An Annoyed Rant On The Beck/Beyonce Thing

I’m seeing a lot of people sharing things about how Beck deserved the Grammy more than Beyonce. I’m not a fan of either, and I’ve never heard either album, so I don’t have an opinion on which album deserved to win.

But one thing I’m *very* tired of is the “I’m going to compare these lyrics by a white man with a guitar to these lyrics by a black person/woman/person who doesn’t use a guitar, and the white man with a guitar’s lyrics will be very slightly more coherent, and that will prove something about musical quality” pseudo-argument. It’s smug, and it’s nasty, and it’s not playing fair.

Some songwriters, say Leonard Cohen as an example, put most of their efforts into the lyrics. And some of them produce great stuff.
But you know who’s also great? At least as great as Leonard Cohen?
Little Richard.
Sample Little Richard lyrics:
“Awopbopaloolopalopbamboom, tutti frutti, oh rutti, tutti frutti, oh rutti, tutti frutti, oh rutti, tutti frutti, oh rutti, tutti frutti, oh rutti, tutti frutti, oh rutti, awopbopaloolopalopbamboom”
“Bamalamalamaloo, bamalamalamaloo, bamalamalamaloo, bamalamalamaloo, man I dig her smile, she’s trying to drive me wild with bamalamalamalamalamaloo”
“Baby baby, baby baby, baby, Don’t you know my love is true ooo, Honey honey, honey honey, honey, Get off of that money, Kiss kiss, kiss kiss, kiss, Ooh! My soul”

You know who’s even better than both Leonard Cohen *and* Little Richard? Bach. And the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations have *no words whatsoever*. Lazy bugger wasn’t even trying. At least Little Richard made some mouth noises.

Now, personally, I couldn’t care less about the Grammys. They have consistently rewarded mediocrity at the expense of art — my favourite example is when in 1967, Eleanor Rigby, Good Vibrations, Cherish, Last Train to Clarksville and Monday Monday were all nominated for Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Record, but beaten by Winchester Cathedral by the New Vaudeville Band — but at least they’re attempting to judge music as music, however badly they fail.

Judging a record purely on its lyrics is to ignore about 90% of what makes music worth listening to — and is also, incidentally, a good way to marginalise music that is not usually made by white men with guitars, as lyrics are usually far less important in dance music than in other forms.

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26 Responses to An Annoyed Rant On The Beck/Beyonce Thing

  1. IMHO top five guitarists ever has one white man in it, at number four.

    Jimi Hendrix (black), Carlos Santana (Hispanic), Tom Morello (mixed race – Irish/Kenyan), Gary Moore (token White Guy), Slash (Black Liverpudlian).

    The “white guys with guitars” thing wouldn’t piss me off so much if they weren’t consistently outclassed by other skin colours, never mind going into lady guitarists (a big beef of mine at the moment, as you can imagine). Now I’m sure people will argue with my choices there, so let the arguments begin

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Well, if we’re doing top five guitarists ever, my five would be a different list, but much the same mix:
      5) Charlie Christian (black, invented electric guitar playing)
      4) Sister Rosetta Tharpe (black, invented most of the stuff people did for the next sixty years)
      3) Chuck Berry (black, invented rock & roll)
      2) Django Rheinhardt (Romany)
      1) Frank Zappa (white).

      • misssbgmail says:

        One of those sounds like she might be a lady. That was my top five MALE guitarists. Thought I’d made that clear in the comment, sorry.

        Top ten would include BB King, Chuck Berry & Django, but also Brian May.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Ah, right, for top five male guitarists, swap out Sister Rosetta (who definitely was a lady) for Peter Green (Jewish).

    • Mary Lea says:

      I really need to update my play list.

      Who are your top five female guitar players?

  2. prankster36 says:

    As a fan of Beck in the late 90s (who hasn’t heard his latest album or most of the stuff he’s done in the last decade) I would say it’s pretty ironic if people are saying Beck’s album is better on a *lyrical* basis, since his stuff is famously stream-of-consciousness and nonsensical. It’s possible people try to compare him to Dylan’s similarly weird lyrics and maybe there’s a “secret meaning” to it all, but Beck himself has always seemed to argue that it’s just word salad and you shouldn’t take it seriously.

  3. Mary Lea says:

    I now desperately want to go down the pub and have this argument, and pretend that all the clever ideas are mine.

    I won’t, of course, but I am definitely pointing people to this post.

  4. Larry S. says:

    Bless you, Andrew – the range of music you love is very heartening (and I love Little Richard – the first rock and roll vocalist I ever heard who un-nerved me, I had never heard anyone sing like that before, he had a voice like an animal).

    I don’t believe The Beatles won a Grammy during their existence…

  5. londonKdS says:

    Yes, viewing the “literary” nature of lyrics as the sole important thing about pop music is very silly and often has racist and sexist effects.

    A slightly more peculiar, but still annoying version of this that I see is that music critics of this type have now finally allowed the best African-American disco music into their canon, but still refuse to accept disco music made by white people even when it’s just as good. Now you could argue that white disco music is cultural appropriation, but I get the impression that the people we’re talking about think that black people are “naturally” the producers of dance music without lyrics that overtly “say something”, but that white people should be subject to higher expectations.

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    “Viewing the “literary” nature of lyrics as the sole important thing about pop music is very silly and often has racist and sexist effects.”

    This statement worries me. Isn’t it much more racist to assume up front that non-white people shouldn’t be expected to write coherent lyrics?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      If you phrase it that way, then yes, but that’s not how it’s phrased. Black culture in the US has always prized rhythm and improvisational ability over melody or lyrics, when compared to white culture. That doesn’t mean that black people are any less capable of writing good melodies or lyrics, but it *does* mean that someone brought up in black culture will be more likely to channel their inventiveness into coming up with, say, the Bo Diddley beat than into areas prized by white society. It also means that even when black songwriters do concentrate on lyrics, those lyrics will often be chosen for rhythmic, rather than melodic, functionality, leading to a lot of short, hard, syllables, which tend to sound aggressive. On top of that, black vernacular speech is coded as ill-educated, so anyone writing in that way will come off as being a “bad writer” to the kind of people who judge music purely by lyrics.
      Black people are, by any measure, *obviously*, *blatantly* as capable as anyone else of coming up with the kinds of songs that white culture values. But those aren’t exactly the same kinds of songs that black culture values, and judging someone who is trying to come up with a new sound or rhythm on the basis of whether they come up with great lyrics is as wrong as dismissing Leonard Cohen because no-one can dance to Suzanne or Bird On A Wire. But it’s considered far more acceptable to do the former than it is to do the latter, and that *is*, I think, at least partly because of racism. Certainly a lot of black artists, most notably Bo Diddley, have thought so.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Thanks, that makes sense.

        (Next on the TO DO list: eradicate these notions of “white culture” and “black culture” — or at least the barriers that still seems to exist between them, particularly in America.)

      • gavinburrows says:

        All very true, of course.

        But also, because white people often saw rhythm as the foundations of a song (bass as base, and so on), very often in music history they’d add some melodic element to the top, or write some more white-folks-friendly set of words, and claim ownership. They were often quite literally able to claim ownership, because you can copyright a melody but not a rhythm.

        It’s kind of like if I tried to take credit for everything you said above because of this one comment I’m making at the end.

      • LondonKdS says:

        Yes, that’s what I meant.

        It works with class as well – see the mainly middle-class rock critics who defend Noel Gallagher’s lyrics as an authentic expression of the soul of the inarticulate working-class man, when if Noel had gone to Eton and Christ Church he’d probably have been just as lazy and untalented a lyricist, just with a more pretentious vocabulary and more literary allusions.

  7. It’s extremely weird to see Beck described as “only” a white guy with a guitar when a great deal of his music is drum machine, sample, and synth based, in addition to his multi-instrumentalist skills. (Seriously, the laundry list of things he plays on each album rivals Neal Peart.) Morning Phase just happens to be one of his guitar albums, as opposed to his hip hop albums like The Information or Guero. Beck is also Jewish, and a practicing Scientologist, so who knows where that puts him.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m not saying anything specifically about Beck here — as I said, I’m pretty much completely unfamiliar with his work. But in these comparisons, it’s *always* a white man with a guitar, someone who is not a white man and doesn’t play guitar, and the white man with the guitar is *always* held up as being the superior artist purely on the basis of a couple of stanzas of lyrics. It’s a single example of a systemic thing (I’ve seen similar things going round before, comparing Led Zeppelin to Britney Spears, or comparing Queen to Beyonce).
      Personally, I don’t have a problem with white men with guitars — I am a white man who plays guitar myself.

      • prankster36 says:

        I’m pretty musically ignorant and I’m not claiming to be a great judge of your tastes, Andrew, but you might enjoy Beck’s work. As I say I can’t really speak for anything he’s done lately, but “Odelay” and “Sea Change” are both terrific, and wildly different, albums. (Odelay is a kind of experimental rhythm-based album that mashes up Hip-Hop, grunge, and Country, among other things; Sea Change is a folk-ish album.)

        And it’s from when I was young and dumb and liked jumping around, so I’m not going to speak to its objective quality (it’s not usually cited among his best), but damn I love this album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yFYYVoJpyI

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I’ve listened to Odelay half a dozen times or so, and it never did anything for me. It wasn’t *unpleasant* or anything — it sounded perfectly fine — but I don’t remember a single track from it (unless Devil’s Haircut was on that one — I have a vague memory of that track and Loser). A lot of people I respect a great deal like Beck’s stuff, and I’m sure there’s a lot there to like, but he never impressed me enough to want to give him any more time…

          • prankster36 says:

            Devil’s Haircut is on Odelay, yes. Beck is one of those guys who shifts genres a lot, so it might be worth trying something else of his even if you weren’t taken with Odelay…I’m actually thinking the album I linked to there, Midnight Vultures, might be worth trying? It’s kind of an 80s funk techno album, a lot more energy and variation than most of his stuff, and less built around drones…but obviously if it’s not your bag it’s not your bag.

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