Cabe column: Politics at Grammys nothing to complain about
February 15, 2017
With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us."
Those lyrics from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" have been swirling through my head this week in the wake of discussions around whether entertainers should use their platforms to make political statements. As with many recent award shows (as well as the Super Bowl halftime show), much of the post-Grammy buzz seems to be about the political commentary by artists — and whether they should be commenting at all.
The 59th Annual Grammy Awards aired Sunday night on CBS and featured plenty of perfectly nice, uncontroversial performances, including those by Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, Alicia Keys and Maren Morris, Daft Punk and the Weeknd, Metallica and Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, etc.
But those aren't the performances being written and talked about now, four days after the fact. Instead, publications from Rolling Stone to The New York Times to pop culture blogs like Consequence of Sound are sharing stories about Katy Perry's Planned Parenthood lapel pin, her "persist" arm band and the symbolism of her white pantsuit (Perry was a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter during the campaign).
They're starting conversations about Beyonce's acceptance speech for her Best Urban Contemporary Album win for "Lemonade," in which she spoke about the importance of representation in pop culture for people of all races.
They're celebrating Chance the Rapper's well-deserved win for Best New Artist, which is political in itself because he's the first black hip-hop artist to win the award since Lauryn Hill did it 18 years ago.
They're writing about A Tribe Called Quest's blatantly political performance, during which collaborator Busta Rhymes called Donald Trump "President Agent Orange."
They're writing about how even Adele knew Beyonce's "Lemonade" should have won Album of the Year but didn't, sparking conversations about young, black representation (or lack thereof) among Grammy voters and whether this is a problem.
And in response to all these articles, many readers are saying politics needs to stay out of award shows. They don't watch the Grammys to know how Busta Rhymes feels about Donald Trump (as if there were any question to begin with). They're watching the Grammys to be entertained and to escape all of that "negativity."
Using art as an escape is completely valid, and we all do it. And I don't believe anyone saying entertainers shouldn't use award shows to share their political platform are arguing that they legally can't — most Americans have a basic understanding of the First Amendment.
But I have to wonder what makes them think art shouldn't be political. I have to wonder when it is appropriate for a celebrity to voice his or her opinion. If not in front of a large national audience, then when?
The other thing I've noticed from my admittedly unscientific study of reading comments on the internet is that most critics of entertainers getting political are white people. It is overwhelmingly white people who say things like, "I just want to forget about this stuff for a while," or, "I don't watch award shows to hear musicians' opinions."
This is such a perfect example of privilege — the idea that politics is something that can possibly be escaped. For those who have the most to lose from a Trump presidency, there is no time when they are not affected by politics. Perhaps instead of complaining about having to sit through some Trump bashing or some celebration of black culture, these folks should be counting their blessings.
And finally, I don't know what kind of art or music these disgruntled Grammys watchers have been consuming their whole lives, but in my experience, art and politics aren't meant to be separated. For the entertainer, music is how they express themselves, their beliefs and their ideas. Why would they suddenly strip their very selves from their performances when they have the opportunity to reach the largest audience? I just don't understand why a rational person would even expect that to begin with.
As for me, I'm a fan of artists who are dangerous while they entertain us. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Plus, I don't think there's such a thing as too much resistance to Donald Trump.
Jessica Cabe's column appears on the third Thursday of the month.