Beyoncé, The Grammys And The Guitar Myth

Illustration: GoTTKGo

I didn’t watch The Grammys all the way through. I know it’s “music’s biggest night” but most of the broadcast is not about the music I love. And watching heroes like Metallica give birth to the mutant spawn of shotgun weddings with people like Lady Gaga is just not necessary.

There’s also the fact that there are so many good shows on Sunday night that we need to watch at least one of them in real time or risk falling hopelessly behind. So I changed the channel and sunk in to one of the best episodes yet of The Young Pope.

But even without watching the whole thing, I kept in the loop of the cultural conversation around the event, both on Twitter as it happened and then via the Monday morning quarterbacking of my friends on Facebook, as well as estimable critics like Tom Hawking and Greg Kot.

So I was aware of the brouhaha about whether Beyoncé should have won the Record Of The Year award over Adele. Was #grammysowhite that the voting body couldn’t see the superiority of Lemonade to 25? From my point of view, that seemed less the issue than the fact that you had two huge albums, both cultural phenomena in their own ways, and the simpler, more traditional iteration of pop garnered more votes. Even in the success-driven confines of the RIAA membership there is subjectivity and perhaps the comfort food of Adele’s plastic soul was what more people needed than the sometimes incendiary personal and political examinations Beyoncé was dishing up.

The commenter said something along the lines of “But can she play guitar?” My reply: “Could Frank Sinatra play guitar?”

But then I spotted a comment on Facebook that gave me pause and led me to believe that it was possible that there was a fundamental misunderstanding about what goes into making a record like Lemonade, or maybe records in general. The commenter said some along the lines of “But can she play guitar?” My first response was “Could Frank Sinatra play guitar?” To which he put forth a rejoinder about how “it’s hard to figure out how talented an R&B singer is under all the layers of production, yada, yada, and Dave Grohl plays guitar so you know exactly what he’s doing, and all these people say they were inspired by Lemonade but I can’t see any social movements that resulted from the album so what exactly were they inspired to do, anyway?”

Now I was annoyed. So I came back at him with this slightly overheated screed:

“Look, I don’t even like Beyoncé, but it’s not because she doesn’t fit some “rockist” idea of what “talent” is. Did any of The Temptations play an instrument? Not as far as I know, but without them “Ball Of Confusion” would have just been a breakbeat and “My Girl” would have been a jazzy instrumental. Beyoncé is a singer. She steps up to the microphone and sings songs using a voice which many people identify as a signature sound of our age, even if you, me, and your mother don’t like it. She is also the executive producer on the album, which means that every note that you hear has been given her approval. Making art, whether popular or fine, is about making decisions and having the final say. It is her name on the album and her reputation stands or falls on what it sounds like, whether it’s Jack White’s guitar (another overrated icon of our age) or an obscure Brazilian psych record that one of her producers found on Discogs…

“I brought up Frank Sinatra because he relied on a cavalcade of songwriters, from Irving Berlin to Tom Jobim to The Beatles, without whom he would not have had a word or a melody to grace with his miraculous voice, and a passel of arrangers (and the 100s of musicians they hired), without whom he would have had only silence to sing over. And, like him or not, Sinatra is one of the most acclaimed and important artists of our time on earth. Maybe 50 years from now I’ll look like a retrograde idiot for not liking Beyoncé and she will be held in the same regard as Sinatra—but if she isn’t, it won’t be for the reasons you suggest. It will be for the simple fact that (in my opinion) she is self-absorbed, artistically shallow, and a mannered singer. As for inspiration, some people need fucking inspiration just to get out of bed in this benighted world of ours. Maybe that’s what they’re getting out of Lemonade and it certainly isn’t my job (or yours) to tell them what to do with the inspiration they’re getting from a piece of art. P.S. Dave Grohl sucks harder than Beyoncé (except as a drummer).”

Yes, I typed all of that into my phone on the D Train—I was that exercised. If I hadn’t rushed to hit Post for fear of losing WiFi in the tunnel I would have added a few words about the inspiration and validation Lemonade and the video for “Formation,” with its submerged police cars, gave to Black Lives Matter—one of the most important social movements of our time. When Beyoncé put Black Panther–like figures on the field at the Super Bowl, a different kind of Monday morning quarterbacking occurred, indicating she had struck a nerve with those uncomfortable with images of African-American power, even leading to police boycotts of her shows. Simultaneously, she provided crucial reinforcement to those marching in the streets protesting unprovoked police shootings.

A day or two later, I caught the episode of Song Exploder featuring Solange, Beyoncé’s far more interesting younger sister, breaking down Cranes In The Sky from her album A Seat At The Table. Although Solange was not featured on the broadcast (a mistake I doubt they will make again) this brilliant, beautiful, complex song happened to win a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Once you listen to the podcast, which details the artistic journey over multiple years and cities that it took to make the song, you might find the title of her prize slightly ridiculous. Yes, there are performances at the heart of “Cranes In Sky”—Solange’s vocals, Raphael Saadiq’s bass playing, etc.—but the final product is a layered work of art, far beyond a mere “performance.” At least she’s starting to get more recognition as A Seat At The Table was a breakthrough album.

Needless to say, I shared the podcast on the comment thread, suggesting that people could learn a little about record making in the 21st century (and in general). It seems like Carlos Santana should give it a listen as well, although he’s made a few records himself.

If you read my blog you know I love my guitars, but I’m also enthralled with the multifarious approaches available to musicians when it comes to creating things. I don’t care if there are 20 credits on a song or just one; the final product stands or falls on its own merits. I would rather someone say, “I don’t like Beyoncé because it doesn’t move me body or soul,” than criticize it based on the process she used to realize her intentions. That sort of thinking died a quick death in 1917 the moment Marcel Duchamp signed his name “R. Mutt” on a urinal and hired a man with a van to drop it off at Alfred Stieglitz’s studio.

I’ve probably said enough at this point, so I’ll end with Robert Reich’s classic sign-off:

…What do you think?


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