No Radio Free Lunch!

A blog about pop music and everything else by Eric D. Johnson

Quicknotes on Kanye, the Grammy’s and Innovative Black Pop Music as the Historical/Metaphorical Tiger

I kind of stopped paying close attention to Kanye West musically about 3 albums back, and have mixed feelings about some of his stunts, ideas, statements, and general public presentation of self-as-artist.  And I was kind of pissed off at him on Grammy night, tho that pretty much turned into bemusement by the next day.  Even so, I’ve ended up defending him in several long facebook arguments over the past week, as otherwise thoughtful people lined up to say variations on “I don;t know anything about him and will never listen to his music but I still don’t like him or his music.”  It gets old people.

Two of those arguments were started by two friends–a South Carolina poet and an eclectic New Jersey jazz musician (both with Northwest Arkansas ties) who posted memes containing Kanye’s quote about being “a proud non-reader of books.”  In both of those arguments I ended up having particularly heated exchanges with another musician, a keyboard player from his profile picture, who evinced severe disdain for any kind of pop music and proudly asserted that he’d never listen to West’s music.  The twist–I was actually arguing with two different guys, sharing the same name, instrument of choice, and Adorno-like disgust for pop.

In any case, in the course of yet another one of those arguments, one that linked to this Arthur Chu piece in Salon, I said some stuff that i think is half way smart.  So I’m going to move it over here:

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Kanye’s point would have been a lot stronger if he’d hewed closer to a very available historical argument about the Grammy’s being reluctant to give the very top spot to innovative black artists.

Exhibit A here, which Chu gets close to but also neglects to mention explicitly is Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall not even getting a nomination outside of the (more or less) black-specific category of “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for the song “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” at the 1980 Grammy’s. Jackson was pissed off enough about what he (rightly I think) perceived as a racially-categorical snub, that he and Quincy Jones built his next album to be a vehicle which explicitly took him out of that category. That album was, of course, Thriller, which ended up (with a little help from Prince, who couldn’t have done it on his own) breaking MTV’s early, very visible color barrier. And from this, I think flows the “King of Pop” title, as well as (arguably) the physical transformations.

For me, this is probably part and parcel of the Grammy’s general reluctance to actually recognize innovation in the moment in which it takes place. Just think about the fact that Beck got a Grammy this year, and not the year that Odelay came out. And, that probably dovetails here not only with racial categorization in the music business, the subject identity of the members of the academy, and the indisputable fact that black artists have so often been innovators in popular music and have so often been unrecognized in their moment. It’s all of a piece, and I think Kanye has hold of the tail of it, but not the head, and that really weakens the statement he’s making to a tremendous degree.

Update: so, having hold of the tail instead of the head, he gets bit, and suffers from making the poorer and weaker individual rather than historical argument. But I’m glad someone is even trying to grab this particular tiger.

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You could also argue, tho I think it would take a more detailed academic brief than I want to try to build here, that a lot of Kanye’s moves and statements that have surfaced lately (giving his own awards away, “novels are too wordy and self-obsessed”) add up to a rejection of the Western cult of The Author in favor of a more social, collaborative, experiential and non-semantic approach to knowledge, learning, craft, and identity. This could be pretty interesting territory for looking at his last couple of albums, where the main stage of conflict seems to be Kanye vs his own (authorial) ego, as well as the very explicit themes of family and community and belonging (and the complications thereof) that run through the first 3 records. The “Death of the Author” is pretty standard for modern lit crit, but how does it play out in a genre like hip-hop which has so often been about individual struggle and survival under post-industrial capitalism, and where’s there’s always been a tension between communal belonging the hyped celebration of exceptional individualism?

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Last thought for now: I think Chu’s argument here would have been stronger if he’d more explicitly and sooner pulled what Ta Nehisi Coates calls the “twice as good” imperative in African American public culture into the piece. It might have helped steer the argument away from being reduced too easily to what someone upthread called “heart vs. craft.” And I do agree that the kinds of examples that he uses do lend themselves to that kind of dichotomy, which weakens the case he’s making for me. Some of this may be my firm conviction that Taylor Swift should have gotten the grammy this year peeking through tho.

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