I haven’t had a TV in years—it’s a lifestyle choice I’m completely comfortable with. Normally, when I write about the Grammys I just do my best not to barf while watching YouTube clips the next day. But last night a friend of mine was kind enough to invite me over to her place to watch the whole spectacle in real time.
It was surreal.
The mindlessness of network television is always depressing when you haven’t encountered it in a while, but this was ridiculous. The vast majority of the telecast was corny beyond belief. Naturally, the commercials were the worst: apparently, CBS has a new sitcom that they’re touting as “America’s Funniest New Family” or some shit like that. There was also a full-length (read: way-too-long) Gwen Stefani video that doubled as an ad for Target. Watch it if you dare:
Then there was the actual awards ceremony. Normally, I’d just go off on the unjustified fuckery that the academy is up to. Namely that they’re exceedingly, boldly, and unrepentantly racist. And make no mistake, they still are, it’s just that the Grammys seem to have realized that the optics of shamelessly snubbing black artists isn’t exactly cool these days. So the Grammys have decided to change their ways. Except, not really. In fact the legacy of racism was on full display last night, as never before, despite, or maybe even because they did their darnedest to create a narrative of inclusion.
Nevertheless, it should be said that there was a lot of celebrating black artists last night. At face value, that’s pretty awesome not to mention way overdue. But this wasn’t some benevolent act of virtue on the academy’s part. 2015 was a year of music so thoroughly owned by black artists that to not recognize it would be akin to … well, let’s just put it this way: the Oscars caught a lot of flack this year for being racist (spoiler alert: they are) and the Grammys wisely decided to skirt that same criticism by going headlong into full-on pander mode this year.
Frankly, it wasn’t even subtle.
First off, LL Cool J hosted. Then there was an uninspired BB King tribute. After that, Stevie Wonder sang an a capella tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire (not coincidentally, they were also the recipients of a lifetime achievement award). Lionel Richie got a lifetime achievement award, too. And he joined John Legend, and a couple generic white artists, for a medley of his greatest hits. The Weeknd performed. Rihanna was supposed to perform, too (but she cancelled last minute on the advice of her doctor). Alabama Shakes performed. Beyoncé handed out the award for best record. Miguel also handed out an award, but not before singing a stirring rendition of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out Of My Life,” evidently for no other reason than to bring MJ’s music into the evening.
But wait! There’s more:
During the obligatory “these are the people we lost” montage, black artists like BB King, Maurice White, Percy Sledge, and Ben E. King were emphasized over everyone else, most notably David Bowie. That same montage ended with Natalie Cole performing a duet of “Unforgettable” with her father. Indeed, the academy bent over backwards to exploit every possible opportunity to celebrate black artists this year. And thusly middle America was educated on quite nearly the entire history of African-American music—a proud and important legacy. But there’s just one problem. It’s a legacy that the Grammys have completely ignored until last night.
All of this is to say, the blackening of the Grammys wasn’t as cool as it sounds. As wonderful as it was to see praise bestowed, at long last, on a plethora of black artists, it nevertheless felt exploitative and insincere. Probably because the whole charade was meticulously staged. Most performances by black artists were whitewashed to the point of toe-curling awkwardness (see the tributes to BB King and Lionel Richie for proof), while most of the white artists seemed complicit in the pandering. Had it not been for the exception of one unbelievable performance the whole night would have been nothing more than a useless exercise of white America patting itself on the back.
Case in point, when Mark Ronson accepted his Award for “Uptown Funk” he clearly felt obligated to give shout out to George Clinton, James Brown, and Earth, Wind and Fire. That might seem nice, until you realize that it was meant to soften the blow of a white, culture-vulture, winning record of the year, while several superior black artists got snubbed. Then, when Lady Gaga did her–and this cannot be overstated–TERRIBLE tribute to David Bowie, the only actual Bowie collaborator on stage was Nile Rodgers (he was in the great disco group Chic and produced Bowie’s Let’s Dance album). Any tribute to David Bowie should have been great. Unfortunately, Lady Gaga is a complete farce of a human being and has no business performing Engelbert Humperdinck’s greatest hits, let alone David Bowie’s. It was an explicit, probably deliberate, cheapening of not just Bowie’s legacy, but also Rodgers’ as well.
Worst of all, after a long night of paying lip service to black history, Taylor Swift beat out Kendrick Lamar for Album of the Year—naturally. After all, they needed to manufacture something for us to talk about today. Right? Whatever. Kendrick didn’t seem bothered. He hugged her on the way to the stage where she promptly took the opportunity to feign feminist outrage and throw some shade at Kanye West (who, while playing the heel this past week, rapped on his latest album that he “made that bitch famous” while suggesting that he wanted to have sex with her). And before you haul off criticizing Kanye for being awful, notice that Swift’s speech revealed the whole “scandal” for what it almost certainly is: a cheap marketing ploy to sell copies of both 1989 and The Life Of Pablo.
So yes, the Grammys are still bullshit (and I haven’t even mentioned the horror of Alice Cooper and co. performing “Ace of Spades”). Perhaps a disingenuous celebration of black music is preferable to an outright “Fuck Off” which has been the academy’s M.O. for the last few years. But when they proceeded to give the biggest award of the night to a white artist it highlights the real issue with the academy: that they have some difficulty getting their members to vote for black artists, even when they make iconic albums like Black Messiah and To Pimp A Butterfly.
Just how good does a black artist have to be in order for them to win album of the year? Innervisions, Thriller, Miseducation, Speaker Box/The Love Below are among the most notable examples. And from that we can infer that not only does the record have to be commercial blockbuster, it needs to be a stone-cold classic as well. Otherwise you can die, that’s what Ray Charles did in 2004 (this prompted his first “Album of the Year” in 2005, it’s also worth mentioning that two of his classic albums from the 60s were snubbed in favor of Vaughn Meader and Judy Garland, whoever the fuck they are). Your only other option is to make an album so safe that it doesn’t threaten anybody. That’s what Lionel Richie did with Can’t Slow Down (it beat Purple Rain). Otherwise, you’re out of luck: Beck beat Beyoncé, Taylor Swift beat Kendrick Lamar, Mumford and Sons beat Frank Ocean, U2 beat Kanye, Celine Dion beat The Fugees, Henri Mancini beat Ella Fitzgerald and on and on–and that’s in the rare case that a black artist is even nominated for album of the year. More often than not, the most forward-thinking music just get’s ignored. Just ask Future.
With all this in mind, Kendrick Lamar’s performance was all the more salient. I watched it in complete silence. I was simply blown away by it. Unlike the rest of the night, this was a rare moment of actual art. Hopefully it made white America feel the way they ought to feel: uncomfortable. Somehow, and quite miraculously, Kendrick had enough control over his own image that the Grammys weren’t able to dilute his art. The images of black men in shackles, burning crosses, and all other manners of violence were provocative in this context. There in the middle of it all was Lamar, fiercely rapping with the virtuosity of a Charlie Parker solo, “You sabotage my community makin’ a killin,” he says, “you made me a killer.” All the more impressive when you realize that this was piped right into the homes of millions of Americans. It’s enough to make even the most jaded music fan thank God for Kendrick Lamar. He speaks truth right into the face of America. He’s simply invaluable. Transcending the bullshit of the Grammys is no small feat, and it’s one we’re not likely to see again any time soon.