Kanye West

Allow me to leave film aside and digress to music for a moment…

I want you to imagine the video for Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” in your mind’s eye. The stark black and white imagery, the way the women flick their wrists, the stomps, the fist pumps. Iconic, right?

Now try to flip to the video for “You Belong to Me” by Taylor Swift.

I have ten bucks for the first person who can do it, but I think my money is safe.

Lets get a bit more current…

Sing me a hook or two from “Drunk In Love”. Do the same with “Blow”.How does the chorus of “Pretty Hurts” go? How much would you love to record a line with as much bravado as “Bow down bitches”?

Now hum me even one bar from any song on “Morning Phase”

Hard, ain’t it?

I’m a fan of both Taylor Swift and especially Beck, and I think it’s unfortunate that they both found themselves in the path of Hurricane Kanye. However, I’m going to leave Taylor out of this since her “award” came from MTV and the whims of its fans.

Before we get to Kanye, let’s begin with Beck.

If you’d told me in the summer of 1994 that I’d still be listening to the guy who recorded “Loser” in twenty years, I’d have told you to give your head a shake. It’s not that Beck seemed bad, or even untalented. It was just that he seemed to have “One Hit Wonder” written all over him. Two years later, with the release of his album “Odelay” any ideas of his fame being a fluke were dispelled. In the time since then, beck has made some of the best and most interesting music of his generation. He has been a collaborative spirit, gone quiet, gone loud, and back to quiet. He even happened to injure himself in ways that made him wonder if he would ever hold a guitar .

“Morning Phase”, his first album in six years and his return from injury is beautiful. It’s a glorious Sunday morning record filled with swirling vocals, ascending pianos, and heartwarming chimes. It’s both the sound of a heart breaking and of imagination stretching forth.

In short, it doesn’t deserve anything but positive attention.

However, in word and in action Kanye West pushed it violently into a corner. He has made it seem less worthy; he insinuates that it doesn’t “respect artistry”. He believes that when put on the same shelf as Beyonce’s self-titled album, it is shown as wanting.

The funny thing? He’s not wrong…not entirely.

We can be here all day discussing which of these two albums is “better”, but we would, of course, solve nothing since art is subjective and beyond quantitative measure. However, what I believe keeps getting Kanye’s goad up – and where he continues to run off his mouth in defense of others – is the regard the industry seems to have for pop music in general, and black musicians in particular.

Let’s use the Grammys as a barometer.

Over the last twenty years, Album of The Year has been won by a black artist four times. Want to make that number seem worse? Of those four, only two were young acts (Lauryn Hill and Outkast). Then there’s record of the year, which is awarded for a single song to its performer. In the last twenty years, only two times has a black artist won the award. Of those two, only one was a young act (Seal).

Twenty years. Forty trophies. Six winners of colour.

That’s a problem, and you have to believe that eventually that problem will weigh on artists like Kanye. Or Beyonce. Or M.I.A. Or Outkast. Or Boyz II Men. Or Tracy Chapman. Or TLC. Or Alicia Keys. Or The Black Eyed Peas. Or Jay Z. Or Frank Ocean. Or Bruno Mars.

To paint pop music as “lesser” in the face of more “authentic” music like Beck’s is to ignore potential legacy. It ignores music that we now consider classic – like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna – was, in its day, considered pop.

It might seem easy to write a catchy pop record – just get a good writer (or twenty-two in Beyonce’s case), get them to do the heavy lifting, add in vocals and decide how best to shake your moneymaker to it. The truth though is that writing a great hook, or a great lyric isn’t as easy as it seems. It too is a game of inches, and depends on good structure, a keen ear, and a willingness to fail. Once the song is written, it can likewise live or die based on who sells it and how well they sell it.

It’s the difference between what Christina Aguilera brings to a song, and what a headliner on a cruise ship brings to a song.

In short, pop music – and rap, and hip-hop, and R&B – has just as much technique, craft, musicianship, and production going into it as a “one man-one guitar” act like Beck. To continue to deny its place in the world by handing out gold stars to new offerings by old legends is insulting at best. So too is the trend of giving those same gold stars to young white women who sound like black women from days gone by.

After a while, you have to believe it gets tough for the artists invited year after year. “Please come play on our show and goose our ratings, but don’t expect a trophy for it…at least not outside of your own category”. I say this about film all the time: a great movie is a great movie – be it a documentary, or animation, or foreign, or a comedy. Likewise, a great record is a great record.

Look around various lists of the best records of 2014; you see Beyonce’s album named in several places…likewise Run The Jewels, and FKA Twigs.

Does anyone care that it took six people to write “Thriller” and that Michael Jackson didn’t play a note?

So on Sunday, for Kanye, it finally got too tough. Should he have chosen his moment better? Probably. Should he have chosen his words better? Maybe. (Interestingly, even Beck agreed with him that Beyonce’s album was a deserving winner).

But that all misses the ultimate point.

We’ll scream all over Twitter and Facebook about how #OscarsSoWhite, but nobody bats an eye while the music industry remains a whitewash. On Sunday, Kanye batted an eye. We’ll make our jokes and tear into Sam Smith for ripping off a Tom Petty song, but nobody raises a hand when he is awarded for it. On Sunday, Kanye raised his hand.

He wasn’t standing up there saying “I shoulda won” – even though he’s never taken that trophy, despite two nominations for his six albums so far. Calling him petty, or spoilt doesn’t apply. If that isn’t the place, then where is? If that isn’t the time, then when is? This isn’t a new accusation, but Kanye sure caught people’s attention, didn’t he?

He might be an asshole, but he’s not wrong.

He was saying “Someone else created something amazing, and they deserve a place at the grown-ups table”. He was saying “Pop music is every bit as valid as rock”. He was saying “Black music matters”…

…he was just saying it in his own dickish Kanye way.