Monday, February 9, 2015

The Real Reason Why Beyonce Didn't Win Album of the Year

After the debacle that was the 2015 Oscar nominations, in which POC-centric movies such as Belle and Black or White were denied nominations for Best Picture in favor of the always scintillating Middle Class Heterosexual White Male Makes a Privileged Commentary on His Society, many of us were hoping that the Grammys would offer the unbiased recognition of diverse talent the Oscars so staunchly avoids.

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.


  1. Hey Amanda, I really loved your last article! It was very well researched, but I wanted to address a couple of things outside of the public eye
    1. While I do agree that Eminem's lyrics are offensive, the Grammy's have stated that their awards are artistic and not political or social (Buju Banton's wins for his homophobic content). I do not agree with this, but it does not surprise me that Eminem won. Message and content aside, he is one of the strongest rappers of our generation. I do agree that Common was his only serious competition.
    2. The Grammy's have stated that they do not factor commercial success in their selections (haha) but I'll take their word for it. So the mainstream success of Beyonce and Janet Jackson, in theory, should not have helped their chances. I will say that Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel) had some of his best work in Graceland. Bob Dylan's peak work was Time Out of Mind. Not to mention that Time out of mind also beat Radiohead's OK Computer (often ranked one of the best albums of all time), so Janet Jackson was not the only snub of that year.
    3. There are two ways to make a good album. Write the songs with a very unified sound and style, so the listener is taken on an uninterrupted journey (Mumford and Sons Babel, Lorde Pure Heroine). The other way is to make a very diverse album with many different styles incorporated throughout (Coldplay Viva La Vida, Justin Timberlake 20/20 Experience). The Grammys have historically favored the former (Norah Jones Come Away With Me, Herbie Hancock, The Joni Letters) over the latter. If they judged this year's nominees by the same standard, than Beck had a better chance of winning than Beyonce. Keep in mind that Beyonce did not even win in her own category (Urban/Contemporary) while Beck did. However I do think that Beyonce was Beck's only real competition this year and that she produced a great album.
    4. I personally reject the notion of genres, and artists are frequently put in these boxes come Grammy season. Kanye West has won over 20 Grammys, all in genre specific categories. The solution is either to have fewer distinctions or to have more. The issue with fewer is the saturation of the music market. Without genre specific categories, less popular artists are up against artists with crossover success, without any awards they can keep for themselves. Of the album of the year nominees, all except ed sheeran went home with their own grammys, which would not have happened had genre specific categories been non existent.
    5. I agree that award ceremonies frequently undermine african americans and racial minorites. However the argument can be made in both directions. Oscars have been given to 12 years a Slave and Crash but not to Selma. Emmys have been given to Bill Cosby but not to The Wire, Tonys have been given to Black actors but rarely black playwrights and never black composers. Grammys have been kept from Kanye West, Beyonce, and Common, but given to Lauryn Hill and OutKast. The line is very thin because for every won who lost because of their race someone can make the argument that they would only win because of their race.
    6. How I interpret award ceremonies is like squares and rectangles. All the winners deserve to win, but not everyone who deserves to win will win. The same goes for nominations.
    7. I will say that you're article was very well researched, and most of the peers that I have had this argument with have not had the knowledge and information that you have. I really enjoy reading your blogs and I sincerely hope you keep writing them!

  2. this was so well-written and really interesting to think about! you made some great points and made me think of things I hadn't yet regarding the Grammys.

    1. Vett,
      Thank you for your comment! And yes, while race is not the only factor that goes into deciding who receives these awards, the cultural history of race and the connotations that we attach to each race are critical to understanding these trends.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I really enjoyed your article, Amanda. You brought forth some really interesting thoughts. Beyonce's album was Black, feminist, sexual, and a masterpiece, and people are mistaken if they don't believe that race/gender are not factors that apply to the voting of these awards. I wrote an article about the Album of the Year category, and I would love your opinion.

    1. Travis,
      Thanks for commenting! I actually just read your article, and you also brought up some very interesting points about how Beyonce's album actually sounds to the ears of the Grammy selection committee and how her sound matches up (or rather, does not match up) to previous winners. I was particularly drawn to your argument of Babel and Fearless winning AOTY because while both albums have crossover appeal, they retained some country or bluegrass roots, which are genres that have been historically categorized as being more palatable to White Western tastes than R&B or Rap.

  6. A thoroughly amazing read (as usual)!

    I can't begin to express the joy I feel whilst reading your brilliantly crafted, socially enlightening, & brutally honest "exposés".

    You tirelessly expound the blatant injustices & overt hypocrisies. The terrible reality festering beneath a
    "(white) flesh-tone" bandage is all that much more close to being revealed because of your words.

    Your blog (and a few rarefied others) give me such hope for our planet, our World, our only HOME.

    You are on the GOOD side, a champion of truth and justice, & I have a feeling that GOOD will ultimately prevail!

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! Although it may not always be easy, I truly do think it is important to acknowledge inequalities in our society in the hope that they will ultimately be removed from our culture altogether.