The Grammys As White Nostalgia?

Courtesy Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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.

  • Pingback: Fear Of Music: “Realness” and Rock Vs. Pop | No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?

  • KS

    I most certainly agree, as
    the author posited, that the Grammys was a reenactment of the era when white
    producers stole copyrights and actual musical numbers from black artists and
    had them copied by white performers (always watered down), an enactment of the
    times when black creativity and artists of such musical genres were not (and
    still are not) given their fair due nor just visibility. I guess I want to make
    sure that music wasn’t being defined in terms of the “whiteness” or “blackness”
    of music. Before any protestations, please hear me out. If the Grammys was such
    an exercise of white nostalgia, the real issue then is the image of the white
    man, the white body as, “mark[ing] the boundaries;” if white men are framing
    the show, then they have also framed music in terms of racially-dependent
    categories, ones they apparently believe they need to defend.  Yes, forms of music are the artistic
    creations of communities, just as jazz and related artistic expressions were
    the creations of black artists and their communities. But to reduce music in
    terms of racial-constants, to suggest that the color of one’s skin lies therin
    an ability or a capacity to perform certain types of music, perform music
    “less-human,” “more human,” OR to display (as the Grammys did) black performers
    as “only being made legitimate by being allowed to perform with more
    established, authorative, and, most importantly, white figures,” is another
    falsity being perpetuated by such reenactments of “white nostalgia.”

            The choice of
    “conservative rock” music certainly reflected an attempt to, as the author
    said, maneuver “whiteness itself as the apex of cultural iconicity,” but let’s
    not buy into the conceptions of the white producers and bigwigs themselves—to
    believe that music exists on a spectrum of “racial essentialisms.” As stated
    before, certainly genres and musical forms are the creations of communities,
    racially-stratified by the racially-informed identity caste present within
    America, and now, as such, are defined as the musical genres of a race, of the
    group of people put in the same, racial categories. Yet, Tracy Chapman is an
    unbelievable folk singer; Eva Cassidy was an amazing blues singer—two examples,
    for which I’m sure there are many others, just not those (again indicative of
    this issue) that are VISIBLE. Did some unchanging principle within the color of
    their skin, whether deemed “white” or “black,” make them less or more capable
    of such music outside of their “racial” genre? No. To think so would be to
    again buy into the myths of those arbiters of the status quo who assume such
    social dominance and perpetuate such ideas of racial categorization and
    typology. The racial categories that this culture puts us in, supposedly
    informing us of our “status” and intrinsic nature, are so completely reductive
    to the individual, to human beings. It’s not the skin, it’s the category based on the skin, society puts us in that “informs” us
    of our privileges, abilities, and lack thereof—it’s not some unchanging essence
    within pigmentation itself rendering our musical proclivities or capacities. We
    can talk of music being representative of racial communities and traditions,
    but let’s not define music in terms of racial-constants. It’s the choice of the
    WHITE IMAGE, the choice of Adele’s “western, white-defined” image, the opening and closing of white men, and the
    choice to “legitimize” musical forms as being safer and better when surrounded
    AND played by white figures that makes this endeavor to claim some sort of
    “white,” musical authenticity so completely “a defiant stand of yesteryear.”

  • Anonymous

    Ironically, Neil Peart is actually Grohl’s favorite drummer and Rush is one of his favorite groups.  It’s even more ironic that Grohl talks about people learning their instruments, since the musical genre in which he rose to fame, most of the critics who fawn over his music, and his own drummer in the Foo Fighters all have a healthy contempt for the display of musical competence.   Rush has never really been respected by the “alternative” critics who love the Foo Fighters so much because Rush actually took the time to learn how to play their instruments well.  

    That said, it should be pointed out  that technology has turned many forms of pop music into producer’s mediums that downplay actual vocal and instrumental ability, rather than enhance or improve it.  The rare examples on the other end of the spectrum seldom win awards.   

    • Anonymous

       I think that’s a fair point, but at the same time it’s not as if it doesn’t take a lot of skill on the part of these producers to make the records that they do. I don’t rate Britney Spears very highly, but I can’t deny that her producers must be very talented given that everything she churns out seems immaculately and meticulously constructed. It seems producers have taken on greater roles as musicians in their own right.

  • Anonymous

    How do you think we feel? I’ve been on this site since 2006. There’s a list of things we just stopped covering because they happen so much. But clearly, since we haven’t learned from history, it’s going to repeat like a scratched cd…

    • Anonymous

      You probably feel the same way that I do: disgusted and then some. I’m not complaining at all about Racialicious … I’m just making a statement about this shi**y state of affairs. Honestly, I’m depressed as hell and this history loop is … I can hardly express how it makes me feel: mental health,  the isms are detrimental to my mental health.

      On a cheerier note, I admire the work that all of you do and sometimes I wonder how you keep it up. You will always have my support. :)

  • Anonymous

    People like Adele are often well-liked because they reinforce the old
    ways while providing comfort to those who have a disconnect from the way
    music actually works. Thinking autotune is only ever used to cover up
    bad singing, rather than for artistic effect in the same way other
    electronic tools are is a way to undermine the artistry involved in
    using technology to craft complicated sounds. They also represent the fear of a previous
    generation of music listeners that they are somehow being fooled, like the
    erroneous idea that autotune can make a bad singer good seems to come
    from a fear of being deceived by technology and that the emotional
    expressions are “inauthentic”. That this dislike and disrespect always 
    comes from people rooted in old white male rock traditions and is often aimed
    at the forms of musical expression most embraced by women, people of
    color and gay people is not coincidental. Entire genres of music have
    had to work much harder to even be noticed because they didn’t embrace
    the straightforward approach or instrumentation of white guy rock.

    That the Foo Fighters continue to win Rock Album of the Year despite not evolving much in sound or approach between records says a lot. Coldplay’s music may be anodine, but their recent efforts at least showed a greater expansion of their sound and a willingness to embrace some of the electronic sounds and sonic efforts of modern music and incorporate them into their current sound. As generally “meh” as they remain, you can tell they at least listen to recent music and find it fascinating enough to function as a reference point.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    There were a lot of interesting points made. But I think this all boils down to ratings. Everything on network TV is aimed at White people, period. Even the People of Color we see on network TV are there because they are seen as acceptable to White people. Do you really think Sherri Sheppard is on The View to get Black women to watch?  Do you think the Black girl on Glee is there to pull in Black viewers or the Black woman on Community? Nope.

    Have you seen American Idol lately? The last few seasons have been almost lily white as far as the contestants who make it to the final rounds. Is this by chance? Remember the early seasons of AI and how it was incredibly diverse. AI is desperate now and is trying to pull in the largest audience possible, which is the White audience.

    Have you seen America’s Next Top Model lately?

    So the Grammys (and Oscars) are no different. It’s about ratings. Which means trying to pull in White viewers. That’s why their was Black face on the Oscars and why White rockers were featured on the Grammys. And why Chris Brown performed twice while Rihanna was actually performing that night. I doubt very seriously if anyone who had assaulted Taylor Swift would have been invited to perform much less on the shame show with her.

    So race is a consideration for sure but I think it’s more a racism of excluding all things unacceptable to Whites without any consideration of what POC might like or not like. And it’s all about the bottom line. When award show ratings are trending up you’ll see more People of Color and when they’re trending down you’ll see more Whites.

    That’s just how American network TV works.

  • http://bmichael.me/ bmichael

    This is a GREAT piece! It’s very good. I just wanted to point out in a polite way that Caramanica’s name is progressively worse spelled as it goes on.

  • Eva

    The Grammys just reflect what is.  The majority of the US are my generation, baby boomers.  Pure and simple.  I also agreed with what Grohl said because I’m tired of autotune and I to wish for the days when singers could really sing and not relay on too much technology.  If that makes me an old fuddy duddy, so be it.

  • STaylor in Austin

    The Grammy’s like the Oscar’s are not and have never been for or about blacks or other people of color. They are industry pagents celebrating their individual industries  power structure. This has nothing to do with the artists, white or black. These are celebrations for the corporations that own and steer the ships of popular music.

    The status quo in most things is the easiest and most natural state for almost anything. Music and film are not different.  The other factor is pure economics. Blacks with the exception of Simmons, Sean Combs, Master P and a few other movers and shakers, aren’t part of the power structure. And even those black industry leaders are beholden to white consumers. As musicologist Arthur Kempton researched more than 70 percent of hip-hop is purchased by whites. I’m sure that the majority of Rhianna’s and other young black stars owe much of their wealth and success to whtie consumers. However, the industry will never turn over the “face” of their industry to people who don’t look like them

    This conversation happens every year with the Oscar’s and the Grammy’s ( and the Emmy’s, remember the lack of Emmy love for  The Wire ). Every year these industry awards shows promise to diversify and they throw a bone every now and then ( Black Maids or prostitutes win, POC who reflect positive aspects of life don’t get any love).

    I am not the demographic for the Grammy’s or most of the music, black or white, they promote

    I haven’t watched the Grammy’s ( or Oscars or Emmy’s) since the 90′s. I just heard Lady Gaga and Adele for the first time in January and couldn’t tell Nicki Minaj from Taylor Swift if you held a gun to my head ( I haven’t knowingly heard either artist).  There’s plenty of music out there other than corporate rap./ rock/ and sort of R and B.  That said, I am, like every other person in Austin, I semi-professional musician. I took Dave Grohl’s comments not as a racist slight. Grohl has stated several times that one of his favorite artists is Little Richard. Grohl has made similar comments that music should  authentic and personal in every aspect not just in vocalization or the overuse and abuse of Auto-tune.

    I’ve always thought the Grammy’s and other industry beauty shows were there not to reward true artists, but to remind all of us that we should enjoy what we’re force fed

    • Anonymous

      I appreciate and agree with just about everything you say there STaylor, with one exception. It is not a stretch for Dave Grohl or anyone in popular music for that matter, to say that Little Richard is one of their favorites. The man practically invented popular music and it has become quite routine (and very safe) at this point to give a nod to Little Richard.  Plus, doing so in no way discounts what has been said about Grohl in this article. Grohl’s admission that Little Richard is one of his favorites can also be seen in the same vain as, “some of my best friends are…”

      • Guest

        damn if grohl do,damn if grohl don’t. 

    • Anonymous

      I can agree with Dave Grohl’s autotune comment, but he also seems to imply anyone who does not play an instrument is somehow a less authentic or less “human” artist. There are many artists throughout time, especially women, who didn’t play an instrument or didn’t even write their own songs but were awesome vocalists. He seems to imply the typical singer/song writer type or rocks musicians are somehow the definitive musicians and at least in the world of popular music, many of these artists are white and male.

  • Anonymous

    I am so grateful blogs like Racialicious exist and that I get the opportunity to at least consider perspectives that otherwise would be far more difficult for me to access. Thank You!