Op-Ed: Why Beck Was the Wrong Target for Kanye West's Grammy Rant
For about an hour Sunday night, Kanye West seemed to have won his way back into America's good graces, thanks to the mistaken belief that he'd developed the ability to take the piss out of himself. When viewers saw him jump on stage at the Grammys as if to interrupt Beck's big album of the year moment, only to smile and make a "Nah, never mind" gesture and go back to his seat, it was clear -- wrongly clear! -- that he was making a self-deprecatory gag about how much he'd matured since he bum-rushed Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. Who knew? Maybe President Obama would even rescind his "jackass" verdict.
But it's a good thing West hadn't gotten around to cashing all our good-will checks, because then he had to blow it all by going on E! an hour later and explaining that he really had wanted to ruin Beck's moment. Perhaps having been loosened up by a few drinks at the afterparty, or perhaps just drunk on hubris -- certainly not on love -- he told the assembled interviewers: "Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyonce. and at this point, we tired of it." (The E! hosts gamely nodded, as if to agree that Beck's win was an outrage, although to be fair, they were probably suffering from show-biz concussions at the end of a long day.) "Because what happens is when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you're disrespectful to inspiration." Of the Grammys, he said, "We not playing with them no more." And finally, in the third-person: "Y'all know what it meant when 'Ye walked on the stage."
We all know what it means: that he's more dedicated than ever to working toward having his obituary list "national punchline" first, "great artist" second.
The maxim "punch up, not down" seems to never have occurred to West. The stats say a lot: Beyonce has been nominated for a Grammy 54 times, and the three trophies she picked up Sunday put her tally of wins at 20. West himself is the eighth most-awarded Grammy winner of all time, having picked up a statuette 21 times, out of 53 nominations. Which puts him in quite a place to pick on that Grammy hoarder Beck, who was picking up his fourth and fifth trophies this year, after 16 nominations. The "Beck always wins, dammit" meme exists purely in West's head -- as does the bizarre idea that a critically heralded, weak-selling alt-rock guy triumphing over Beyonce clearly means the Grammys are a commercial popularity contest with no interest in "art." But picking on the underdog is a wacky habit that goes back even farther back than West's attempt to throw cold water on Swift (who, at that time, it may be hard to remember now, was more unproven ingénue than the steel rose we've come to know her as).
When he was bullying the Fearless chick, West actually had some supporters, because even a lot of rock & rollers could get behind putting a country-pop singer in her place. But West really put his $245 Nike Air Yeezy 2 signature sneaker in his mouth when he went after Beck, who's paid his dues for over two decades and who literally no one in the world doesn't like (except maybe a half-dozen rabid anti-Scientologists). Beck winning album of the year for the extremely "artistic" Morning Phase comes after he was nominated but missed with the landmark Odelay in 1997 and again with Midnite Vultures in 2001. His triumph this year has been likened to Martin Scorsese finally getting his best director due at the Oscars with The Departed. That crime thriller may not have been the seminal or most important work, but it was quality stuff, and we did not see Judi Dench jumping on stage or having an E! fit because Clint Eastwood was robbed (although we wish we had). In the entire history of awards-dom, at least outside the worlds of professional wrestling or porn, there has never been a spoiler quite as dedicated as West.
The president has yet to weigh in, but West managed to make himself the talk of the morning talkers. "Why take away someone's moment?" asked the conscience of a nation, Al Roker. "And who are you to say that that Beck's album -- who, by the way, I believe is recognized as a very artistic fellow. Hello!" Just in case West thought he'd get support from a single African-American Today host, Tamron Hall added, "The word that bugged me in that rant was, [Beck] needs to 'respect.' No, you need to respect Beck!" Back to Al: "Respect other people. Shut up and sit down and stop it. You've got a beautiful wife, a gorgeous child, a great career. Shut up and stop!"
Kanye, you don't always need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but sometimes it helps.
Perhaps there are some subtleties here that West might have gotten to in a more sober moment. Is there genre bias at work in the Grammys' top categories? Only one real hip-hop record has ever won album of the year: OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, back in 2004. When you look at Beyonce's or West's mammoth number of nominations over the years, it is perhaps startling to see that most of them have been in the R&B or rap categories, which you could consider a form of segregation. But West has been nominated for album of the year twice (albeit no more recently than 2006), and Beyonce did win song of the year for "Single Ladies," so it's not that either of them has been completely ignored in the all-genre categories on their way to having dozens of Grammys each. There is room to have a discussion about how genre or even race is represented in the dispersal of awards -- but that is not the discussion West seemed eager to start.
What the national conversation is about, instead, is West slapping down one of the most revered artists of the industry. He may not have just jumped the shark, he jumped a whole Sharknado -- and even a future photo-op hug with Beck, like the one he shared with Swift last night, may not be enough to restore his reputation as a half-serious person. Our advice? West should record a meta-cover of "Loser" as fast as possible -- lest he effectively be singing "Soy un perdedor" way longer than one credible career can contain.