Well, those were the Grammys, all right. It was a night of spectacular performances—Kanye West’s ode to his late mother, Only One, seven years after his performance of Hey Mama; Mary J. Blige and Sam Smith’s majestic if somewhat overdone version of Stay With Me—that meant basically nothing. That’s especially true when laid in contrast to the recent Golden Globes: take, for instance, the fact that the stirring Selma segment, featuring Beyoncé’s beautiful Take My Hand, Precious Lord and John Legend and Common’s anthem Glory, was introduced by vanilla ur-figure Gwyneth Paltrow, who spoke vaguely of “complicated times” and made a needlessly concerted effort to call Beyoncé a friend. Any controversies in the lead-up, too, were defused by punting on them; Iggy Azalea, for instance, went home empty-handed.
But what everyone will talk about in the aftermath is, most likely, Beck’s shocking victory in the Best Album category for his meditative acoustic record, Morning Phase. It stunned the oddsmakers, not to mention this author, who expected Beyoncé’s self-titled fourth album to be the easy choice. It even caused Kanye West to mock-storm the stage, as if a repeat of his interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV VMAs where Beyoncé was also robbed; he played it off as a joke, even though a post-show interview revealed he actually thought Beck should have given it to Bey.
Related reading: With Beck, none of these things is just like the other
Of course, Morning Phase was, by most measures, the wrong choice. There’s no question that Beck is a generational talent, in many ways the kind of artist that the Grammys should spend more time recognizing: a musician who treats music as his playground, and sonic traditions as mere suggestions. But Morning Phase is not close to being his best album; it was a blandish formal facsimile, a feint in the direction of the bruising, beautiful 2002 album Sea Change but without the heartbreak that inspired it and the bloodletting urgency that came from it. That, coupled with the fact that the surprise release of Beyoncé was as momentous a pop-culture moment as music has produced in the last decade at least, changed the rules of the industry, and firmly cemented Knowles as a pop queen, makes the pick look particularly bad.
But in a way, the Grammys did something important in this selection: They did not punt, or cater to the simpering middle with a compromise pick, as they did last year. In making a bold but bad choice, it revealed something in us—something fairly ugly.
Unsurprisingly, social media buzzed about the shocking win, but that turned into contemptuous vitriol (of course) as three words began trending on Twitter: “Who is Beck.” As is their way, Twitter’s snarky blowhards had a field day. It was just like the response to Arcade Fire’s win in 2011, except rather than mocking the tweeters for knowing so little as to call the Canadian band The Suburbs, after the album that won them the prize, the viciousness targeted the idiocy of those who would dare not to know Beck, and the dismissal of an entire generation with the presumption that this was the folly of ignorant young people:
— Elizabeth Plank (@feministabulous) February 9, 2015
Omg, the sheer stupidity of this who is #Beck trend is hurting my head. Kids, life did exist pre-mid 2000s.
— Danielle Parish (@DanielleParish3) February 9, 2015
— Jonathan Kurtz (@jon_kurtz) February 9, 2015
If you don’t know who Beck is, then you don’t know music. #WhoIsBeck
— charliecapen (@charliecapen) February 9, 2015
Forget, first, that the reason that he was such a major underdog—a position that didn’t seem to rattle too many in the lead-up to the awards—is that this is a man who, by his own admission, operates on the outside of pop’s fringes, who plays gleefully with the form instead of by its rules. He is, by the nature of his work, more the kind of artist you must seek out rather than stumble across on the radio or in pop culture at large; his most significant recent foray into popular media is arguably his 2001 appearance in Futurama. This is a guy, after all, who put out sheet music in lieu of an album, in the effort to produce a truly collaborative, collective kind of work.
And his music is different from the kind of pop music that the Grammys typically celebrate. Whether or not the awards should be doing less of that is another question entirely. But for Twitter to lambaste those who don’t know Beck after a major Grammy coup—that’s like adults going to a children’s birthday party and sneering at the ball pit.
This was a redux, effectively, of the recent Twitter controversy spawned by Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s collaboration Only One (tweets like “Who is Paul McCartney” and “Kanye’s going to make this Paul McCartney famous”). That ended up being a hoax that was quickly busted as trolling by knowing winkers rather than the Beatles-illiterate, but one that the media drank up. And in a way, the same became true this evening—a more-than-cursory search of “who is Beck” reveals that many of the tweets came from more manic fan accounts, with names like @dannyyonce or @freefallinfored [Sheeran] or @dreamtobieber; this is less a young-people concern but rather the habits of hardcore partisans. And then those tweeting cracks at their expense, and those who even write the out-of-order statement “who Beck is,” all feed back into the trending hashtag, this modern, depressing ouroboros.
The lashing-out at people who don’t know is perhaps especially preposterous because of what Beck represents, too: a musical chameleon who digs into obscure funk bass lines and is inspired by far-flung world music, something different to so many people, so diverse in his sound that “liking Beck” nearly has no meaning. Those who enjoy his music should then be, like the artist himself, fulsome in their listening, diverse in their affection for genre, generous in their spirit. What this choice revealed is that many were quite the opposite—proprietary, zealous, exclusionary, elitist, cruel. How ironic.
This idea of not-knowing as a personal failure is an essentially modern concern; with more media available at our fingertips, the expectation to know everything, to have heard everything, to have the hottest take or at the very least have the median opinion on all matters has become all-encompassing. It is not enough to simply know some things anymore; you are dismissed as a fool if you do not know most, and if you know, you trumpet it as loudly as you can. And yet, for some reason, it appeared impossible on Sunday night to disagree with the choice of Beck for Best Album—and again, it was almost certainly by most metrics the wrong one—and to appreciate, or even know, Beck. It’s not their fault for not knowing—it’s the fault of the judges on their false pedestals who should probably stop watching award shows where an Academy makes pronouncements about a subjective art.
That’s why, by shining a light on this needless division, the Academy inadvertently made a perfect pick for, as Gwyneth Paltrow said, these complicated times: one that ignored matters of race or class or generation and shone a light on the outrage-riven, online-driven divisions we needlessly have, all over a bunch of metallic gramophones. By making everyone mad, we see a little better our own blindness to the cruelty of Internet outrage, and that’s something that we can really talk about, beyond the controversy over Iggy Azalea or one song over the next. In that way, Beck is a pick for our times.