Will Grammys cower to Trump, or make a statement with Beyonce? | Opinion

By Tris McCall You don't remember who won the Grammy Award for Best Album in 2008, and why would you? Televised musical awards shows are mostly just for fun, and not too significant to anyone who isn't involved in the industry. Generally they come and go...

Will Grammys cower to Trump, or make a statement with Beyonce? | Opinion

By Tris McCall

You don't remember who won the Grammy Award for Best Album in 2008, and why would you? Televised musical awards shows are mostly just for fun, and not too significant to anyone who isn't involved in the industry. Generally they come and go without leaving much of a trace on popular culture. Viewers pull hard for their favorites, of course, but the stakes never seem high. 

This year is different. 

The voters of the Recording Academy have the opportunity to bestow its top prizes on an artist whose recent work has been widely received as a statement about black womanhood in a time of peril -- and who has become a living (and dancing, and singing) symbol of principled resistance to patriarchy.

If, as is expected, the 59th Grammy Awards (Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS) becomes a three-hour celebration of Beyonce Knowles, that's going to feel like a repudiation of the priorities and values of the new administration. If Beyonce is snubbed by the voters, that'll be a signal that the mainstream entertainment industry has no stomach for a fight.

She's a favorite. Beyonce leads the field with nine nominations, including three in the major categories of Song, Record, and Album of the Year. "Lemonade", her sixth full-length, has already topped year-end lists at Billboard, Time magazine, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and many other mainstream publications. Its accompanying hourlong movie ("Lemonade", like its predecessor, was sold as a "visual album" -- interrelated music videos were made for each track) impressed film critics as well.

Beyonc - Formation [Clean Video] HD

Although it's an ambitious song cycle designed to be heard as a complete statement, the album has nevertheless spun off several Top 20 hits and sold more than a million copies. "Lemonade" has also won acclaim for the continuity and depth of its narrative: it places its protagonist's story of infidelity and reconciliation in the context of the long African-American struggle for dignity. Perhaps more appealing to Grammy voters who've always been suckers for traditionalism and long looks backward, Beyonce and her producers have taken inspiration from established Southern American styles, including gospel, blues-rock, Memphis soul, and country.  

So it's a shoo-in, right? Not exactly.

Last year, the Recording Academy had the opportunity to bestow its highest honors on "To Pimp A Butterfly", a combative masterwork by rapper Kendrick Lamar that confronted, among many other things, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the inspirational legacy of Nelson Mandela. Instead the Album of the Year gramophone went to a Taylor Swift album largely about Taylor Swift. "1989" is a very good pop album. Nevertheless, its victory felt like a cop-out -- and reluctance to acknowledge that our charged political atmosphere had altered the tone of popular music.

Kendrick Lamar Raps About Travyon Martin At The Grammys

Today, this is even harder to miss. Most of the best music released last year reflected our national unease. Determined to tell their own stories on their own terms, women of color seized the initiative and made uncompromising albums that foregrounded their struggles for self-definition: Jamila Woods's quietly militant "HEAVN," Alicia Keys's passionate "Here," Rihanna's distressed, gorgeous "Anti," Xenia Rubinos's anarchic "Black Terry Cat," Noname's thoughtfully incisive "Telefone," "A Seat At The Table," a cry for equality from Beyonce's younger sister Solange. This was the real story of pop in 2016 -- one that Beyonce both participated in and inspired -- and the Academy can ratify that by honoring "Lemonade," the movement's best-known product.

The political content of "Lemonade" is nowhere near as overt as that on "To Pimp A Butterfly." It is possible to give the album a superficial spin and miss its implications altogether. Yet unlike Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce is a mass-cultural figure whose fame far transcends the limitations of the music industry. Everything she does is magnified -- and what she's been doing lately has made her sympathies manifest. 

She was such a visible supporter of Hillary Clinton that she was singled out by Donald Trump for campaign-trail opprobrium. Police departments objected to her use of Black Panther-like imagery at her Super Bowl appearance and detractors organized protests at her shows. The "Lemonade" movie contained footage of Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter iconography; the video for "Freedom" (which, not coincidentally, features a guest rap from Kendrick Lamar) features the devastated mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner holding up pictures of their sons.

Most notably, her high-profile friendship with the former First Lady has forever aligned her with the Obamas in the minds of millions. Because of her prominence and the associations she carries, she's become the most politically significant pop star in memory. Victory for her is a win for what she represents. Small comfort, in disastrous times, sure -- but not nothing. 

Adele - Hello

There are other worthy artists up for the big prizes at the Grammys this year. Adele, a terrific singer and a fine traditionalist songwriter, deserves all of the plaudits she's gotten. Sturgill Simpson's expansive, courageous country music ought to have a much wider audience than it does. Drake's "Views" album was released to mixed reviews last spring, but time has shown it to be another moody triumph for the Toronto rapper. 

And though he's clearly outclassed in this company, Justin Bieber's latest does have its summertime charms. But I suspect that if you were to ask any of those artists what the Album of the Year was, they'd tap "Lemonade" without any hesitation. Some assessments are confirmed by the facts in the air, and some albums capture their moment better than any newsreel ever could -- and "Lemonade" will forever be welded to the tumultuous events of 2016. 

Should the Academy mess this one up, they'd better have a damn good excuse for their cowardice. 

Tris McCall is a former pop music critic for The Star-Ledger.

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