Reflections on the Grammys, Adele, women in music, and Chris Brown

News articles that go “viral” often feature ideas that a) ring instinctively true with a lot of people, but b) aren’t being expressed commonly, or very well.

Maura Johnston’s “How Not to Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide” for the Village Voice’s Sound of the City blog certainly fit the bill, on both counts. In it, she targets a number of recent, questionably-written profiles of female musicians—New York Times’ Magazine feature on Lana Del Rey and Chuck Klosterman’s Grantland piece on tUnE-yArDs in particular—and rightfully calls out some pretty lame gender skewing that occurs all too often in music writing. It would be hard to read the piece and not feel a little bit of “fuck yeah!”

But I hope that people don’t take the wrong message from Johnston’s righteous takedown. As I was reading it the first time, I got nervous that people might mistake her argument for “don’t write about gender in music criticism,” when what she’s actually arguing is “don’t write stupid, lazy shit about gender in music criticism.”

One of the quotes that I felt veered a bit too close to the former is in her first argument – the one about how in some articles about women musicians, if you flip the artists being described to male they sound ridiculous. She critiques a statement where Jacob Brown compares Del Rey to a wildly varying list of female artists:

Does this statement say anything about the music being made, and how it plays off Born To Die? No, it focuses on their public profile: overexposed, fat, crazy-slash-dead—and the result is a bunch of recycled cocktail-party chatter, turned into a doorman’s grudging nod to those people Cool Enough To Know What’s Good.

I’m always weary of these sorts of “write about the music!!” statements, even when they come with good intentions. And that’s because I don’t think that the primacy of “music” in music criticism is necessarily a given. In our multimedia culture—visual, digital, artist-audience relationship focused—there’s a hell of a lot more that goes into an artist’s appeal than just the recorded artifact, and many of them may actually be more important sometimes.

I tend to ascribe to Philip Auslander’s point of view that what musicians perform, first and foremost, are personas – identities that flow through their work and are front-and-centre in their commercial and reception relationships with fans, marketers, etc. Those personas connect, crossover and mesh with their work, blurring lines and making it incredibly difficult to discuss “the music” as an autonomous, distinct concept. So it’s only fair that, when appropriate, the persona can become as much a focus of our analysis as the music.

Lana Del Rey is a great example. “Video Games” was a multimedia performance from the get-go. Its YouTube video, mixing washed-out home movies, archival footage, and Del Rey’s ripped-from-the-60s vixen persona, were as crucial to the whole experience as the song’s smokey vocals and blurring of modern angst and classic nostalgia. The things that are compelling about her—her “dead girl” image playing to male desires for control and heroism, her ‘out of time’ historicism, the vacant fatalism—do show up in her music somewhat (especially in the title track), but mostly they’re image-based. And they explicitly involve her image as a woman. (Hell, she even has a song called “This is What Makes Us Girls”!) Likewise, can we really write about Bruce Springsteen without examining his characters’ quest for male status, and the sometimes-complicated sexual politics they create?

It’s good that we critique how we write about gender. But if our goal is to understand what makes music effective, sometimes gender is decidedly the point.

* * * * *

Which segues nicely into considering Adele. 

That she swept the Grammy Awards last night was hardly a shocker – not only was her competition weak (album of the year, in particular, suffered with Grammy favourites like Kanye West and Taylor Swift being inexplicably absent) but she nails all the Grammy quadrants: successful hits, massively-selling album, critical acclaim AND a great narrative (not only her biography, but her struggles with vocal health).

Adele is a case in point as to why, and how, gender and persona matter in music criticism. Because while Adele’s songs are strong enough to succeed on their own (that four-on-the-floor beat in “Rolling in the Deep” is unstoppable) it’s her persona and how it’s performed—on the record, live, in interviews and press material—that’s transformed her into a phenomenon. Adele’s become a superstar, in no small part, based on a perceived “authenticity” from the way she fuses performance and autobiography to express feminine heartbreak.

I use “authenticity” in quotes because whether Adele is actually authentic is irrelevant. What matters is that listeners perceive her as such, and while her go-for-broke vocals unquestionably help sell what she’s singing about, her promotional team also went to great lengths to emphasize that these songs were written about her being wronged by an ex-lover. In fact, they specifically identified that it was the same dude she was falling for when she wrote songs for her debut album, 19. Even the album’s name plays to this idea (she was 21when she wrote 21.)

It’s interesting that in a year where the “male” and “female” categories were largely excised from the pop Grammy categories, the evening’s big winner expressed ideas in a definitively feminine voice. By placing her sentiments in an autobiographical context, Adele built a compelling persona that fused both “wronged woman” and “redemptive woman.” Her stunning performance of “Rolling in the Deep” hit both notes last night, the latter doubled down by the fact that she was returning from a period of vocal duress.

Placed together, this is one hell of a compelling package: a feminine “realness” around which an entire Adele persona is built. Watching the Tweets roll in last night, many of them were specifically contrasting her with the rest of the evening’s female pop stars. They talked about her voice, her song, her look—and yes, her size—and framed all of them in terms of how great it was to see something “real,” especially after several showy, heavily backing-tracked performances earlier. She got immense credit for her moments too: the post-performance giggle, the genuine cry, the “snot.” It’s not just music writers who compare within gender: fans, too, seem compelled to size Adele up against the likes of Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj.

That’s because in a world of personae, these vocalists are not just performing songs: they’re performing women. And in this performance game, Adele’s performance is “real” woman – honest,  redemptive, powerful.

Hard to argue with celebrating that, no matter how “authentic” it may be.

* * * * *

Easier to argue, of course, with how it is that the Grammys can simultaneously celebrate Adele as “powerful woman,” and then turn around and also celebrate Chris Brown.

I’m not surprised that a lot of people were upset that Chris Brown not only got to perform on the Grammys (not to mention won for Best R&B album). Heck, the Hello Giggles post about it spread so quickly that it actually crashed the website for several hours last night. But I am surprised why the Grammys, in particular, got people so upset: have they not been paying attention for the past year?

It was almost a year ago, in fact, that I wrote about how our cultural infrastructure has a remarkable ability to look beyond the “indiscretions” (to use a too-polite word) of its stars if they are able to deliver great material. (Call it the “R. Kelly rule.”) And since Brown had the hits (“Yeah x3,” “Look at Me Now” – both great tracks) I hypothesized that the only thing keeping him from being culturally rehabilitated was that he hit someone familiar to us.

Over the past year, that’s kind of fallen by the wayside. Chris Brown has gotten radio play, music video play, television appearances, huge guest spots, you name it. To those who don’t pay close attention to R&B and hip hop, last night might have seemed like a surprise: the Grammys, on their own, making the choice to give Chris Brown the spotlight. But that was hardly the case: given that the Grammys reflect the music industry (or some simulacra of it), it would almost be strange if Chris Brown wasn’t there, given the year he had.

Except for, you know, that tiny thing where he beat a woman.

I admire people who consider that fact the start and end of the conversation. Myself, though, I’m not sure I like the idea of Chris Brown being forever blacklistedfrom making a music career. I confess that even just writing that makes me feel weird, like I’m somehow justifying or excusing what he did. I hope I’m not. But I can’t help but feel that our relationship with pop culture can often take the shape (and even, sometimes, the weight) of an interpersonal one, and I don’t think it’s healthy for that relationship to not carry some (however slight) possibility of repair when it’s been violated. In fact, I’d argue that a culture that doesn’t allow for that sort of honest, open discussion (even if it results in “Sorry, Chris, but you can’t be famous again”) actually ends up worse for wear, and you end up with things like this shocking Buzzfeed thread of Twitter posts of people saying “I love Chris Brown, he can hit me anytime” – or the fans who screamed extra loud for his win last night.

But if we accept that a Chris Brown comeback is something that can happen, who decides at what point, and how? I think what’s really distressing for people about seeing Brown on-stage at the Grammys (three times!) is that they feel like that discussion never took place.

What’s worse, there may not even be a good answer: Brown’s comeback has happened without a “come to Jesus” moment, or a grandiose public gesture, or any single moment that resonated as strongly as the awful incident that started this whole fiasco. Brown has never really engaged in a public discussion of what was a VERY public incident – and, one could argue, a betrayal of the public image he’d built. Instead, he just kept singing his songs and dancing his dances and, eventually, did them well enough to get back into the spotlight again.

He succeeded because our pop culture business model is biased towards star retention; it’s far easier to sell someone something they know than to sell them something new. In the decentralized media age, all it takes is a series of small decisions—radio playlist adds, TV performance bookings, watching Youtube videos, Twitter follows or Facebook likes—done in the interest of embracing something familiar to get a comeback kickstarted. Throw in the emotional appeal of a comeback narrative (something that only works with people who once had an affinity for Brown, but still powerful) and you begin to see how Brown’s career resurrection could steamroll without having to really address the domestic abuse-sized elephant in the room.

Which suggests that the Grammys should have taken a stand last night and not featured Brown so prominently. (At the very least, they certainly shouldn’t have put out a press release suggesting that they were a “victim” of “what happened.” Puke.) The Grammys chose to be a reactive vehicle, responding to all the other music industry mechanisms that made small choices, individually, that prioritized Chris Brown over an honest dialogue. The Grammys could have sparked a conversation.

Instead, they left it for the rest of us to do so. All of these issues—how we write about women musicians, our need for a “real” presence in women’s music, the casual comeback of Chris Brown—are the sorts of things that if left to the devices of our culture to decide, would go unspoken and unaddressed. And thankfully (judging by the Twitter/Facebook/watercooler talk last night and this morning) it seems like we’re speaking up.

One response to “Reflections on the Grammys, Adele, women in music, and Chris Brown

  1. The Grammys are a production, and nothing about what they choose to do is thought provoking, shocking, or uncanny. It was very predicatble that Adele would win the Grammys she did. It was very predictable Chris Brown would perform a number of times the public wasn’t comfortable with. Hell, I’d even say the same of the Juno awards. What I find somewhat strange about award shows, especially for music, is that they string together artists that are distinct on their own, but in a strange way all end up sounding like eachother. The performances begin to all become some amorphous blob of “Here I am, this is MY moment!” I stopped watching the Grammys 4 years ago and haven’t looked back.

    The whole Chris Brown thing unfortunately raises the question of whether certain issues in the public eye are more punishable than others. It raises the question that alot of hip-hop narrative adresses. Who is the pimp and who is the prostitute? Did the Grammys exploit the public’s distaste with domestic abuse? Did the public only care that in this particular case of domestic abuse it was a famous person who was beaten? Did the public only care because it was a famous woman who was beaten? If the gender role was reversed would it even be taken seriously? Does the Chris Brown really owe anything to the public other than what the courts ruled? If Rihanna is allowed to move on from the event, why isn’t he? Did the public and the media manage to both demonize Chris Brown for the sake of creating a story arch that suited their pallette? It’s all very unsavoury to me. I realised a long time ago that as a listener, you are not connected to the musician, you are connected to the music. The artist is making deliberate choices to make a sub-conscious response evoke from the listener.

    The persona of the person performing them in and of itself is a valid art-form. Take for instance Lady-Gaga. She thematically makes choices that encompases every aspect of her work: videos, music, costumes, live performances, lyrics, interviews, etc. With her, and other artists/performers, no one thing is independent from what they’re producing except themselves. The self has to be dead in order to do what they do. They have to take experiences from the outside, internalise them, and objectively step back to understand what they’re doing. I don’t buy into anyone who claims the artist as person, as who they are, is in their art. Even Adele.

    Adele released a commercially brilliant album, that actually creates an intimate feel for the listener. The lyrics and music is simple, but it forces the listener to reflect on their own personal memories. Her album had the feel of a memoir, where the author tries their best to recall the events, and there’s a ring of truth in it, but the reader takes into account that memory is faulty. What is interesting about the album is that you begin with a track like “Rolling in the Deep” which is vengeful, energetic, and visceral and end the album with “Someone Like You” which is quite the opposite. “Someone Like You” leaves the listener feeling unsettled, unaffirmed, and uneasy but in a more simple, therefore more ‘honest’ feeling way than when you begin with “Rolling in The Deep”. The narrator starts out being angered and vengeful in the first few tracks. Things begin to settle around “Don’t You Remember” and climax at “Set Fire to The Rain”. A glimmer of hope is offered in her cover of “Lovesong” preceeding “Someone Like You”. It’s a pretty typical story-arch for most albums. If I am honest, I did not like this album. I respect that she writes her own lyrics, and I get that she offers something that Stephen Colbert might call “truthiness”, but the narrative was predictable. It’s different compared to most mainstream/popular music, it ‘feels’ less processed. But, I feel no more connected to Adele than I do to Amy Winehouse even though I like Back to Black and Frank much better than Adele’s 19 and 21. Especially in the narrative of Back to Black, we’re introduced with “Rehab” and get to know a narrator/character that isn’t particularly likeable “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no!” as opposed to 21 openening with “There’s a fire starting in my heart reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out of the dark.” Even in the most intimate song on Back to Black (the title track) the listener hears “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet, with his same ol’ safe bet. Me and my head high, get on without my guy. You went on to what you knew so far removed from all that we went through.” Contrast that with Adele’s “Rumour Has It” which begins with “She ain’t real, she ain’t going to be able to love you like I will.” Unfortuneately, someone will throw “But Amy was addicted to drugs and Adele has been through throat surgery.” It doesn’t matter, the artist to me is dead the moment they put something out publicly. Adele is still growing as an artist, it’s just for now she is trying to mean everything to everyone.

    Now, I can’t honestly say that gender does not affect narrative. It does, both from the artist’s perspective and the audience. Our culture is focused on gender, it is inescapable even in the English language i.e ‘his’ ‘hers’ ‘she’ ‘he’ etc. It is not possible to escape gender in anything. It is, however, possible that gender has too big an influence on the way music is marketed and presented. The same goes for sexuality and music. However, the number of responses and the way a listener responds to music is beyond the artist. The artist does, however, get to control what ‘it’ is exactly the listener is responding to. There is always a shared experience between the two, and half the fun is figuring out where they meet. However, there are certain things I can not imagine coming from anyplace except from the gender of the person who composed them. Even though I’m female, and many of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s songs do resonate with me on many levels, and I’m personally very attatched to the “By the Way” album, I can not imagine these things coming from a female place. Sure, masculinity and feminity can become blurred and confused, but certain lyrical narratives and even musical sounds to me seem to have a ‘male’ or ‘female’ energy to me. I also notice that Progressive Rock like Rush, seems to adorn more male fans and artists like Serena Ryder will get more female attention. But, that’s not to say there isn’t exceptions, or blending, or that there isn’t an objective way to observe the music.

    When I say objective, I mean we should get back to hearing music like we read books. There are genres, there are categories, there are albums. They are whole works that should be fully heard. Listening to one song is like reading only one chapter. There are also adaptations, odes, homages, references, and allusions to other works. The authors should be secondary to the critique and analysis of the work, and the same rules should apply to music. This is how it would be in an ideal world, but unfortunately this isn’t how music is consumed. Espeically now when you’ve got artists like GirlTalk who throw a cocktail mix of music together. But, I can stand GirlTalk doing that, I can’t stand award-shows and how they present it. With award shows, it’s very half-ass, commercialised, and not very thought provoking. Artists like GirlTalk take familiar things to us and turn them upside down especially in tracks like “Play Your Part pt. 1″ however, his stuff is considered illegal and breaks alot of copyright laws. The Grammys to me celebrates mediocirty and knowing where your place is. Culture isn’t stagnant, it isn’t untouchable, and its alive, but in order to create there has to be a detatchment of self on some level, which is why I think there’s a palpable movent of people rejecting Hollywood or messing with it. Hollywood is self-obsessed and its unfortunate that so many artists of different mediums prostitute themselves… and Hollywood prostitutes itself to artists and the public… and its all a bit tiring. It’s tiring that everything has to be seen in dichotomies of male vs. female, good vs. bad, pimp vs. prostitute, addict vs. dealer, comfort vs. shock, or the heros finally getting their day in the sun.

    I agree with most of this article, but I feel that it is just time that we stopped caring. Everyone should miss at least one Grammy award show, and not check who won or what happened, including me. The Grammys represent the established, the packaged product we have all come to rely on, our favourite pusher who is addicted to their own drugs. But, I know that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, I think the best any of us can do, is to presume the artists self dead and consider anything unrelated to their work just as culturally irrelevant or relevant as though an unfamous person has done.

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