Chin: Sells Like Teen Spirit

Institutions like the Grammys detract from the independent spirit of art.

by Clara Chin | 2/16/17 12:24am

Following Adele’s Grammy win for Album of the Year this past weekend, my Facebook feed has been filled with long rants and links to pop culture websites about why Beyoncé should have won instead of Adele. Whether I prefer Adele or Beyoncé is irrelevant; it neither influences who I think should be the Grammy winner, nor is my opinion influenced by the results of the Grammy Awards. By overvaluing the opinion of large-scale, corporate institutions that support the arts, we come to have a narrow understanding of what the arts are and lose the chance to form more complex ideas about the arts through our peers and ourselves.

Adele’s win is unsurprising. Instead of criticizing the Grammys for racism and normativity that is, to some degree, inherent in such an iconic institution, we must look outside the mainstream artistic monoliths to access the true spirit of resistance and forwardness emblematic of groundbreaking pop culture and art.

The Grammy Awards, put on by the Recording Academy, is still an important institution that brings pop cultural conceptions of art to the TV screen, thus making art accessible to communities who may not have the incentive, resources or reason to attend or watch other types of cultural events. The Recording Academy awards top educators and holds music education programs that promote genres such as jazz and electronic music production, to name a few. But the Grammys are also well-known and work with a large budget. A large institution like the Recording Academy, while supportive of the arts, must also work within the limits set by the companies that donate money, the networks that broadcast their programs and the viewers they rely on for revenue. Additionally, the widespread idea that a large institution defines music is diametrically opposed to the multifaceted, multi-genred nature of art and music. Smaller, less mainstream companies, blogs and taste-making individuals are less indebted to audiences and companies than the Recording Academy is.

The Grammys rose out of elite institutions and publicized artists that were already famous. Smaller taste-making institutions as well as large publications with not-for-profit origins maintain the independent spirit that allows them to work outside superstructures as well as artistic and corporate norms. The online magazine Pitchfork, for example, began when Ryan Schreiber wanted to share his favorite indie bands and called record labels to interview musicians. This approach celebrates personal taste instead of claiming that certain artists can be considered universally better than others. While the magazine is now reputable, its origins as a project for personal expression rather than profit mean that it retains much of its original independent voice and that profit remains secondary to artistic vision. Its commitment to exposing the public to the multiplicity of artistic voices is evident in its periodic, instead of annual, reviews and various Spotify playlists. The magazine updates its “Pitchfork’s Best New Tracks” playlist throughout the year and hosts playlists for lesser known genres, including “Pitchfork’s 20 Best Experimental Albums of 2016” and “Pitchfork’s 50 Best Indie Rock Albums of the Pacific Northwest.”

As artists and creators at an Ivy League institution, we too should be conscious of the ways in which the ideological norms of an old, respected university and the values of our school in particular shape the production and effects of our art. At a college with a focus on the liberal arts, our artistic vision differs from artists who attend an interdisciplinary fine arts school or a school specifically for one art form. This has shaped the way I play the piano. My former piano teacher tended to focus more on expression and intonation, while my current teacher focuses on articulation. Neither approach is wrong. All three attributes are important, but different institutions and spaces will stress various aspects of form and art. While it’s important to understand classical knowledge and even more modern forms of art by taking classes and participating in student groups when given the chance, it is equally important to develop an artistic vision outside these institutions by carving out our own spaces.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to fully resist being an artist of an institution. When Kurt Cobain wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he had in mind the rebellious nature of youth ­— uniquely able resist the constraints of capitalism and United States hegemony. Turns out “Teen Spirit” was also just a brand of deodorant. The brand even gained in popularity following the release of Nirvana’s song. As artists, it may be tempting to call ourselves countercultural. But even when art serves as a mode of resistance, it can undermine itself. So we must resist the temptation to claim the label of “counterculture” and instead maintain self-awareness about the artistic and political structures under which we create.

As for the Grammys, it has become clear that the prestigious award is beginning to decrease in its supposed cultural influence;:influential pop culture figures like Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Drake did not make an appearance at the event. The uproar over the Grammys demonstrates how much value we place on the winners of the awards. Because Adele won Album of the Year, it is assumed that the Recording Academy made this decision because Adele produced a better album than Beyoncé did. Art, however, is not monolithic. While large art corporations can be beneficial to the world of art, we must not forget about the small taste-making publications and companies that serve as a reminder of various artistic styles and modes. These publications are also more likely to serve as platforms of resistance because they are not as beholden to large companies and institutions. As artists ourselves, we should keep in mind the people, institutions and policies to which we are beholden especially during the age of President Donald Trump — in doing so, we keep the body of art in the United States moving forward.