Sorry Beck, Kanye was right, Beyonce should have won the Grammy

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Clem Bastow

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Beck's Grammy win 'disrespectful to inspiration'

Kanye West's near-confrontation with Beck at the Grammy Awards was no joke, as the rapper says "you all knew what it meant when 'Ye stepped on that stage".

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Occasionally, a piece of opinion writing comes along that is so bafflingly obtuse I am given pause to simply sit back and shake my head in disbelief. So it was yesterday, when the Sydney Morning Herald published an article claiming Beck trumps Beyoncé for artistry.

As you might have guessed based on that headline, music editor Peter Vincent argues that Beck is the more worthy paperweight winner. Why? Well, it's quite simple: "Beyoncé used a team of 25 writers and 16 producers, Beck just one: himself. Another comparison was the number of instrumental credits each artist received. Beck sang and played 17 instruments on Morning Phase including a charango and a zither. Beyoncé sang."

Vincent's article wasn't the only one pushing this agenda: all over the internet, the word went out that Beck was the worthy winner because he's the real artist, despite what Kanye West said about Beyonce.

Beck watches Kanye West, as he decides not to interrupt after Beck won album of the year at the Grammys.

Beck watches Kanye West, as he decides not to interrupt after Beck won album of the year at the Grammys. Photo: Reuters

Yes, Beyoncé worked with a number of producers, one of whom was Knowles-Carter herself. I don't think I need to say anything here about minimising the work of a successful black woman, whose album explores everything from contemporary gender politics to motherhood, in favour of a white dude who delivers an accepted form of "art" by way of vaguely existential acoustica.

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It's true, Beck did play a bunch of instruments on Morning Phase; so did the other sixteen musicians present, the ranks of which include session musicians, like Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Joey Waronker, he has worked with for decades (and who have on occasion lowered themselves to work with pop artists, sorry, stars like Nelly Furtado and Pink).

To suggest that true artistry can only come by way of some ascetic devotion to The Craft that eschews all producers and collaborators is, basically, utter rubbish. How, then, do we explain the creation of classic albums such as The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back that featured multifaceted production values? Is the enduring appeal of David Bowie's "Heroes" rendered null and void because the Thin White Duke collaborated with producers Brian Eno and Tony Visconti?

Criticism of artists who employ collaborators, songwriters and producers is inevitably gendered; pop artists like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Britney Spears are the ones whose liner notes are offered up as proof that their music has no artistic worth, when there are plenty of "serious" albums by male artists that have just as many names in the personnel listings. Mysteriously, those True [male] Artists are almost always white.

Many pieces yesterday suggested that Kanye West was wrong to suggest that Beyoncé is the superior artist of the two, but you know what, these days I'd have to side with Ye. Beck has been slipping into a gentle acoustic coma for years. Whatever eccentric wizardry was present on Stereopathic Soulmanure or Mellow Gold has slowly atrophied into the sort of wistful melodies they play at Starbucks.

Additionally, taking West's comments at face value also misses the broader point he had to make about the Grammys' treatment of black artists. Need I remind you that in 1978 Leo Sayer's You Make Me Feel Like Dancing beat both The Commodores' Brick House and The Emotions' Best Of My Love for Best R&B Song?

I don't particularly care that Morning Phase took out the top gong; chiefly because the Grammys are so incapable of truly connecting with a creative zeitgeist that they make the Oscars giving Crash Best Picture look reasoned, but also because it's precisely the sort of aural porridge that offends absolutely nobody and so is praised by everybody.

Believe me, I've paid my dues as a Beck fan; I camped outside the local record shop for my copies of Odelay and Mutations. I've considered getting a pay cheque tattooed on my arm. But since Hansen returned to the loving arms of Xenu around the turn of the century, his work has become increasingly insular, and as a result, exceedingly dull. Morning Phase was, at best, a callback to Hansen's 2002 mopecore classic Sea Change. (I agree with every entry on David Malitz's roundup of Beck songs with more "artistry" than Morning Phase.)

Working within the confines of pop and R&B, on the other hand, Beyoncé was truly innovative. Yonce/Partition remains one of the most bewilderingly great moments in R&B of the past year.

The fact of the matter is they're both artists, but pieces like Vincent's posit both music and artistry as a zero-sum game.

This is the most tiresome form of "music criticism", which pits the high-value lyricism of the good old days (or their current-day representatives, in this case, Beck) against the apparently witless tripe of today's hit parade, as though no artist in the untouchable '60s or '70s ever sang "wang dang sweet poontang" or "ooh wee chirpy chirpy cheep cheep".

It's the high end version of those graphics that do the round on Tumblr that wail "What happened to music?" and offer a silly present-day pop song as evidence that the artistry of Led Zeppelin is dead and buried. (Such a piece of storied critical thinking is, it turns out, helpfully embedded in the body of yesterday's article.)

Suddenly, I am reminded of the sage words of former Man Booker Prize judges' chair Rick Gekoski: "That's the name of the game: everyone is entitled to their opinion. And the notion that some opinions are better than others - fairer, deeper and more cogent - seems to be slipping from our grasp."

There are more monstrous falsehoods out there on the topic of Beyonce vs Beck, but nowhere more so than in the suggestion that "the haphazard bedroom-to-garage-to-festival low-budget model produces more memorable art".

This is just… not true. Having worked as a music critic for close to fifteen years, I can tell you that the haphazard bedroom-to-garage low-budget model more often than not produces unlistenable tripe. No method of production holds the patent when it comes to uncovering genius. "The DIY tradition" is as much a construct as "manufactured pop", as the mid-decade rush to sign artists "discovered" on MySpace indicated.

Playing off of Beck and Beyoncé is an exercise in demonstrating good taste: I don't like that pop nonsense (much less rap), the tiresome logic runs, I like real artistry. But as Mark Desrosiers said in his seminal text Bigmouth Strikes Again: Eight Mistakes That Music Critics Make, good taste is "a combination of middlebrow sentiment, political correctness, multicultural blandness, and moral jitters. [...] Don't stick to the safe critically received Beck'n'Wilco mulch or you're gonna dull your ears too fast. Good Taste is for brainless elites."

Vincent's piece concludes by, I presume, proving the validity of his argument by pointing to the fact he has other musicians on his side: "It's worth noting that Garbage's Shirley Manson has broken the usual celebrity silence on West." Is it? Because last time I checked Garbage had not done anything of note for a decade.

Then again, despite Garbage's place in history being due in a large part to the work of super-producer Butch Vig, they have guitars in their band, so I guess they're real artists.