry” with musical self-sufficiency isn’t some objective truth passed on from the beginning of time; it is, in fact, an idea that only really came into currency in the last fifty years or so. I guarantee that many of Michael McDonald’s favorite pop songs (and probably some of yours, too) were composed in office cubicles by salaried writers in the Brill Building, who then handed off their work to producers and performers assembly-line style. The Motown sound–which I know for a fact that McDonald is a fan of–was so corporate in construction that one of its chief writing and production teams was literally called the Corporation. Indeed, it wasn’t until the rise of Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the mid-1960s that “singer-songwriter” became the de rigueur identity for a “serious” musical artist. And the historical contingency of this identity has been made apparent before: always in the form of a crisis of authenticity, in which post-Dylan/post-Beatles rock music must reassert its aesthetic superiority. So if you, like myself, are too young to remember the days of “Disco Sucks,” just ask your dad (or Michael McDonald) what he thinks about hip-hop; it’s exactly the same argument that’s been going for almost forty years.
The difference is that now, the singer-songwriter/heroic artist paradigm actually does seem in danger of being swallowed up. Earlier crises were resolved simply by shoring up new icons to replace the old. When disco threatened the hegemony of album rock, punk was there to take its place as a beacon of musical “authenticity.” Then, alternative and indie rock took up the mantle against the “threats” of rap and electronic dance music. And of course, there have always been plenty of artists in these emergent genres whose sensibilities have fallen enough in line with rockist notions of the heroic individual artist to be reconciled with them: your Daft Punks, your Tribes Called Quest, your Aphex Twins. But who is there now? Much has been made of the fact that Beck was the only even nominally “rock” artist among the nominees for Album of the Year this year; along with him and Beyoncé, there was also Ed Sheeran (another singer-songwriter, but with an unabashedly pop sensibility), Sam Smith (a blue-eyed soul singer whose songs are as collaboratively-produced as Beyoncé’s), and Pharrell. Things get even more dire when you look at the show as a whole: again, aside from Beck with a guest appearance by Chris Martin of Coldplay (enough said), the only “rock” performances were by Boomer-era stalwarts AC/DC and Electric Light Orchestra. Oh, and Paul McCartney was there, too, of course–performing with Kanye and Rihanna.
Obviously, the Grammy Awards alone can’t speak for the health of an entire musical genre; but the signs of rock’s decline are everywhere if you care to look. Turn on a contemporary “alternative” radio station and you’re more likely to hear the mellow sounds of Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, or Fun. than anything previous generations of listeners would recognize as rock music; hell, just the fact that Morning Phase is being universally discussed as a “rock” album, when it sounds like something out of Laurel Canyon in the early ’70s, speaks volumes. To be clear, I’m neither solemnly eulogizing rock and roll nor gleefully tramping on its grave here; I’m simply stating what is already happening, has already happened. There is a reason why Baby Boomers and Gen-X-ers both closed ranks so hard the moment Kanye dared suggest that Beyoncé was a “real artist”: because artists like Beck–and, again, I mean this without any qualitative judgment–are in increasingly short supply. If you’re someone who subscribes to rock-centric notions of what constitutes an authentic artist, clearly that is cause for concern.
The irony, of course, is that musical artistry isn’t going anywhere, even if rock does. Because Kanye is right: Beyoncé is a phenomenal album, the work of a “real artist”–or, perhaps more accurately, of many real artists. It may not be as “personal” as Morning Phase, in the sense of being crafted by a single person; but anyone who actually takes the time to listen to it can hear that it is the product of a strong and, yes, deeply personal vision. Whether that vision can be said to belong to Beyoncé alone is unclear and, I think, beside the point; Vertigo isn’t any less remarkable a film just because Hitchcock wasn’t personally developing the negatives.
And anyway, why can’t we broaden our horizons for what a “real artist” might look like, beyond the old image of a single–and, I have to say it, white–guy with a guitar? The Beck currently being pigeonholed as a scion of rock/folk authenticity is not the Beck I grew up with, nor the one I’m particularly interested in. My Beck was a postmodern pop iconoclast, more renowned for his work with a sampler than with a twelve-string. He had a unique vision all his own, but he was highly collaborative: Odelay, arguably his most critically well-regarded album, was shaped as much by its producers, the Dust Brothers, as by Beck Hansen’s individual genius. In short, the Beck I grew up with had a lot more in common with Kanye West than not–and, with all due respect to Morning Phase, I found his music a lot more compelling for it. So, as we all move on from the last Kanye-troversy to the inevitable next one, let’s at least try to take one good message away from this whole fiasco: that “real” artistry isn’t just about how many instruments you play, but about your ability to move people with your music.