Dogmatism and the Judgments of the Music Critic What does winning a Grammy actually mean about a musician’s worth?

One of my favorite moments from any Grammy awards ceremony occurred in 2011, when the Recording Academy named Esperanza Spalding the year’s Best New Artist over Justin Bieber, who had been considered a shoe-in for the award.[1] As someone who did not possess an ounce of Bieber fever (and who was, as a first-year graduate student in musicology, a bit of a musical snob) I saw Spalding’s win as a moment when logic reigned over a crazed pack of teenaged miscreants who were absolutely ruining music. Of course Spalding—a talented bassist and vocalist who had graduated from the Berklee College of Music at the age of 21, and who worked with Pat Metheny, and studied under Joe Lovano—deserved to be called the “best” on an extremely public stage. Her win was an affirmation of my belief that to be called the “Best New Artist,” an artist had to demonstrate some unidentified, yet measurable combination of artistic and technical ability.

But of course, Spalding did not only beat Bieber. She also beat Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, and Drake—which should have tipped me off that some other politics were at play in the Recording Academy’s selection of “Best New Artist.” In the years following her win, Spalding has not hidden her skepticism of the award; as she explained to Alex Frank of Pitchfork, “I hope I’m wrong but sometimes I wonder if that [the Best New Artist award] was a PR move by the Recording Academy, because they were going to cut all of these other categories that non-pop artists usually get nominated in. So it was like giving something to the non-pop community.” Others argued that Spalding’s win represented the wishes of an Academy that absolutely did not want Bieber winning anything (he was also nominated for and lost Best Pop Vocal Album that year; he would not win a Grammy until 2016, winning Best Dance Recording for “Where are Ü Now”).

This year, post-Grammys coverage was focused on disappointment: some were upset at the lack of representation of women across the board (outside Best Pop Album, which Ed Sheeran still managed to win despite four other women being nominated), some were upset that Alessia Cara won Best New Artist over CZA, and it seems almost everyone was upset that Bruno Mars’s sweep of categories resulted in a near shut-out of Kendrick Lamar in the major categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year), marking the third time Lamar has missed out on those awards. In commentary following the awards ceremony, critics rehashed what they felt were the biggest upsets and snubs in Grammy history, noting that the Grammys have a tradition of disappointment. Memorable shakeups included Mumford & Sons’ win over Frank Ocean in 2013 (Album of the Year), Macklemore’s win over Kendrick Lamar in 2014 (Best New Artist), Beck over Beyoncé in 2015 (Album of the Year), Taylor Swift over Kendrick Lamar in 2016 (Album of the Year), and Adele over Beyoncé in 2017 (Album of the Year). And even Spalding’s win over Bieber often appears on these lists as a major upset, if not a disappointment.

… it is not simply that members of the Recording Academy favor white artists, as we might well infer from recent upsets; rather, the Recording Academy’s abstract musical values tend to reward pop music, a more typically white genre, over hip hop.

Often, though not always, disappointment in the Grammys happens when white popular artists beat out black hip-hop artists, and many commentators have recently argued that the Grammys have a race problem (and this year, a gender problem). However, I argue that it is not simply that members of the Recording Academy favor white artists, as we might well infer from recent upsets; rather, the Recording Academy’s abstract musical values tend to reward pop music, a more typically white genre, over hip hop.

The Recording Academy states that the purpose of the Grammy Awards is to celebrate “artistic excellence,” calling the accolade music’s “highest achievement.” The awards honor “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position”—a description that suggests universal understandings of “artistic achievement,” “technical proficiency,” and “excellence,” while reinforcing its merit-based approach by insisting that it is not a popularity contest. Such a broad definition also has the potential to cover a wide swath of voting outcomes.

A note on the Grammy voting process: The Grammy voting process is fairly complicated and notoriously secretive, but essentially, winners are selected by Voting members of the Recording Academy (i.e., anyone who has 12 tracks currently available for digital purchase, with one released within the last five years; or who has 6 tracks available for physical purchase in the United States, with one released within the last five years; or who has been nominated for a Grammy Award within the last five years). Voting members also pay $100 in dues. Recording Academy Voting members include musicians, conductors, songwriters, composers, engineers, instrumentalists, arrangers, art directors, album notes writers, narrators, and music video artists and technicians. Roughly 13,000 voting members make the final decisions after the categories have been narrowed down by 350 “experts” in the field. In other words, the description of the Grammy Awards suggests that the Academy awards Grammys based on merit, and it leaves the assessment of that merit to experts—first, 350 of them, and then 13,000. In doing so, the Academy creates a hierarchy between those who create and those who consume music.

Questions regarding who should win a Grammy, or who was robbed, strike at the heart of what should be valued in music, and what the purpose of music should be. While audiences may construct their own answers to these questions, the Recording Academy asserts its answers through awards, exerting its authority to not only define musical genres, but also to define musical value and worth. When homogenous, anonymous voting groups grant awards, there is an assumption that such awards are granted based on a universal concept of musical value, and we, as audiences, are disappointed when the Grammys do not reflect the values we think are important. But perhaps this disappointment reflects more than hard feelings: it suggests a divergence in understandings of musical value and worth. If the purpose of music is to entertain, then Bruno Mars deserved to win. If the purpose of music is to present an artistic message, then Kendrick Lamar was robbed. If technical displays of music mastery are valued, then SZA should have won over Alessia Cara, who, like Mars, offered a more traditional popular album. Ultimately, reactions to the Grammy Awards are a mirror for what we, the non-voting but still judging audience, value in music.

In his broad critique of philosophies of music, philosopher Philip Alperson argues that music has long been considered a predominantly “object-oriented practice,” or a practice that is “centered on the creation of objects.”[2] Such an approach stems from European classical musical traditions, in which composers, critics, theorists, and historians privileged the musical score—the physical composition—above all else, including the individual interpretations of performers. Within this tradition, the individual genius of the composer, and the score’s ability to reflect that genius, is what matters most. However, musical qualities valued in European classical music, such as complexity, may not adequately represent the musical qualities of other genres. Alperson discusses musical improvisation, a technique that is largely atypical to European classical music outside of the Baroque period. Alperson argues that while “complexity” is highly valued within European classical musical aesthetics, and though critics have tended to judge improvisation by its level of complexity, it is not a necessary element within musical improvisation. For Alperson, to judge improvisation by standards of European classical music that value complexity would be to misunderstand the aesthetic goals of improvisation. Therefore, standards defining musical value in European classical music often do not apply to other forms of music—even if Western critics and composers deem them to be “universal” standards.

Similarly, musicologist Nina Eidsheim critiques the supposedly universal standards to which opera singers are often held. As Eidsheim explains, “not only does classical repertoire feature narrowly defined conventions of pronunciation, timbre, and stylistic range determined by a work’s historical period, geography, and composer, but the notated compositions also dictate fixed pitches and durations for syllables and pauses, which therefore must be produced in the same way by each singer.”[3] She continues, juxtaposing popular music values with those in classical music, writing, “Unlike popular music genres in which individual style is encouraged, taking liberties with pronunciation is not rewarded in the classical vocal world.”

If the purpose of music is to entertain, then Bruno Mars deserved to win. If the purpose of music is to present an artistic message, then Kendrick Lamar was robbed. If technical displays of music mastery are valued, then SZA should have won over Alessia Cara, who, like Mars, offered a more traditional popular album. Ultimately, reactions to the Grammy Awards are a mirror for what we, the non-voting but still judging audience, value in music.

While Eidsheim makes these distinctions to discuss the ways in which black opera singers’ sound has historically been described by critics and audiences differently from white opera singers due to histories of racist ideologies, she also critiques supposedly universal qualities of musical ability, technique, and worth. These are qualities inherent in appraisals of European classical music (tone quality, intonation, syllable placement, etc.). However, after centuries of classical music’s dominance as “art” music, and as music worthy of being studied, it is unsurprising that these so-called universal values would frame the way popular music is evaluated as well. In other words, critics and audiences may value individual style in popular music, but there remains a sense that there are universal musical qualities that can determine the musical value of an artist and their music.

These are not universal musical values, but rather musical values that are rooted in Western cultures—and particularly, in 19th-century German nationalist projects that sought to create a privileged position for German art music. But as Alperson argues, European classical musical values, including complexity, timbre, and intonation, do not always transfer easily to other genres. Nevertheless, these values remain, even in the training children receive in school (when their arts programs have not been cut, that is). As I have written elsewhere, such values remain within the hallowed spaces of concert and recital halls—places whose musical value is inherently matched by the financial value of tickets, dress, and surroundings. Indeed, as musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnik notes, contemporary notions linking “musical greatness,” “individuality,” and “musical value” began in the Enlightenment period as individuality began to be privileged within the European classical music canon.[4] Likewise, musicologist Theodore Gracyk traces the distinction between listening and hearing, which used listening to privilege European art music above folk and popular musics, to 19th-century philosophical texts such as Eduard Hanslick’s On the Musically Beautiful (1854) and Edmund Gurney’s The Power of Sound (1880).[5] According to these texts, listening required concentration, whereas hearing occurred inadvertently; that European classical music needed to be listened to and not simply heard, elevated it above popular and folk music, which ostensibly could simply be heard without a discerning ear.

Within the 20th century, American critics have used European classical musical values to attempt to define popular music and, especially, jazz. In doing so, music critics implicitly created a hierarchy that positioned complex-sounding jazz like bebop and European classical sounding jazz like cool jazz as intellectually elevated above jazz genres. For example, Leonard Bernstein explained in a 1955 television episode titled “What is Jazz” that …

 

“You cannot listen to bop intelligently and dance, too, murmuring sweet nothings into your partner’s ear. You have to listen as hard as you can to hear what’s happening. So in a way, jazz has begun to be a kind of chamber music. An advanced, sophisticated art, mainly for listening; full of influences of Bartók and Stravinsky, and very, very serious.” [6]

 

 

Even the spaces for “intellectual” jazz indicated their musical value: consider Dave Brubeck’s immense success in colleges, or Milt Jackson’s assertion in 1961 that the Modern Jazz Quartet could “put jazz on another level, create a new audience. This is what jazz needs—cultured people. Rich people’s groove is opera and symphony.”[7] Jackson linked culture, a term laden with race and class connotations, with monetary value, articulating the relationships between musical value, culture, and wealth.

However, universal conceptions of musical value were not available to everyone, even within the European classical musical sphere. As Eidsheim argues, black opera singers like Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Grace Bumpry, and Simon Estes learned that a universally ideal musical sound was based in whiteness. In other words, black opera singers were limited by the notion of a universal musical value in timbre, or sound quality. Eidsheim recounts criticism of Price, which described her as “an unmistakably individual fragrance—husky, musky, smoky, misty (on a bad day foggy!)—and palpitating pagan sexiness. It is not the voice of a good girl.”[8] The obvious racism of such criticism, cloaked beneath supposed descriptions of musical value, was not lost on Price: “Whenever there was any copy about me, what I was as an artist, what I had as ability, got shoveled under because all the attention was on racial connotations.”

Ultimately, from composers to critics to audiences, white cultural gatekeepers maintained definitions of musical value around the intersection of whiteness and European classical music. They insisted that their definitions were based on sound alone, even as Black performers were routinely devalued and shunted toward more “black” musical genres like gospel, R&B, and jazz (for example, both Nina Simone and Miles Davis suggested at various points in their lives that they could have been successful classical musicians were it not for the fact that they were lack).

As numerous ethnomusicologists and musicologists have argued, there are inherent challenges in determining musical value based solely on the music itself, because music and musical criticism are produced within particular social contexts. If that context continues to structure music into genre categories historically based in racial distinctions, and if concepts of musical value have tended to privilege a white “universalism,” then is it really so surprising that rap and hip-hop artists regularly feel their music goes unrecognized by the Recording Academy?

Alperson’s critique of the European classical musical object suggests other elements that might be highly valued in musical aesthetics. He explains that seeing music as an object “tends to favor an approach featuring the inspection and analysis of the aesthetic properties of the musical object, and to correspondingly neglect questions about the social, political, and cultural aspects of musical practice.”[9] In other words, what makes music meaningful or valuable might be more than the physical score or the sounds uttered. As numerous ethnomusicologists and musicologists have argued, there are inherent challenges in determining musical value based solely on the music itself, because music and musical criticism are produced within particular social contexts. If that context continues to structure music into genre categories historically based in racial distinctions, and if concepts of musical value have tended to privilege a white “universalism,” then is it really so surprising that rap and hip-hop artists regularly feel their music goes unrecognized by the Recording Academy?

Many musicians, audiences, and academics suggest alternatives to this white universalism, but determining new standards of “merit” has revealed just how contested the concept of musical value remains. With the repeated shutouts of Lamar and Beyoncé, commentators have wondered if these artists’ emphasis on race and racial politics turns off the Academy’s white, middle-aged male voters. Indeed, many of the biggest recent upsets have featured white artists winning over artists of color. The post-Grammys 2018 episode by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast even suggested that, at the risk of yet another white artist upstaging a worthy black artist, the Recording Academy could have denied a nomination for Ed Sheeran for Album of the Year. The fact that Bruno Mars, another performer of color, beat Lamar may have made for better optics than in 2017 when Adele won over Beyoncé, even if Mars’s R&B-based album has since come under attack for appropriation.

Some critics who lamented the loss of Lamar to Mars (2018) or Macklemore (2014) or Taylor Swift (2016), or of Beyoncé to Adele (2017) and Beck (2015), suggested that Lamar and Beyoncé should have won because of the broader cultural and political contributions of their albums. As critic Hugh McIntyre of Forbes wrote of Lamar’s loss to Swift in 2016,

 

“To Pimp A Butterfly was beautiful, groundbreaking, and difficult to listen to for some. People of every color could enjoy the songs on it, even though many of them were reflections on the often difficult black experience in America today. It’s [sic] creator clearly looked into the past for inspiration, and at the same time did something that nobody had ever done by fusing jazz, hip-hop, and freestyle, spoken-word poetry into a product that everybody in 2015 couldn’t get enough of.”

 

McIntyre further wrote that the album was the number one album for two weeks and was among the most critically-lauded pieces of music of the year. In his claims that Lamar should have won, McIntyre recalls similar evidence of musical value to those of European classical music: Lamar’s music is complicated, challenging, and technically experimental. But McIntyre highlights another piece of Lamar’s musical value: his ability to speak both to specific black experiences, and his ability to “move society forward.” Swift, on the other hand, represented “inoffensive, radio-ready pop.”

Following the 2018 Grammy Awards, Vulture writer Frank Guan compared Lamar’s live performance with Bruno Mars’s, praising Lamar’s “elaborate, supercharged performance that displayed his verbal excellence and gift for large-scale orchestration,” and referred to his album DAMN. as having an “aesthetic spirit” that was “superior to all competitors.” Like McIntyre, Guan credited Lamar with excellence, complexity, and large-scale orchestration alongside its “aesthetic spirit,” again asserting his belief that Lamar was the better artist in terms that refer to both broad musical values (values noted by Alperson) and the social consciousness of the performance.

For both McIntyre and McKinney, along with other critics voicing their disappointment with recent Grammy Awards, emotions and cultural significance play at least as important a role as the musical sounds created and curated by the artists and their production teams. Even arguments for the greater recognition of social commentary still include appeals to concepts of music as an object, or as possessing complex technical elements.

Critic Kelsey McKinney wrote of Beyoncé’s 2015 loss to Beck in similar terms: “From the opening song, ‘Pretty Hurts,’ Beyoncé set the tone: this was an album as complex emotionally as it was sonically. Instead of following the formula for pop music greatness, Beyoncé completely rejected it. The album sounded, at turns, like an R&B, adult contemporary, and pure pop album, sometimes within a single song.” Again, Beyoncé’s album is complex and genre-crossing—but it is also expressive of more than a simple pop album. Beck, on the other hand, presented a “fine album,” if also a “complacent,” “emotionless void of sound.” For both McIntyre and McKinney, along with other critics voicing their disappointment with recent Grammy Awards, emotions and cultural significance play at least as important a role as the musical sounds created and curated by the artists and their production teams. Even arguments for the greater recognition of social commentary still include appeals to concepts of music as an object, or as possessing complex technical elements.

Many of these writers chalk such disappointments up to the Recording Academy not yet being ready to accept rap and hip-hop. Some go further, adding that rap and hip-hop go unrecognized because they are genres that predominantly feature black artists (white hip-hop artist Macklemore’s win gives that argument significantly more credibility). But I argue that it is not simply that the Recording Academy does not like rap and hip-hop, but rather that rap and hip-hop tend to challenge standard notions of musical value, musical values steeped in racist notions of white European superiority. Not only do these genres challenge musical standards that tend to privilege melody over spoken word, but rap and hip hop are especially socially conscious; beginning in 1982 with “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and continuing through songs like “Fuck tha Police” by NWA, “Fight the Power,” by Public Enemy, “Changes” by 2Pac, “Sound of da Police” by KRS-One, and “The Final Solution: Slavery’s Back in Effect” by Sister Souljah, to just barely scratch the surface of politically engaged rap of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, not all rap and hip-hop shares this socially conscious streak; however, the rap and hip-hop albums that receive particular critical success and are expected to win Grammys tend to have a more direct cultural and political message than did Mars’s 24K Magic or Swift’s 1989.

The truth of the matter is that the Grammys continue to struggle with a growing disconnect between the youth culture that drives musical consumption and the voters who determine awards outcomes.

In exploring these various modes of musical value, I do not mean to suggest that Grammy voters are consciously employing centuries-old standards of European classical music as they cast their ballots to determine the best representatives of a diverse array of musical genres. Indeed, with 13,000 voters (whose demographics the Recording Academy does not release), how could I possibly know? What is important to remember is that musical value has often been taken as a given, that certain musical standards have a history of being prioritized in the search for musical excellence, and that the concept of musical value is extremely contested, intersecting with issues of white supremacy.[10] The truth of the matter is that the Grammys continue to struggle with a growing disconnect between the youth culture that drives musical consumption and the voters who determine awards outcomes. The reason the Grammys repeatedly lead to such a feeling of disappointment and letdown is, ultimately, because the Grammys in their current form cannot possibly reflect the intersecting and complicated notions of musical value held by its audience. The best the Recording Academy can do—and indeed, what the Academy should do—is make transparent its musical priorities.

[1] Many thanks to Liza Dister for her thoughtful comments and suggestions, and to the students of AMST 385: “From the Sorrow Songs to Black Lives Matter: Music and Black Political Protest” at Emory University, whose insightful discussions and questions have encouraged me to continue to rethink musical value.

[2] Philip Alperson, “Musical Improvisation and the Philosophy of Music,” in The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, ed. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 421.

[3] Nina Sun Eidsheim, “Marian Anderson and ‘Sonic Blackness’ in American Opera,” Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies, ed. Kara Keeling and Josh Kun (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, ), 200.

[4] Rose Rosengard Subotnik, “Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening: A Critique of Schoenberg, Adorno, and Stravinsky,” in Deconstructive Variations: Music and Reason in Western Society (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 148-176.

[5] Theodore Gracyk, Listening to Popular Music, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Led Zeppelin (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 135.

[6] Leonard Bernstein, “Part One,” What is Jazz, Sony Entertainment, 1956.

[7] Don DeMicheal, “Jackson of the MJQ,” Down Beat, 6 July 1961, 18-21.

[8] Martin Bernheimer, “…Yes, But Are We Really Color Deaf?” Los Angeles Times 17 February 1985: http://articles.latimes.com/1985-02-17/entertainment/ca-3511_1_rudolf-bing

[9] Alperson, 424.

[10] For example, Spalding’s win over Bieber suggests yet another version of musical value, one that has pervaded musical discussions for centuries: that being popular automatically discounts artistic value. This follows a narrative held across genres that some of the best musical compositions cannot possibly be understood by all audiences: from European modernist composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Milton Babbitt, and Luciano Berio to jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, all of whom created complicated music that challenged listeners, created music that should be highly valued for its level of intellectual engagement or expression of the self, or so the myth goes.

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