Opinion: Beck vs. Beyoncé—Racism And Sexism At The Grammys

By Emily Scherzinger

If you haven’t heard about the Beck vs. Beyoncé Grammys fiasco, then you’re living under a rock. For those of you that haven’t been on the Internet (or listened to the radio, or watched TV) since Sunday night, Beck’s Morning Phase won the coveted Album of the Year award, beating out X by Ed Sheeran, In The Lonely Hour by Sam Smith, Girl by Pharrell Williams, and Beyoncé’s self-titled album, causing a certifiably riotous uproar.

The problem is not so much with Beck’s album — by all accounts, Morning Phase is a solid piece of work in the artist’s discography. Lyrically, it’s beautiful; musically, it demonstrates a clear growth within the context of his career. There is no denying that Morning Phase is a good album.

The problem lies with the reaction to Beck’s win. Audiences were clearly divided into two camps — either you were pro-Beyoncé, or you were pro-Beck. Buzzfeed articles bounced across my Facebook news feed that detailed “41 albums that should’ve won,” or “5 reasons why Beck beat Beyoncé.” In the pro-Beyoncé camp, some fans didn’t even know who Beck was. In the pro-Beck camp, fans celebrated Beck’s win over Beyoncé’s “trash.” There was even an all-out war on Beck’s Wikipedia page from both parties. Ultimately, the reactions from both sides of the fight were childish and ridiculous — I think we can all agree to that. It’s just an award, guys. You weren’t the one to win or lose. Don’t take it so personally.

Album art for Morning Phase

Album art for Morning Phase

In essence, people are denigrating Beyoncé’s self-titled album for a multitude of reasons: it’s basic pop music, while Beck makes soulful indie tunes; there were too many writers on her album to even call it ‘hers,’ while Beck was the sole writer on Morning Phase; all she does is sing, while Beck plays a multitude of instruments; her lyrics are simple, while Beck’s are more poetic.

Some of these arguments may seem credible on the surface, but there’s a sinister underbelly to this war between Beyoncé and Beck that comes to light time and time again: the denigration of music made by women, and of black hip-hop and R&B.

Annie Oakley famously said, “When a man hits a target, they call him a marksman. When I hit it, they call it a trick.” Annie got it right, because that’s the case with the rest of the world. This is confirmed in the response to work of writer and filmmaker Miranda July, who is often described as “quirky.” July “writes about intimate female lives — huge terrors, profound experiences — which are often ignored because the voice she writes in is…girly,” suggests Eva Wiseman. “Loneliness is not trivial. Death is not cute.”

So why is art produced by women treated in this manner? In the music sphere, when a man writes a song, it can be heralded as a beautiful work of genius — just look at Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. However, when a woman writes a song, it is — depending on the genre — cute, adorable, quirky, slutty, or any other adjective that can discredit the work of an entire population solely based on their gender.

For example, “Pretty Hurts,” the first song off Beyoncé, written by Beyoncé in collaboration with Ammo and Sia, chronicles the destructive nature of the world’s obsession with beauty on girls’ psyches and bodies. In the music video, inspired by her life before her music career, which was entirely swallowed up by beauty pageants, Beyoncé even goes so far as to depict the prevalence of bulimia.

It’s in this way that, when Beyoncé sings, “Are you happy with yourself?” at the end of the song, she’s already hit one of the most poignant moments in the album. This is a question that every girl asks herself at least once within her lifetime — “Are you happy with yourself for eating so much?” “Are you happy with yourself for how ugly you look?” “Are you happy with yourself for not being the same size as all the other girls?” We live in a culture that metaphorically (and literally) beats up women and girls. To hear this plight written into a song so perfectly is something incredible that relates specifically to women.

Album art for Beyoncé

Album art for Beyoncé

Beyoncé oscillates within this album from vulnerability and perfectionist complexes to sexually assertive woman (“Partition”), to fierce feminist (“***Flawless”), to love-struck girl (“XO”), to first-time mom (“Blue”). She demonstrates so many aspects of the female experience that are almost entirely silenced within the public sphere. This is an experimental cause — women aren’t really represented within music beyond songs that detail women in love, or songs that place women in the position of the object of a man’s affections. To have an entire album that is dedicated to women’s experiences (that doesn’t solely revolve around a lover) is astoundingly different and really does deserve more credit.

Many other shots against Beyoncé’s album were made in relation to its artistry. Right after the awards ceremony, Kanye West was caught by E! for an interview, and he said, “Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé”. Soon after, Michael McDonald, one of the Doobie Brothers and five-time Grammy winner, said, “When Kanye gets to a point where he can actually put a couple of notes together either vocally or two bars of valid music playing an instrument, then he might have a right to criticize somebody else.” He then went on to point to Beck as being a true musician, as “[h]e plays instruments, many instruments. He can make his own record without having a fleet of computer operators onboard.”

Since when has having a “fleet of computer operators onboard” been a bad thing? As Roland Pemberton (AKA Cadence Weapon) wrote in his lengthy open letter, “I wonder if [McDonald] has a problem with the cheques he cashes from “Regulate,” a track made by computer operator Warren G that samples his song “I Keep Forgettin’.””

McDonald’s outdated mindset is not only hypocritical, but it ignores entire genres of music. Hip-hop and rap are genres that include a lot of computer-generated effects. They require sampling, production, and other modes of making music with technology that should not take away from it as a form of art. Just because Kanye, Beyoncé, and many other artists don’t play guitar on their record does not mean that they make “invalid” music.

Within Western culture, we are taught to see men with guitars and soulful songs as the height of musical artistry, a mindset known as rockism. Rockism involves “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video.” But here’s the problem: rockism presents “not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.” This usually comes in the form of powerful white men sitting in record label offices, or those awkward old dudes at family reunions that insist that your “youthful” music is nothing compared to the “legends” of their day, like Springsteen or McCartney. You know the type.

Music can be made with more than just a guitar and deep lyrics, and more than just white dudes can make it. Beyoncé’s album includes elements of the burgeoning ratchet, drill, and trap music scenes, all of which are entrenched in technology, but are also entrenched in race politics. Hip-hop is an intensely racialized genre that may not produce music that sounds like the highest form of musical art in white culture, but this does not make it “invalid.” To say so is to engage in racist systems within the music industry.

So, yes, Beck’s Morning Phase is a great album, but so is Beyoncé’s self-titled album. I am not trying to argue that Beyoncé should have won out over Beck. But what I am arguing is that there are layers of systemic sexism and racism within the Grammys (and the music industry as a whole) that make it a lot harder for black artists, as well as female artists (and especially black female artists), to receive the proper accolades for their albums. So don’t call Beyoncé’s album “trash,” denigrate it for its “simple” lyrics, or for its collaborative nature — there is always much more going on beneath the surface of things than you realize. Take some time to look.

2 Responses to “Opinion: Beck vs. Beyoncé—Racism And Sexism At The Grammys”
  1. Jimmy Rime says:

    The denigration of Beyonce’s music wouldn’t have happened if Kanye didn’t drop this statement:

    “Beck needs to respect real artistry and give his award to Beyonce”

    You understand what that implies right? That Beck isn’t a real artist at all and Beyonce is. Which is pretty damn ridiculous, I’m sure you can agree. There’s a lot of racism and sexism in the music industry. But for this particular situation, I don’t think that has anything do with it. It’s all because of that one statement by Kanye. Nobody was gonna sit around and compare the two until he dropped that line.

    Racism and sexism didn’t do this. Kanye West did.

  2. RC says:

    This was bullshit. Beyonce lost so you cry racism and sexism?

    “But what I am arguing is that there are layers of systemic sexism and racism within the Grammys (and the music industry as a whole) that make it a lot harder for black artists, as well as female artists (and especially black female artists), to receive the proper accolades for their albums.”

    I don’t think thats the case at all. It’s the Grammys, where the top nomination is only limited to 5 albums. There are so many albums and artists that didn’t receive the proper accolades, black, white etc.

    Beyonce already has 20 and Beck was long overdue to for a grammy since the 90s

    At least she was nominated again

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