Last week the elusive Frank Ocean took to his Tumblr account to criticise the Grammys for both the seeming exclusion of black artists, similar to the Oscars in previous years, and simply for a belief that they have, in his and many others’ opinion, wrongly awarded previous artists over others deemed more worthy.
He acknowledged the potential reading that this was an act of sour grapes for his own snubbing in 2013 and a soft-spot over the technical difficulties he experienced in his performance that same year, but he does also rightfully present a tricky and potentially Sisyphean issue that faces the Grammys and the industry in general at the moment. He cited Taylor Swifts ‘1989’ winning over Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece as “hands down one of the most faulty TV moments” that he’s seen.
In light of this year’s outcome at the Grammys last week, it’s hard to not to see the outcome of this year’s best album prize as another such example.
Adele’s 25 is undoubtedly a popular, well-praised and hugely successful album, yet many, including Adele herself, saw this as an injustice in comparison to the immense presence of Beyoncé’s Lemonade as potentially the most powerful and important albums of the year.
Equally a lot of the music community protested this result online on twitter; asking how could an album so in touch with the social and political issues of the time, as well as an album that saw a such a public figure as Beyoncé open the iron clad gates to her personal life unlike ever before, miss out on the top prize?
But this debate also calls in to question the very reasons why an album might be deemed, ‘the best’, makes us revaluate the very definition. Is being ‘the best’ what the most people think is the best?
This leads us to an almost Marxist take on the debate, using the famous German socialist philosopher’s overarching ideas of conflict or contrast between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
If popular music is, unlike classical concert music of old, music for the masses, it begs the question as to whether what is deemed as most popular is the most important?
If we look for the exact literature of the Best Album award, the Grammys website describes their aim to “honour artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.”
It seems to me that the most intriguing and pertinent part of this quote is in the final clause, where they describe the disregarding of album sales or economic success.
I certainly feel like this has got lost a little over the years of this award – the record of recent winners shows a trend of number one albums winning over critically revered albums. Frank Ocean saw this coming before the outcome of this year.
Naturally, all the albums nominated this year and over the years are all of extreme economic success – this muddies the waters a little, as we are only talking about relative degrees of success as opposed to pitting a chart topper against a left field, independently released.
This is particularly true for 1989 and Hello, both spawning endless memes, vines, remixes and weeks at the chart top spot.
Both albums also won by beating incredibly important albums by incredibly important black artists. As impartial as I’d like to remain, I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that both ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ and ‘Lemonade’ are the superior albums of each year.
Both are astounding opuses of cultural and social prominence, defining their careers and controlling a mass-cultural conversation.
But in saying this do we risk denying the mass culture of what they believe is best. By neglecting popularity do we risk returning to a previous elitist view of ‘good’ music? Do we risk turning this in to a new sub-brand high culture?
It seems clear to me that, in a time where the black lives matter movement is one of the most pressing issues for western society, we should surely be recognising, in the highest form, the works of art that have taken this issue head on – it’s not like they haven’t also been sonically deeply complex and a genre-pushing vision.
If it took the late, great David Bowie until his death to win a Grammy, what does that say about the future? How long will we have to wait for great art to be accepted into mainstream recognition?
Perhaps Bowie had to be widely understood as a great artist before he could be recognised with an award as one.
Ocean, as could be expected, provided the ultimate moment of clarity in his blog post, asserting with pride and conviction, “Blonde sold a million plus without a label, that’s successful. I am young, black, gifted and independent. that’s my tribute.” In achieving independent, economic and critical success, it feels like Frank Ocean has already won.