By Guest Contributor David Kline
Reviewing the outcomes of this year’s Grammy Awards, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times described how, “for the umpteenth time, the Grammys went with familiarity over risk, bestowing album of the year honors (and several more) on an album that reinforced the values of an older generation suspicious of change.”
For Caramanica, the issue is not the quality of Adele’s musical offerings, but that her spectacular success at the Grammys – her album 21 brought her six awards, including Album of the Year and Song of the Year for “Rolling in the Deep – represents a particular cultural refusal of progressivism, a nostalgic clinging onto the safety and familiarity of a tried and true musical conservatism. What I want to suggest is that this nostalgia might also be understood as certain kind of white nostalgia for cultural dominance that is perceived as threatened within what is now known as the “post-racial.”
Within the post-racial, which names the illusion that race has been dissolved as a meaningful aspect of social discourse, there is a great tension inside whiteness itself, because while it certainly continues to exercise its power of social dominance, it has had to give up certain privileges of visibility that it once enjoyed. The reality is that whiteness no longer enjoys the full and unencumbered access to the spotlight of cultural influence that it once did. For example, where a televised show like the Grammy Awards was once dominated by images of white bodies (with the occasional black body), the racially diverse performance lineup represented by this year’s Grammys has become commonplace. The reality is that white bodies no longer dominate as the primary images of the show and others like it. At first glance, it would appear that the Grammys have entered into a “post-racial” moment.
Yet, when “post-racial” is understood for what it really is, the racial dynamic of this year’s Grammy Awards becomes much more complex. For in reality, this year’s awards show represents quite clearly that whiteness still can maneuver itself as the apex of cultural iconicity. In the end, this year’s Grammys was nothing more than an exercise in white nostalgia for a bygone era when white music (much of which was a mirrored version of black creativity) enjoyed its place at the top of the music industry’s most privileged spaces.
Such white nostalgia becomes conspicuously evident when this year’s Grammy performances are surveyed. Despite the provocative and flaccidly controversial performance of Nicki Minaj’s “Roman Holiday”(for an ongoing discussion see this thread) and a few other younger acts including Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to the recently deceased Whitney Houston, most up and coming artists exemplifying what might be described as a more progressive stream (i.e. music that doesn’t simply recycle old forms and sounds) within mainstream pop music were accompanied by more traditional acts. It was as if these artists were only being made legitimate by being allowed to perform with more established, authorative, and, most importantly, white figures.
For example, Rihanna’s performance, starting off with the sexually charged and sinister dance theme “We Found Love,” was met and quickly stifled with a bland duet with Chris Martin and then the clichéd anthems of Coldplay’s calm aura of non-threatening white British rock. In the end, the electric energy of Rihanna’s black body is literally overshadowed by four white men playing very conservative rock n roll. In contrast to these pairings, as Caramanica notes, “more traditional artists like Adele, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and Paul McCartney got to perform unencumbered.”
Another moment that might be interpreted under to rubric of the post-racial happened when former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, accepting the award for best Rock album of 2011 at this year’s Grammy Awards, had this to say:
For me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of making rock is the most important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning your craft is the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about sounding correct. It’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [points to heart] and what goes on in here [points to head].
For most people, this might come off as a rather uncontroversial statement about the process of recording music. But when one realizes that the majority of the acts at the Grammys that might represent more or less what Grohl was talking about (“non-computer driven, singing into a microphone while playing an instrument” type music) were white (Jennifer Hudson and Bruno Mars being the exceptions), his statement takes on a whole different meaning. The key term here is “human element.”
For what Grohl is really saying is that forms of music that are not produced in the way that he has determined as traditionally “authentic” (i.e. analog, raw, and unencumbered by technology’s ability to manipulate sound in ways that “improve” it) is somehow below the ideal of the musically human. In other words, hearing Grohl’s statement within the context of the Grammy performances, almost every black act that performed was inauthentically human, while almost every white act that performed, with their unprocessed vocals and guitar driven sounds, was able to remain within that descriptive realm.
This is not to say that Grohl was being intentionally racist (and his comments can certainly be read in a very different light), but rather that he was simply operating within the realm of a white nostalgia that still longs for its own claim to a sort of musical authenticity that has been challenged over the last three decades with the advent of electronically driven musical forms, most notably the various forms associated with the signifier “hip-hop.”
If all of this is quite unbelievable for some, consider the way the Grammys began and the way it ended: Bruce Springsteen at the front and Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, and Dave Grohl at the end. For all of the racial diversity of the performers, white men end up framing the entire show. It also is worth noting here that Springsteen and Grohl, along with Elvis Costello, had already closed the Grammys in 2003 with a memorial tribute to Joe Strummer of The Clash.
In contrast to this year’s Whitney Houston memorial, which was sandwiched between the Chris Brown double-feature, the Strummer memorial enjoyed the privilege of closing the show, capping the Grammys off with the indelible image of white males (with the exception of No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, who is of Indian descent) playing traditionally white music. This year’s ending proved no different. Caramanica is worth quoting here:
Forget women, Forget black or Latin stars or those of any other ethnic background. In a year in which the Grammys could have reasonably tried to sell progress as a narrative, it chose to end the night with a phalanx of older white men playing guitars, a battalion guarding the rickety old castle from attack, a defiant stand of yesteryear.
Such a “defiant stand of yesteryear,” it appears, is not only a nostalgia for the dominant musical forms and sounds of a past time, it is also a nostalgia for a time when white bodies enjoyed the spotlight as the undisputed image of a cultural status quo. Certainly we live in a different time when this status quo is being challenged with much success, and some might point to this year’s Grammys’ racially diverse lineup as a testament to that. Yet in a world where race is thought to no longer matter, it seems that white men still get to mark the boundaries of artistic humanity and cultural authenticity.