Take the crown
Beyoncé, Beck and an opportunity missed at the Grammys

An album of frank sexual expression, written by a woman, is still a rarity in popular music – even more so when the woman in question is also a mother. Beyoncé’s fifth, self-titled album, released without warning at the end of 2013, is that rarity. Beyoncé is a major work by a major artist: a daring, wide-ranging account of desire, written in celebration and without guilt, but tinged by the adult anxieties of marriage and parenthood. It is an album of the female self which answers to no one, appeases no one – confident, commanding and entirely, explicitly feminist.

As if this wasn’t enough for the album to be a landmark, Beyoncé also set new standards for the music industry itself. It is an “audio-visual” album: fourteen songs and seventeen videos, with each video elucidating the thematic concerns of the songs. This mammoth creative undertaking remained secret right through until the album’s release – there was no leak, no advance word. Where other artists scramble to stay ahead of the online hype cycle – Björk was recently forced to release her new album a month early, after it leaked – Beyoncé made everybody race to catch up with her. She is powerful, that’s certain, and unafraid of her power.

Nearly everyone – fans, critics, peers – expected Beyoncé to win Album of the Year at yesterday’s Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Prince walked on to present the award, and the audience gave him a standing ovation. He is Prince, after all. “Albums still matter,” he said, “like books, and black lives.” The reference to America’s recently renewed civil rights protest movement was lost on no one, and the stage seemed set for one pop genius to crown another. The envelope was opened, and Prince announced the winner: Beck, for Morning Phase.

Beck is from Los Angeles, he is fourty-four years old, and Morning Phase is his twelfth studio album. Beck is a polymath: he plays several instruments, and his music has encompassed a variety of genres, from country rock to minimal electronica to a kind of skewed, screwy folk style with which he first broke through in the early 1990s and to which he has periodically returned. He has collaborated with many musicians and artists, and his Song Reader project, which involves a collection of sheet music, is an imaginative reworking of the album format – but then, so is Beyoncé.

Beyoncé first entered a recording studio when she was 11, and she has sustained a massively successful musical career since her teenage years in the trio Destiny’s Child. Not many artists make the transition from teen pop star to adult solo artist as well as Beyoncé has. It is a particularly difficult switch for women, to whom only two archetypes are offered: virgin or whore. Young female pop stars – Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna – are routinely belittled for leaving their “good girl” behind, even when, hypocritically, audience and industry alike expect this script to be adhered to.

Part of the strength of Beyoncé is that it refuses these binaries. In the past, Beyoncé has cordoned off her “bad” self to an alter-ego, Sasha Fierce. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It), for instance, her 2008 single with its zeitgeist-defining video, was a Sasha song – and even then, the song expressed a traditional, pro-marriage sentiment. “What I deserve/Is a man that makes me,” she sang. By contrast, the songs on Beyoncé concerning marriage are much more pensive. “Been having conversations about separations and break-ups/I’m not feeling like myself since the baby/Are we gonna even make it?” asks Beyoncé on ‘Mine’, rushing through her words as if chasing her troubled thoughts down.

Even so, there are a number of songs on Beyoncé – ‘Blow’, ‘Partition’, and the mammoth ‘Drunk In Love’, which won two Grammys yesterday for Best R&B Performance and Song – which honour a joyful, sexually fulfilling married relationship. Fights! Jealousy! Sex! Postpartum depression! Beyoncé is an everywoman! Well, not really – but the point is that Beyoncé is an album written and performed by a woman that other women can relate to, intimately. And I think this has everything to do with why it failed to win Album Of the Year. In years to come, Beyoncé will be spoken of in the same terms as albums like Aretha Franklin’s Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You, Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis – none of which won Grammys, either. The history of popular music looks very different from a female perspective.

Beyoncé did win the 2015 Grammy for Best Surround Sound, recognising the album’s technical achievement. Beyoncé herself was one of the producers. There’s an argument to be made that Beyoncé has enough awards already – including twenty Grammys, after her three wins yesterday – and will do just fine without another one. She will do fine, but that’s not the point. The symbolic importance of Beyoncé being recognised as an album of consummate artistry should not be overlooked. Beck made an album that many people loved, but Beyoncé made an album that many people loved and which shook the music industry and which represents the creative pinnacle of her already formidable catalogue – and it still wasn’t enough. If you visit your nearest music store, you won’t find Beyoncé filed under “Popular”. You’ll find her under “Urban” – along with all the other black artists, like her husband Jay-Z and her colleague Kanye West, who can dominate the industry and yet still find themselves, artistically, placed into the category of ‘other’.

Kanye West pranked the watching world yesterday, momentarily taking the stage after Beck’s surprise win in what looked to be a sequel to his infamous disturbance of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where he interrupted Female Video winner Taylor Swift and declared that Beyoncé should have won instead, for “Single Ladies”. At yesterday’s Grammys he approached the microphone – then, grinning and waving his hand, he walked away again. It was a joke at his own expense – though many people seemed reluctant to give West any credit for humour or self-awareness – but it was a joke with a sting in it. Beyoncé deserved to win, said West, without having to say it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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