It’s hard to say precisely what the event of the 56th Grammys was—the ceremony or its online afterlife. Like many, I ignored the gilded nausea of the three-and-a-half hour awards show, but I couldn’t avoid the influx of outraged opinion pieces that each refresh brought to my screen. Hyperlinks punctuated my evening and begged me to grit my teeth after white hip-pop superstar Macklemore’s The Heist defeated Kendrick Lamar’s undisputed classic good kid, m.A.A.d city for Best Rap Album. Each article invoked some shocked outrage at an awards show long recognized for being out of touch. As often happens, each piece to decry the injustice of the Grammys heaped press on the supposed culprits: “Daft Punk, Macklemore, and other white people triumph at the deceptively conservative awards;” “Was Macklemore’s apology to Lamar too little?”
I watched the actual event––well, the seven minutes in which Macklemore performed “Same Love,” his marriage equality anthem––several hours after I waded through the vitriolic responses that had piled up in my news feed. I expected to see the ever-confident Macklemore with his slice-of-bread haircut in messianic white robes on the crystal peaks of Mount Privilege, granting the gay community permission to finally accept itself.
But the disparity between the event and its outraged coverage became clear as I watched the clip. Macklemore performed his bombastic yet positive song (surely its intentions may be questionable, but can we at least grant positive?) in front of white lights depicting a wedding chapel. Queen Latifah married 33 couples in the audience. Madonna came out in a bridal cowboy outfit, briefly imitating Madonna. It was grand, as the Grammys have always been. Still, plenty of the critiques confused me: “But the mass marriage that took place to Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ and Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart’ towards the end of the night Sunday wasn’t really for the people getting hitched. They were props,” writes The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber. “It says something that the real stars of the moment—the people committing to love another for eternity—were given only a few, fleeting moments on camera. It was their day, but it wasn’t their show.” I refuse to believe that anyone (including the newlyweds) thought that these couples, getting married at an awards show for pop music during a performance on national television of one the year’s biggest songs, were the stars of the show. I don’t think Kornhaber’s off in citing this performance as chance for the “academy members…to announce themselves as good people,” but it seems odd to label these people who chose to get married in a commercial semi-wedding on TV as silenced or oppressed by Macklemore or the Grammys.
Why are we shocked and outraged that an awards show made a huge deal out of a vaguely progressive, self-serving political alignment? Why do we beg the Grammys to align itself with our music taste, our supposed forward-thinkingness, when the music culture of late has built itself around “insider” knowledge of “underground” artists as the record industry languishes? Why all these surprised damnations, offended that the Grammys don’t represent our ideals?
These publications have turned the Grammys into a perfect microcosm for all of America’s inequalities. As the new sensationalists populate every corner of the Internet with a diatribe, or a didactic response to some other diatribe, I wonder why mine is a generation accused of too much irony. Isn’t this the exact opposite? We have no distance from any situation, no context. We are compelled to wag our fingers along with the bodiless mob, afraid to voice any nuance. When Macklemore wins Best Rap Album, we loudly lament his privilege, his self-righteousness, his haircut. At no point do we consider an alternative––that this is the Grammys, and although it’s a good thing to acknowledge and discuss, in asking the Grammys to “reform” itself, we are only begging its anachronistic view of music culture to remain relevant. It’s well documented that the Grammys is a celebration of commercial success in the industry that ignores rap, hard rock, classical music, and other genres that don’t sit in the middle of mainstream culture. Why do we want to skip hand-in-hand with the Grammys, satisfied that finally we can call the most commercial aspect of the record industry our best friend? Fader editor-in-chief Matthew Schnipper puts it best: “Rallying against the Grammys being outdated is like telling a Catholic school it’s behind the times to continue ignoring evolution. There are other schools.” It’s a certain sort of reactionary who demands the Grammys get “with it;” who wants the music industry’s most masturbatory evening to serve as music’s State of the Union?
You may ask, “What do you mean by sensationalism? Wasn’t that Grammys the evening when imperialist Macklemore robbed Kendrick Lamar of an award in plain sight? Are the Grammys not a metonym of America’s hegemonic legacy? Is it not the most important evening of the year, second only to the Superbowl?” Buzzfeed, Slate, Upworthy, Salon, Gawker, Jezebel—these are your new sensationalists. Some cater to politics, some to cat lists, but they all taste the same. Diluted liberal agendas derived of argument and set to pictures and captions, to inflammatory headlines. We hold this as a cultural axiom: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. What happens when the solution becomes problematic?
Problems like appropriation and privilege are losing the earnest and necessary discourse they deserve. Publicity-pandering articles reduce anything and everything to the same noncommittal support of social issues—support that requires no more than a mouse click. Upworthy shouts from one corner, “I wonder if anyone that rich thinks, ‘Yeah, I need all this money. All. Of. It.’” Buzzfeed screams back, “17 Deplorable Examples of White Privilege,” with links to adorably annoying memes of Justin Bieber. They assume agreement on the part of their readers and therefore feel no need to evidence an argument. That’s not to say that every article to tackle white privilege or inequality need be a dissertation or a humorless account of oppression. But when such important discussions receive the same caption-picture reduction perfect for sharing kittens that look like your favorite professor or 12 reasons you and your BFF are soulmates (1. You both breathe air! 2. You’re made of carbon!), it feels like an injustice, not a conversation.
In such a climate, how could one comment on Macklemore? I refuse to defend or criticize him. Have I not earned my apathy, my reluctance to slip into the news cycle’s daily cacophony? Let’s instead recognize that the immediate online inflammation is a symptom of how our media functions when confronted with its immediate prey. These publications are rewriting the history of cultural appropriation in a reductive way that actual belittles some of the best, collaborative qualities of the music world. At a distance, it may seem as if the media is finally grappling with racial politics in culture. But many of these articles treat cultural appropriation so simply that they perpetuate the inequalities they purport to disrupt, such as the tokenization of black musicians.
“Daft Punk’s jam on ‘Get Lucky’ with Pharell, guitarist Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Wonder…was another peak,” Slate music editor Carl Wilson writes in “The Same Loves: white people win again at the Grammys.” “The French duo became the night’s biggest winners, taking home both Record and Album of the Year. But while this was a relatively progressive choice by Grammys standards… it still amounted to anointing a veteran white group playing retro-styled black dance music, with African-Americans as side musicians.”
Here, Wilson gets away with calling three of the most respected figures in the music industry “side musicians” under the guise of advancing a dialogue on cultural appropriation. Stevie, Pharell, and Nile become incarnations of the same point with no individual characteristics, no voices. Side musician Stevie Wonder has more Grammys than any other male solo artist. Ubiquitous hit machine Pharell won as many Grammys as Macklemore this year—yet Pharell is sidelined. Nile Rodgers helped to found the genre Daft Punk intended to evoke on 2013’s Random Access Memories, yet Wilson reduces his much-publicized impact on their album, his signature syncopated, slinky guitar lines, to his skin color—and not to the fact that he is a father of the style. Wilson’s reduction is made laughable by the fact that Rodgers and Pharell accepted the award while Daft Punk, the world’s most famous faceless robot duo, stood by in silence. Wilson is not alone in calling out Daft Punk; The Atlantic’s Kornhaber also sounded the alarm: “As more than one person pointed out on Twitter, combined with the Daft Punk win, it’s easy to come away thinking the Grammys likes black music so long as it’s made by white people.” Another backwards assumption—Rodgers and Pharell are heavily featured on the song, so why is it a song “made by white people”? The riff is signature Nile. The hook is signature Pharell. The music world increasingly emphasizes collaboration in the age of the remix, so what’s the take away here? Daft Punk, stay away from black musicians, for fear the Internet will accuse you of cultural appropriation? Record the song on your own, isolated from the musicians who influenced you? A terrifying conclusion to the year’s catchiest song.
Part of the problem lies in the way Wilson and Kornhaber take an important and underplayed issue––that African-Americans are often treated as ornaments for the white groups they support, that they are used to convince us we have rectified the wrongs of racism while their strategic deployment to comfort white society prevents a deeper discussion on race––and misapply it so tactlessly that they completely nullify the careers of these three musicians. As if that weren’t enough, these so-called music critics are making a good argument for a music industry without dialogue or cross-pollination of genres. That sounds surprisingly similar to the music world the Grammys would want.
We need a more nuanced understanding of cultural appropriation when discussing music, because to convert the term into a buzzword is a self-defeating disservice. It’s certainly a more difficult task, but one that doesn’t silence mega stars like Stevie Wonder to the role of side musician. The challenge is to understand not just how white culture has adopted a figure like Wonder as an easily digestible black figure, one who entertains, but also how Wonder skillfully navigated this world in order to elevate himself to a rare group of musical elites. Some may use his success to convince themselves that racism has no bearing on the entertainment industry, but can we at least give him the agency to acknowledge that he’s achieved more than almost any other musician in terms of stature, exposure, and commercial success, in an industry where the odds are stacked against him?
Yet the cycle of outrage batters on. This is a discourse without distance, under the assumption that the Grammys are everything to music culture, and that Macklemore’s win had nothing to do with anything but race instead of a nuanced amalgamation of commercial success and industry dynamics that heavily involve race. These damnations will pour in when we give the Grammys the cultural credence it doesn’t merit, when we prioritize page views and volume over quality and conversation. It’s these reactions that in their call to arms blind us to the assumptions or misunderstandings on which they are based. When we demand that Macklemore “fix” this situation––and we understand that Macklemore has benefitted from a racially distorted record industry in which he plays a minuscule role, in all reality––aren’t we confounding this very privilege? His popularity has undoubtedly increased thanks to this controversy, and even more so to those who demand that he fix all the problems that allow him to receive more visibility than someone like Kendrick Lamar. Let’s not give this guy the agency to save the music world. He doesn’t have it. You are wrapping him in his messianic robes. Let’s not ask that corporate culture learn to understand us, whoever we are. If the Internet has allowed for a democratization of media, let’s not demand that the traditional corporate forces such as the record industry be progressive. Give us back our distance, our eye rolls, our ability to denounce something as irrelevant.
Can we learn to discuss appropriation without giving the most press to the offenders? Kendrick Lamar lost at an awards show, and then he lost his voice, drowned out by the chorus of the Macklemoralists. And seriously, enough with the Grammys. It’s Oscar season.
GREG NISSAN B’15 is a terrifying conclusion to the year’s catchiest song.