“In reality, I actually wanted to participate in honoring Prince on the show, but then I figured my best tribute to that man’s legacy would be to continue to be myself out here and to be successful.” That’s Frank Ocean, speaking out in an epic, all-caps Tumblr post against Ken Ehrlich, the Grammys’ producer who condescendingly dismissed the singer’s decision to skip this year’s awards ceremony. He goes on, “Winning a TV award doesn’t christen me successful… I am young, black, gifted and independent. That’s my tribute.” The tirade had the world of music blogs questioning whether Frank had legitimately cursed this year’s Grammys, a thesis easily supported by the content of the show itself.
If nothing else, 2016 proved to be a revitalizing year for pop music, generating more great albums than the Sun’s Arts staff could possibly hope to cover. One might have wistfully dreamt, then, that an ounce of that ingenuity would find itself reflected in the bloated, corporate pageantry of the music industry’s “big night.” Instead, we got James Corden falling down a flight of stairs, James Corden pretending to rap (I blame Hamilton for that one), James Corden sheepishly promoting Carpool Karaoke and Beyoncé mercifully upstaging all of those things. Overall, the evening provided a mind-numbing reminder that, especially in a rapidly changing era of pop culture, institutions like the Grammys remain invariably slow in their response to progress.
Now, back to Beyoncé. Individual artists managed to shine through the broadcast’s proceedings, proving that the Grammy’s producers at least try to stay aware of who’s popular. Following the recent earth-shattering announcement that she is pregnant with not one, but two future Knowles-Carters, Beyoncé came through with a performance that played heavily on themes of motherhood. Some sort of technical wizardry even allowed her to multiply onstage, creating a show-stopping, Internet-breaking effect that you’ll have to see for yourself. Conveniently, the performance also served as an excuse to promote “Sandcastles” and “Love Drought,” two of the decidedly less popular tracks on last year’s Lemonade. Later in the evening, Beyoncé provided one of the show’s best political manifestos, turning an acceptance speech for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” (how is that a category?) into a message of giving voice to the historically silenced.
Elsewhere, Chance the Rapper showed up to highlight some of the Grammys’ most obvious contradictions. On Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” the 23-year old emcee famously rapped, “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammys,” a reference to the award show’s rule barring free releases from competition. A few months later, Chance released Coloring Book as an Apple Music exclusive, and the Grammy committee changed its rules to accommodate streaming-only releases. At the time, it felt like a major victory for independent artists, championed by one of the most widely loved figures currently making music. But in the context of a broadcast that saw Adele’s 25 take home top honors over Lemonade, Chance’s victories felt more like a concession on the part of an outdated institution reluctant to change. Even if the step was in the right direction, its motivations rang hollow. Chance, after all, has succeeded as an independent artist in spite of the industry represented by the Grammys, not because of it. Still, the man himself deserves credit for the most over-the-top (and, dare I say, mildly obnoxious?) acceptance speech of the evening, culminating in his declaration, “I claim this victory in the name of the Lord!”
At risk of stating the obvious, the Grammys don’t matter. They skip over most of the best music being made and function primarily as the industry’s excuse to trot out a lot of celebrities who do not particularly want to be there. The fact that Kanye, Frank (what event matters without him?), Drake and Taylor Swift skipped the show entirely speaks to whom it actually services. As further evidence of the Grammys’ irrelevance to the zeitgeist, David Bowie won more awards last night than he did in his entire lifetime of making music. The list of complaints can go on, but ultimately the point is that the Grammys present – and export to other parts of the world – a false, outdated conception of American pop culture. Here’s to hoping the Oscars can do a little better.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.