freelance writer & illustrator

When Is Music Art?

November 2, 2017



Throughout most of high school and college, I had a very close friend whose passion was music. We initially connected over our mutual love of Jack’s Mannequin and other such artists (judge away).


At that time, I was always excited to meet someone who enjoyed the same music as me—you know, the kind of music whose melodies and lyrics speak so clearly to you, they give you chills. Suspiciously, however, this intellectually stimulating, euphoria-inducing music never seemed to fall in the rap, hip hop, or R&B genres. In fact, the artists were always white. And almost always men.


This fact proved to be cause for contention when my friend, who is white, and I got into a discussion about the 2015 Grammy Awards. Specifically, we disagreed over whether Beck’s Morning Phase deserved to win Album of the Year over Beyoncé’s self-titled (and commercially- and critically-acclaimed) album. (In the interest of not bursting more blood vessels than necessary to write this article, I won’t get into the problems with how Grammy winners are selected.)


On more than one occasion, my friend and I had nearly blown out my car speakers listening to “***Flawless” together. I'd assumed, then, perhaps naively, that she was going to agree with me—and the multitudes of others who had noted the contradictory nature of Beck's win—when I lamented that Beyoncé had been robbed.


Instead, she became defensive, demanding that I cite examples of artistic merit throughout Beyoncé’s album that would have made her worthy of the win. I was completely caught off-guard, and opined, in return, that I thought the Grammy nominating practices were steeped in racism.


Though I hadn't had all the information on hand during our argument, I wish I had: in addition to losing out to her in two other major categories, Beyoncé also lost Album of the Year in 2017 to Adele; Macklemore infamously took the award for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar in 2014; and Eminem has been honored with more Best Rap Album awards than any other nominee.



It’s no coincidence that non-Black people can enjoy Beyoncé as a performer without classifying her as an artist. Meanwhile, Beck receives praise for his “artistry” via his nonsensical lyricism.


Contemporary music reportage encourages Haim to shift from indie to R&B while rallying behind their desire to be regarded as a “band, not a girl band.” St. Vincent, née Annie Clark, is lauded for her artistic experimentation, noting that jazz musician and To Pimp a Butterfly collaborator Kamasi Washington will be featured on her upcoming record. She speaks with excitement about directing a "female-led" film short.


When it comes to the indie scene in particular, no one frowns upon purported devotees of the genre for not knowing who “wonky funk” songstress Nao is, or for not swooning over the oceanic vocals of The Naked and Famous front-woman Alisa Xayalith. However, many of us within (and without) the indie scene are expected to be familiar with the stylings of The 1975 or Mumford & Sons.


In fact, it would be kind of strange if you claimed to be an indie music congregant but had never had a phase wherein you found at least some of The Smiths’ discography deep and romantic (despite the fact that Morrissey boasts a CV of racist and misogynistic sentiments so long it could instantaneously wrap around his musical ouevre enough times to strangle it to death within seconds).


Are we really seeing progress within the U.S. cultural landscape if, in validating the pursuits of white woman music acts, we simultaneously fail to explore Black and brown artists who likewise defy the implicit relationships between race and genre—a feat society at large discourages of them?


This practice of artistic elitism has less to do with whether you’re up-to-date on the most underground bands than it does with the implicit hierarchy within the art world—one that is based on identifiers like gender and race. Both Beyoncé's self-titled album and Lemonade experimented, to great acclaim, with genre, lyricism, and sonics.


Like many other musicians before her, Beyoncé wasn't honored at the Grammy Awards not because she contributed music of a niche genre, but because art that is performed by nonwhite—and especially Black—artists is implicitly considered inaccessible by white and non-Black listeners alike.



Of course, the Grammys do not serve as a useful barometer when it comes to musical artistry: anti-Blackness and racism have long permeated its winners rosters, and most, if not all, of the artists recognized have not been hurting for economic equity in the U.S. Needless to say, countless talented artists have been excluded from consideration.


However, outside of the Grammys, many artists stand to be (and are) excluded from recognition because their identities don't fall in line with the narrow default set by their respective genres. When Annie Clark spoke of her woman-led anthology, she did so disturbingly uncritically, failing to mention that the majority of women involved in her project were cisgender and white.


Like the members of Haim, artists like Clark likely spend precious little of their time (defying the boundaries of our male-dominated world, to boot) considering the fact that all a cis woman need be in order to be told she hasn't done enough to merit the industry standard of recognition is Black—no matter how many times her work has gone Platinum.


And while many today have celebrated what they see as a massive shift in the pop cultural landscape when it comes to racial diversity, it still appears as though the current is slow to change, if it is at all (in a way that isn't superficial, at least). Cardi B is at the top of her career—but so are Ariana Grande and Halsey, the latter of who is biracial Black.


When accusations of blatant cultural appropriation have been levied against Grande in recent months, fans and writers alike have aggressively come to her defense, shutting down any potential for public discourse on the matter. Perhaps more disturbing for the public's failure to discuss them as widely have been Cardi B's alarming perpetuations of transmisogyny over the last couple of years.


It isn't possible, of course, for multi-million-dollar-earning musicians to "represent" or be relatable the average listener.


However, from an industry that repeatedly reminds the public what the standard of musicial excellence is, to cis white women who uncritically christen themselves the woman's default, to mainstream performers who alienate listeners who continue to be (often violently) marginalized in the U.S., it is clear that when it comes to the music industry, progress is, like with everything else, incremental and based on the whims of the majority.



This piece was originally published in November 2017. It has since been revised.

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