Beyoncé won six Grammys Sunday night, the most any woman has won in one night. This success eclipsed her surprisingly boring medley early in the show, in which Beyoncé repeatedly threw her hair back in a false display of passion, all the while surrounded by a squadron of militaristic men in black-suited TAC Squad outfits. We’ve come a long way from the rebellious rock stars of the 1960s, and the soulful and truly passionate voices of Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, and the stars of Motown.
In their place we have Beyoncé, spokeswoman for WalMart and American Express, whose “no drama” persona has brought misguided comparisons to Michelle Obama. The contrast between the staged passion of Beyoncé and the spirited performance by Lady Gaga was striking, but it was Beyoncé’s night. Beyoncé provides the homogenized sound that today’s music industry touts, and which it rewards as the best it has to offer.
Beyoncé has been a great star since childhood, and has gotten to the top through hard work, dedication, good looks and a powerful singing voice. But she seems to have gone through a corporate homogenization machine that has deprived her of real passion, real soul, and of the ability to express true feelings and emotions in her songs.
I’m no defender of Michael Jackson, but until near the end of his life nobody found his performances boring. To the contrary, his “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” videos were incendiary, and left an indelible impression on millions of fans across the world.
And Jackson did break barriers by becoming the first African-American to be featured in MTV videos.
I wonder which, if any, Beyoncé performance has stuck in peoples’ minds. She sings a form of generic soul/hip hop/pop that is great on the radio for a few months but, like the sugar flavor leaving the bubblegum, demands constant new flavors.
It may be that artists in the pre-download era had more freedom to experiment because people still bought albums. In contrast, Beyoncé desire for superstardom requires a sound that ensures maximum profit making in all available formats, including cds, dvds, downloads, YouTube, and other videos.
“What’s Good for Beyoncé is Good for the Grammys”
That’s how the New York Times saw it in its coverage of the Grammys, which is why Beyoncé ’s piling up awards cannot be disparaged as not reflecting the true breadth of music industry opinion.
This is not the Grammys of the 1960’s, when the Beatles lost out to Henry Mancini and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were not even nominated. Nor is it the Grammys of the Lionel Ritchie, Eagles, Kenny G days, when older voters not attuned to new artists or musical trends held sway.
Today’s Grammys electorate includes a far higher percentage of young people and women. So it is difficult to quarrel with the Times’ assessment that Beyoncé personifies where the music industry wants to be.
And that’s sad.
Like the piped in sounds designed to spread cool vibes at Starbucks, Beyoncé has created a sound and public image that gets young girls to actually purchase CD’s while also swaying those eligible to vote for music awards.
That’s what the music industry wants, and what Beyoncé has mastered.
Cultural critic Farai Chideya compares Beyoncé to Michelle Obama, because she is a “poised, beautiful black woman who is completely appropriate to what is not truly a post-racial era, but a multiracial era.”
Sorry, but Michelle Obama has an authenticity that the music industry largely drained from Beyoncé years ago. I’ll start believing the comparisons when Ms. Obama wears hair extensions and dyes her hair blonde.
Beyoncé’s False Passion
Overlooked amidst Beyoncé’s Grammy awards was the symbolism of her choosing to sing Alanis Morisette’s classic “You Oughta Know.” This became the greatest “betrayed woman calling out her lying ex-lover” song of its era, and Morisette’s album featuring it has sold 30 million units worldwide.
Recall how you felt when you first heard that song. Morisette clearly sang from the bitterness of personal experience, while Beyoncé sang it at the Grammys to generate a sense of authenticity she now lacks.
False passion has always sold. The difference today is that the music industry elevates it to high art, which is why Beyoncé is the perfect standard-bearer for her era.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook
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