As I watched the Grammys last night, something became painfully obvious about the performances I was seeing: black artists were centered on entertaining and white artists were focused on the music, and something didn’t sit right with that distinction in my mind.
I didn’t want to make it a race issue but the difference seemed so clear. I checked with a few friends behind the scenes before I made any sort of comment to see if what I observed was a true reflection of what was really happening on stage, and they confirmed that it was.
I didn’t notice the huge difference until the Beach Boys were on stage and I thought, these men haven’t performed in 20 years and they’re on stage killing it—not to mention the performances by Maroon 5, Foster the People, and Coldplay that came before them. So far, the only R&B representatives had been Chris Brown, who lip synched and danced his way across what someone on Twitter called failed Tetris pieces, and Rihanna, who basically gave exactly what I expected, although others said she either found or lost her vocals in a hopeless place.
Toward the end of the show, I thought how interesting that the best performance of the night was just a woman with a microphone and a powerful voice, but even without Adele rolling in the deep, Carrie Underwood, Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, and Kelly Clarkson killed the ceremony. By the time I saw Nicki Minaj exorcise Roman Polanski, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Every black artist was more concerned with theatrics and putting on a “performance” than exercising the very thing that earns a Grammy nomination: their voice. Had it not been for the need for Jennifer Hudson to perform a tribute, the best soul representative would have been Stevie Wonder who essentially sung the word “yesterday” after playing the harmonica. Besides Alicia Keys, he was also the only black artist to play an instrument. Of course, that’s not necessarily a requirement of being an exceptional musician, but it was yet another difference I observed.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to give the audience something to see, but you should also give them something to hear. The Grammy’s is about music—you know the thing you create with wind and bass instruments, a computer, and singing. At a show like that, there should be no lip synching—Chris, or sounding out of breath and off key because you put more time into a mini-movie than rehearsing your vocals—Nicki, or using gyrations and a team of dancers to mask failed notes—Rihanna—although I didn’t think she sounded nearly as bad as some people made her performance out to be. Taylor Swift came the closest to singing and actually putting on a show with a themed set, but she’s in a totally different genre and she still made me want to call up Bey and ask why she couldn’t find a baby sitter for Blue Ivy that night and show ‘em that good dance moves should never take precedent over vocal ability.
What I basically observed from the black performers was sloppiness, and an assumption of laziness on their part. You can’t be a great entertainer if you don’t have the total package. Why do we call Michael Jackson the greatest entertainer of all time? Because he could moonwalk across the stage while hitting high notes, grabbing his crotch, and ad libing. Why do some people call Beyonce the second coming of Michael Jackson? Because she can “uh oh” and “single lady” it across the stage without missing a key. Why won’t people buy tickets to Rihanna’s concerts? Because she just doesn’t care, as evidenced by a lackluster performance and her taste for vocal-damaging blunts on vacation. And while I know the individuals who performed on last night’s show were not the cream of the R&B crop, they were chosen by the association as representatives of the genre—essentially saying they’re the best thing we’ve got going right now.
Perhaps it’s the age difference that’s more central to this issue than race—and yes I do know that Madonna sadly lip synched her way through the Super Bowl halftime show last Sunday—but that still leaves us questioning where music will be 10 or 20 years from now, and explains why so many are taking the death of Whitney Houston so hard. Will we be handing out lifetime achievement awards to the guy who works the autotune machine rather than a live singer? Will we be forced to celebrate mediocrity or high album sales over true talent because it simply doesn’t really exist in the mainstream anymore?
Black artists used to be the center of the music industry. So much of what we did and the trends we set became a part of every other genre from rock and roll to country and pop. We do, arguably, still have that influence, but not for any reasons worth bragging about. It’s not because we’re necessarily showcasing the talent, we just know how to command attention, and music is about more than that. A lot of people question whether Nicki Minaj is unfairly criticized for her antics when you compare her to Lady Gaga, but for every outrageous outfit and set Gaga performs in, her vocals are still on point. Someone in Nicki’s camp still refuses to tell her to stick to rap because she can’t actually sing.
The lack of quality can’t solely be blamed on the recording industry either. Sure, artists with the best voices aren’t always given the shine they deserve but no one can stop the one’s who have made it from practicing and working to get better and building their stamina so they can sing and dance, they just have to want it for themselves and stop relying on pyrotechnics to solidify their place in the business. Chris Brown had an opportunity to really make us look at him now after a three-year hiatus, and all I wanted to do was turn the TV. If that’s what I should come to expect from the R&B genre going forward, I think I’ll pass.
Did you think black artists came up short in the vocal performances last night? Do you think black artists in particular don’t care about honing their craft anymore or has the whole industry gone downhill?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.