Did privilege win Adele a Grammy?
February 16, 2017
Filed under Opinion
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The 59th annual Grammys took place Sunday night and the ceremony left me thinking about the way we all appreciate music. I’m an average, white male who has a hard time seeing every day privilege and even I was able to perceive that the Grammys created another example that privilege is tied to music appreciation and choice.
My favorite band for the past few years has been a group called Modern Baseball who formed in Philadelphia in 2011.
They are everything you could look for in an emo group (and no, I don’t mean the weird phase of emo in the mid-to-late 2000s with My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, but the original emo consisting of nerdy college guys in 90s bands such as American Football, Texas is the Reason and Mineral): gut-wrenching and personal lyrics, memorable guitar riffs and absolutely horrible, nasally-sounding vocalist.
Modern Baseball’s songs detail break-ups, death of family members, general apathy and struggles with mental health. Unfortunately for me, and for many other fans of emo and punk music, the songs we love are heavily entrenched in both white and male privilege.
While Modern Baseball’s two lead singers, Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald, are very outspoken about their support of an inclusive scene and the abolishment of elitist misogynistic thinking and songwriting, the scene as a whole is still primarily comprised of white men in their 20s and 30s.
This is not necessarily the fault of any one person or band and there are huge exceptions to the rule in bands/artists such as PWR BTTM, an amazing queer punk duo, and solo acts Julien Baker and Allison Weiss, but music is created and appreciated by those who can relate to the problems discussed.
Blink-182 has many songs such as “Stay Together for the Kids” and “Adam’s Song” that focus on issues at home and with mental health. These are the types of issues that a primarily white audience can relate to because these are the issues their privilege allows them to focus on.
This is also why someone like myself who has divorced parents, a history of mental health problems and grew up poor (in the definition of white poor, which is something entirely different than the definition of poor when it comes to people of color) has a hard time relating to the music of black artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a masterpiece that I appreciate from a purely musical perspective. It is fresh and funky, while Kendrick proves yet again that he is one of the best rappers on the planet right now. But I cannot stress enough how much I cannot relate to the struggles he discusses in his lyrics.
Kendrick is from Compton, California and has a completely different background than myself. On “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick goes from discussing the way the entertainment industry treats black men (“Wesley’s Theory”), to the self-hatred many black American struggle with because of stereotypes and misrepresentation in our media and culture (“The Blacker the Berry”), to a song that has become an anthem against police brutality plaguing the country (“Alright”).
I don’t listen to Kendrick and other artists like Lupe Fiasco, Beyoncé and Chance the Rapper very often, and background and privilege are a big reason for that.
I believe this difference in world experience (which includes privilege) absolutely plays a role in what transpires at the Grammys every single year.
According to the Recording Academy’s membership website, voting members of the Grammys have relatively deep criteria in order to gain a vote in each year’s categories, including either being previously nominated or having a certain number of record sales.
However, this club of producers, engineers and singers is most likely not the most diverse group of people since most of the nominations over the past 59 years have been white men and women.
One example is when, at the 2012 Grammys, Bon Iver won the Best New Artist Award for his album titled “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” despite releasing their critically acclaimed debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” in 2007. While they still fit the requirements for the category, he beat out hip-hop artists J. Cole and Nicki Minaj, who actually were beginning their known careers.
That same year, Adele won Song of the Year for “Rolling in the Deep”, beating out Kanye West (“All of the Lights”) and Bruno Mars (“Grenade”).
While Adele also won Album of the Year for her album “21”,,that year, the case can be made that her win for Song of the Year follows a trend of certain genres of music winning and being nominated for awards that would be more contested if a broader perspective were involved in the voting process.
Other than Beyoncé’s Song of the Year win for “Single Ladies” in 2010 and Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams and Niles Rodgers being featured artists, no person of color has won Song of the Year or Record of the Year since 2005.
This gets more complicated when we look at the Album of the Year category. The last person to win Album of the Year that wasn’t white was Herbie Hancock in 2008, and the album was a cover of Joni Mitchell songs, not any original songs.
Before that, the late Ray Charles released an album of jazz standards with many featured artists that won in 2005.
The last originally composed album to win the category by a person of color was Outkast in 2004 for “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”
While this is not necessarily some sort of proof of institutional racism in The Recording Academy, it brings up my point that musical choice and appreciation has is controlled by our privilege.
Last year, Taylor Swift’s album “1989,” won Album of the Year over Kendrick Lamar’s aforementioned “To Pimp a Butterfly,” despite “To Pimp a Butterfly” having overwhelmingly better reviews across the internet and tackling social issues effecting a large portion of the United States’ population and still reaching Platinum certification from the Recording Association of America. Not to discredit songs like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” by Swift, but the fact that Kendrick can put out an entire album displaying his fears and hopes of himself and Black America was brave, poetic and ultimately a great collection of songs.
But I think past history (Swift won the Album of the Year award in 2010) and lack of an opinion on social issues by voters caused Swift’s victory.
Which brings us back to this year’s Grammys and the topic of conversation that has been at the forefront of discussion: Adele winning Album of the Year over Beyoncé.
Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade” is in much of the same content as “To Pimp a Butterfly.” She tackles many social issues, which tied into her Super Bowl 50 performance last year where her costume was heavily influenced by the clothes worn by Black Panthers in the 70s, and also speaking about her own experiences as a black woman.
The album has received a large amount of acclaim as an album empowering women around the world, tying greatly into topics in this country such as the Women’s March last month and generally the voices of oppressed and underrepresented groups.
The case can be made, with ease mind you, that Adele deserved the award (I can’t necessarily agree with that since I’ve loved Adele since 2008 when I heard her song “Chasing Pavements” in addition to the fact that we share the same birthday). The drama ensued, however, when Adele received the award and gave a shout out to Beyoncé.
“I can’t possibly accept this award. I’m very humbled and I’m very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé,” Adele said. “The Lemonade album was so monumental, Beyoncé.
It was so monumental, so well thought out and so beautiful and soul-bearing and we all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see and we appreciate that.”
Adele seems to be in the group of people that understands how important Beyoncé’s music was this past year, and despite putting out a great album herself, Adele knew how “Lemonade” made her and millions of other women feel.
These groups include Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé, who tweeted Monday the lack of success black artists have had at the Grammys.
“There have only been two black winners in the last 20 years for album of the year,” Knowles said. “There have been over 200 black artists who have performed.”
Knowles even took it a step further by saying that there should be a movement to create a larger establishment for underrepresented artists.
“Create your own committees, build your own institutions,” Knowles said. “Give your friends awards, award yourself, and be the gold you wanna hold my g’s.”
The purpose of music is to make us feel something, to express emotion from the human experience, and for better or for worse our experiences have an impact on the music we listen to and appreciate.
By each person not acknowledging their privilege, the music industry (and the Recording Academy) will continue to be homogeneous and downplay the significance of music to groups that they don’t share similarities with.