There are plenty of fair complaints from a logistical standpoint about why it’s completely ridiculous Taylor Swift’s 1989 won the 2016 Grammy for Album of the Year, such as that it came out in 2014 or that last year’s Grammy’s was already swept by Swift’s “Shake It Off.” But I want to take a minute to rant about why it is much more important culturally.
There is no denying that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was the true album of the year in 2015. Not only was it critically acclaimed by a variety of news outlets (try this or this or this or WIUX’s review), not only did it include President Obama’s favorite song of 2015, but it was an important cultural statement that both educated, influenced, and empowered many different people.
To Pimp A Butterfly unashamedly embraced African American culture in the music, the lyrics, and the videos. Lamar approaches the issues of police violence, systematic racism, the legacy of slavery, and mental illness. He talks about the guilt that followed his success and navigating how to approach his newfound role as a speaker and leader in the black community. “Alright” even became an anthem of some #BlackLivesMatter protests.
All this is to say that the Grammy’s had a unique opportunity to show the world it recognized excellent work not only musically, but work that is inherently political and in many ways inherently black. Instead, Taylor Swift won. Again. It makes it feel as if the diversity we see in the Grammy’s is all a show, making them not much better than #OscarsSoWhite. After all this time, despite the rise of hip hop into mainstream, popular music, they’re still favoring a Western aesthetic.
Wait, let me fix that last part: they’re still favoring someone who appropriates the parts of black music they want and then disguises it under a white aesthetic. Taylor Swift’s use of a heavy rhythmic beat and rap verses uses the popularity of hip hop to catapult her sales and the audience of her music. I’m not saying 1989 isn’t catchy – it is. I’m not saying Taylor Swift is the worst appropriator of black music (I think we know who is). But I am saying that the Grammy’s decided to award someone who benefits from black musical aesthetic and influence rather than someone who comes from that actual experience. The Grammy’s told us that they’re not willing to step out on a limb and declare that a hip hop album, a black album was the best album of the year. Just like they’re willing to let Kendrick Lamar perform and express himself artistically and musically, but they’re careful to tell you “It’s not necessarily that we endorse what’s being said.”
Since I’m not the best at being eloquent in my current stage of rage, let me summarize why this makes me so angry: Not only are the Grammy’s denying an album that proved to be the most musically inventive and impressive of year, they are saying that it’s better for music to be non-controversial, to be apolitical, to adhere to a Western aesthetic, to be white.