Every year, millions of Americans tune in to the Grammys to watch our favorite artists perform and get recognized for their hard work. It’s far from perfect, but the general spirit is there: to award the musicians and producers who excelled over the last year. But no music awards show would be complete without Kanye West storming the stage following an upset in a major category: first with Taylor Swift in 2009, and most recently with Beck during this year’s ceremony following the presentation for Best Album. Not for nothing, this represents everything wrong with pop music today.
Before we delve into what seems like a controversial sentiment, it’s important to recognize all West has done for music. His early work revolutionized hip hop, and carries influence even today. College Dropout and Late Registration are two of the greatest albums the genre has ever seen, and we’d be remiss to ignore that contribution. But lately, West has started to embody less about what we enjoy in hip hop and everything we don’t. Storming the stage at the Grammys in support of Beyoncé is merely a symptom of this greater problem.
West’s words following his stunt sum up the self-absorbed ego of the greater pop music world, claiming that “Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé.” So what exactly defines “artistry” in music? Typically, it can be based around things like songwriting ability, general musicality (i.e. instrumentation, singing, etc.), and in some cases production. So let’s figure out just how much “artistry” there is out there today in Kanye’s corner of the industry.
Beyonce’s latest album released in December 2013 featured over 20 separate songwriting credits spread out over its 14 tracks. Given that it was far from a solo effort from the singer, it’s that much more ironic that it’s simply titled Beyonce, when really it would be more accurate to call it “Beyonce, featuring 20+ other talented songwriters who made her look really good.” She’s without a doubt a talented singer and performer, but to challenge the artistic integrity of Beck, a man who plays 12 instruments and was the sole writer/composer on his award-winning album, demonstrates a stunning lack of awareness.
Look back at the career path of Kanye, and you see a similar trend developing. Both College Dropout and Late Registration featured no more than 3-4 writers each. His newest LP, Yeezus? A whopping 67 separate songwriting credits. One could argue that the end result is still largely a result of West’s talents and ability, but when you see individual tracks that feature over 10 separate writers, it’s easy to see that he’s very much bought into the music factory mentality of the pop industry.
In his tirade on E! following the Grammys, West noted that the mainstream is well in the process of “diminishing art and not respecting the craft,” something that seems odd coming from someone whose “craft” currently consists of writing merely a fraction of his own albums. Now, more than ever, the distinction between “performer” and “musician” has been blurred to the point where all you have to do to make it big is have someone else produce a hit track with your name on it. Thankfully though, the award for Best Album remains safely in Beck’s hands, despite Kanye West’s best efforts to wrench it free. In an industry that lauds artists like West as genius songwriters while other’s do the work, it’s refreshing to see the award in the hands of someone actually composing their own music.