On Feb. 15, Kendrick Lamar was unforgivably robbed of the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for his superbly produced, lyrically genius, dialogue-inspiring and arresting political concept album To Pimp A Butterfly, which will indisputably be remembered as one of the greatest American hip-hop albums of all time. Also on Feb. 15, Taylor Swift, the most popular woman in the world, deservingly walked off the stage with the Album of the Year Grammy for her immaculately crafted and super-cherished pop opus 1989, to the validation and joy of fan-people everywhere.
I find both of these conclusions about what happened at the 2016 Grammy Awards to be equally plausible, and this absurdity is what I think of as the Kendrick-Taylor paradox.
To Pimp A Butterfly, by almost universal critical consensus, is a revolutionary and masterful piece of music, topping best-of-year lists across the Internet. It’s an album with expansive and not-yet-totally understood impact: offering a full-tilt eulogy of Black experiences in America, and both reacting to and propelling a cultural movement of centralizing Black voices. “Alright” has become a Black Lives Matter anthem, and even President Obama has spoken of Butterfly’s singularity and importance. Rewarding an album of that cultural girth and significance would have been a progressive and critically fashionable move on the part of the Grammys. It seemed that the album was just too damn good — and praised — to fail. So how the hell did we end up watching Taylor give Kendrick a conciliatory hug on her wobbly way up to the stage last Sunday?
The answer is: because no fewer than seven out of the 13 songs on 1989 have rotated through Billboard’s top single spot, while the album itself lingered at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart for 10 consecutive weeks. This makes Swift the only woman besides Whitney Houston to ever accomplish such a milestone of ungodly popularity, and scored her an invite to the elite circle of artists to have had multiple albums spend 10 weeks at No. 1, including (besides her and Houston), The Beatles, The Monkees, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio and Henry Mancini. The first Swift pure-pop (non-country) album has seen colossal sales (already outselling Red, Speak Now and Fearless, which have all been on sale for at least two and a half years) and has garnered its own set of gushing reviews. You could say that that sheer magnitude of love, lust and unrestrained enjoyment of a piece of music is a musical event in itself — speaking to a certain album belovability x-factor that matches it, at least commercially speaking, with Abbey Road and Whitney. No matter what there is to say about Butterfly, 1989 has a shrine of popularity that can’t be ignored. And isn’t there some kind of progressive justice in rewarding the music that people love and listen to?
So the paradox is this: how can anyone argue that Kendrick shouldn’t have won? And simultaneously, how anyone deny the credibility of Taylor’s win?
For you, either of the first two sentences in this article might be easily conclusive about the events of the 2016 Grammy Awards. However, I find the question of what we expect award ceremonies like the Grammys to reward and recognize, at least complicated, if not unanswerable.
Of course, the best album of the year is not defined solely by its popularity and profitability. If that was the case, we could fire the circus of folks behind the little white envelopes and just have a big party for the top-selling album of the year. With the rubric of honoring “artistic achievement,” “technical proficiency” and “overall excellence” — profoundly vague and subjective criteria — in mind, To Pimp A Butterfly seems the obvious choice. But I’m not prepared to say there isn’t a very serious and compelling “artistic achievement” and “excellence” in musically gratifying and bringing pleasure to legions of average American listeners. Phenomenal popularity, while it can be quantified in a capitalist consumer-driven music industry, cannot be dismissed as merely that.
However, the situation of race in the marketplace of award shows is something that has to be addressed. The ultimate fact that the Grammys are dismissive of hip hop (only officially recognizing it as a genre since 1996), white, stodgy as hell, and selectively rewarding of Black music (and music significant to Black Americans) when it’s palatable for white people is a potentially deciding factor in where you stand in the Kendrick-Taylor debate.
Unlike the question of the factualism of Kendrick’s deservingness, what is uncomplicated about the Grammys is that Kendrick is the latest in a long line of Black artists (including, notoriously, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, Beyoncé again, Kanye West, Kanye again, and Alicia Keys) who have controversially lost Album of the Year to white contemporaries. The last hip-hop album, and the last Black artist (under 70 and excluding the essential lifetime achievement win of Ray Charles in 2005) to win Album of the Year was OutKast in 2004, despite the fact that the last 12 years are a period of musical history in which hip-hop as a genre was evolving in provocative and exciting ways that (at least mainstream) rock and other genres simply were not. This trend, parallel but not identical to that of the Oscars, is similarly the result of the same limits of the experiences and subjectivities of those casting the votes.
While Kendrick’s loss speaks deeply to the Grammys’ race problem, what happened this year wasn’t black and white in the slightest. It also speaks shrewdly the intersecting brawls of tension between fluid sets of dominants and underdogs, establishment candidates and outsiders, the polished and the raw, critical or cultural treasures, and popular darlings. This glutinous web, ever so stickily at play in the Taylor-Kendrick paradox, gets at the futility that is the Grammy Awards Ceremony. Knowing that the Grammys team is flailing around in this web trying to come to some sort of “fair” conclusion, it makes sense that they fail every time.
I have no idea how the members of the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences make their choices. I don’t know if there were shouting matches, fistfights, lobbyists, factionalism and ultimately a populist coup d’etat, but I hope so. Because if there were ever two albums that more profoundly crystallized the competing interests of critics and mass consumers, they were those of this Grammy match-up.
Ultimately, if you don’t buy the complicatedness of the situation, and you’re still furious over Kendrick’s loss for any of the profoundly compelling reasons there are to be — don’t worry too much, because award shows don’t write the real history, we do.
Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected]