There are a few things awards shows can’t live without in order to stay relevant in the cultural conversation: at least one upset win, a spectacular performance (either in the form of a literal performance or a noteworthy speech), a gaffe and, most crucially, drama.
Producers can’t be expected to check all those boxes, of course, but it’s a situation where “Please select one option from at least three columns” applies.
Monday night the 58th annual Grammy Awards provided some of the best entertainment industry fodder of the 2016 awards season. It had the tearful first-time winner speech by Meghan Trainor, who adorably had to dismiss herself from the dais because she was crying too much to talk. It had had an incendiary performance from Kendrick Lamar, who literally set the main stage on fire with a remarkable demonstration that embodied the power and soul and sonic richness and emotional weight of his incredible album, To Pimp A Butterfly. It even had a quality gaffe that set Twitter alight. (No one will ever find the body of the sad technician who knocked a mic into the piano for Adele’s performance.)
But as always it was the drama [enabled by an upset win!] that really gave the Grammy Awards its legs among viewers. In a two-minute span surrounding the announcement of Album of the Year we were treated to a capsule review of three of the biggest careers in modern music.
As Taylor Swift ascended to retrieve her seventh career Grammy award, she did so with a very recent and very Taylor controversy hovering around her. On Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, he raps in the song “Famous” that he “might still have sex” with Swift because he “made that bitch famous.” The story broke last Thursday and a rep for Swift said she did not give West permission to use the lyrics. West, of course, countered with a tweetstorm explaining that Swift not only gave her blessing during an hour-long phone conversation with him, but that she even “thought it was funny.”
No one was there, so no one but the two of them will ever know the truth, but when Swift’s album, 1989, was called out for the biggest award of the night everyone was waiting for her to acknowledge the tiff, and her response will go down in the Shade Court hall of fame. Swift gripped the trophy with both hands, looked straight into the camera and said:
“As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice”
(tucks hair behind the ear)
“I wanna say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame”
(pauses for “He knows what he did” dramatic effect)
“but if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
It was a living subtweet. It was Taylor embodying the fantasy of her hit song “Mean.” And it was a succinct description of how much the meaning of fame has changed since West and Swift’s paths first crossed at the fateful MTV Video Music Awards of 2009.
You’ve surely read all about that night, because too much has been written on the subject. A then-19-year-old Taylor Swift won her first VMA for Best Female Video and while accepting her trophy had the microphone hijacked by a visibly drunk Kanye West. He issued his now famous “I’ma let you finish…” line before saying Beyoncé deserved to win instead. The cameras panned across a booing auditorium with a visibly stunned Swift holding a Moon Man in her hands with nothing to say.
If West had been more patient – and less drunk – he would have been vindicated by Beyoncé’s win for Video of the Year later that evening, at which time she invited Swift back up on stage to deliver the speech she was robbed of earlier. For West, the Internet justice came rapidly. Katy Perry, at the time a Swift fan, even tweeted during the ceremony, “F-CK YOU KANYE. IT’S LIKE YOU STEPPED ON A KITTEN.”
There have been various beef timelines published over the years outlining how the conflict between Swift and West started, how it ended and then how it started again. But the logistics are ancillary to what the situation teaches us about celebrity in 2016. At the 2009 VMAs, Swift was lifted up by a benevolent Beyoncé and given permission to celebrate her achievement. Kanye West marked the evening with one of his now-signature rants and since that time has alternated between apologizing for himself and declaring his supreme greatness on all available platforms.
In the subsequent seven years, each of those three performers has continued to make incredible art, but where Swift and Beyoncé have the edge over West is in how they have learned to evolve with the expectations of celebrity. They’ve become figureheads in the battles for women’s rights and Black Lives Matter and used their positions to advocate for equality. They have learned to stand for something while West, a brilliant creative mind, still can’t seem to stand for anything besides himself. West Tweets – constantly these days – about supporting art and artists and teachers and single moms and students overwhelmed by debt, but it all still feels like Kanye pulling focus towards Kanye. Surely he doesn’t mean for this to happen, but when you’re famous perception is truth. Fair or not.
Before the onset of social media saturation, consumers needed magazine profiles about their favorite artists because they had no other access point. Now that everyone is on some platform sharing their selfies and pictures of their dogs, excessive self-evangelizing feels… kind of gross. You need to use your megaphone for something. Beyoncé and Swift have built empires out of media savvy self-actualization meant to make fans feel like they are part of a community, or better still, a movement – not just witnesses to one person’s version of history.
At the Grammy awards, Taylor Swift stood up for herself, and in doing so took the opportunity to stand up for every Little Girl With A Dream. Beyoncé came on stage after, without any introduction, and didn’t need to rescue Swift this time because the two are now equals in the cultural discourse. And while all this was happening, Kanye West was somewhere contemplating how to keep us thinking about Kanye West. For the most elite celebrities, the age of self-promotion has given way to an age of selfless promotion, and if West – or any other star for that matter – can’t adjust to the sea change, they’re just going to end up as 40-somethings screaming on Twitter wondering why no one wants to hear it anymore.