Monday, February 9, 2015
The Real Reason Why Beyonce Didn't Win Album of the Year
Then Beck beat out Beyoncé for Album of the Year, and everyone collectively realized that in 2015, privilege will always trump talent when the time comes to make decisions about recognizing excellence at the highest level.
(As a side note, I would also like to point out that Eminem won his sixth Best Rap Album Grammy for The Marshall Mathers LP, which is an album that features him threatening to rape, kill, and otherwise abuse women, as well as his usual homophobic slurs. This album beat out works by Common, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Childish Gambino, and Wiz Khalifa. It is particularly significant that Eminem beat Common, who has gained attention for taking a public stance against police brutality and discrimination against people of color in his award acceptance speeches and on social media.)
The phenomenon (but is it really a phenomenon if it has become wholly expected?) of White (male) artists winning Album of the Year over Black female artists whose albums are complex, controversial, and commercially successful is nothing new. In 1987, Janet Jackson's Control, which was widely regarded as an innovative work of Black feminism, lost the Album of the Year award to Paul Simon's Graceland. Then, in 1998, Jackson's The Velvet Rope, which was praised for its introspective lyrics about Jackson's struggles with anorexia, mental illness, and her sexuality, was not nominated for Album of the Year at all, the award ultimately going to Bob Dylan for Time Out of Mind.
Similarly, Beyoncé's self-titled album features the artist praising her own sexuality, grappling with the emotional trauma of a miscarriage, motherhood, marriage, and emphasizing the value of the unique Black female aesthetic ("I woke up like this" is a reference to Black female beauty and was never intended to become an ironic twee catchphrase). Beyoncé released the album with no prior promotion and subsequently changed the music industry in her refusal to submit her work to the inevitable possibility of its message being misconstrued and appropriated during the promotional process. Beyoncé is, in short, a nuanced self-portrait that examines the limitless possibilities of what a Black woman can be (a wife, mother, sexual being, businesswoman, artist, etc.) that was produced and released in a way that very adamantly rejected the assumed superiority of a patriarchal society built upon White privilege. Beyoncé, over the course of her eighteen-year career, had placed herself in a position in which she had the wealth, influence, and notoriety to make an attempt to subvert the existing power structure in both the music industry and American society, and the very content of Beyoncé subtly encourages its listeners to work to do the same.
So you can see now why Beyoncé was never going to win Album of the Year.
Of course, Beyoncé did end up taking home a couple of Grammys. Three, to be exact, in the categories of Best R&B Song ("Drunk in Love"), Best R&B Performance ("Drunk in Love"), and Best Surround Sound Album (Beyoncé). However, upon closer inspection, these accolades are not the benign "wins" that they appear to be, but rather a social representation of essentialist ideologies that prevent artistic works by people of color from receiving the large-scale recognition that they deserve. Essentialism is basically the idea that groups in our society (may those groups be classified by gender, race, or ethnicity) have certain "essential" inherent qualities that shape the way they think, act, and interact with other social groups.
The creation of "Urban" and "R&B" (and to an extent, Rap) categories for award shows like the Grammys perpetuate the idea that music that is traditionally produced by African Americans is so drastically different from "typical" (meaning White) music that it requires its own category and a different standard of evaluation. While it is true that R&B music differs from certain types of pop, rock, and country music in terms of beat, rhythm, and melody, shoving an artist like Beyoncé, who clearly has achieved crossover appeal, into such a category implies that no matter how successful she becomes, the "essential" qualities linked to her race and gender will always prevent her from achieving the same recognition as White males (who have positioned themselves as the "default" for identity in American society). Additionally, allowing her to win only in those categories as a quasi-consolation prize isolates the Black feminist message of her album to one stereotypical racial category and prevents it from being acknowledged by a wider White audience.
Institutions like the Academy and the Grammy selection committee have proved themselves to be consistently uncomfortable with change and racial difference. There's a reason why African American actors and actresses typically only win Academy Awards for portraying criminals, prostitutes, maids, enslaved people, and villains. The same reason applies to why African American musicians such as Common, Beyoncé, and J. Cole are regularly snubbed or under-rewarded for their musical talent as soon as they begin to take definitive and public stances on issues relating to racism and discrimination. It is unsurprising for people who hold racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist personal beliefs to dislike or condemn those who actively work to dismantle systems of oppression. However, issues arise when these same people are in control of deciding who receives the highest accolades in a particular field and, along with that, national and international recognition. Admittedly, it would be impossible to expect the selection committees of shows such as the Grammys and the Oscars to become institutions that accurately represent and respect the cultural differences that exist in our society today. However, as individuals it is entirely possible to explore these differences ourselves and promote the validity of variation within a cultural, musical, and artistic aesthetic.