Who Is Beck and Why Did He Beat Beyonce for Album of the Year?

by | PopCrush
Frazer Harrison / Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

It was almost the Kanye West Music Award Cry heard around the world – for a second time. When Beck took home the Grammy for Album of the Year last night (Feb. 9), Kanye rushed the stage, giving everyone watching – especially his good friends and collaborators in the audience, Beyonce and Jay Z, as well as wife Kim Kardashian – a very serious case of déjà vu.

It looked like 2009 all over again: West pulled the same stunt during that year’s MTV VMAs when Taylor Swift took home the award for Best Female Video for her song, ‘You Belong With Me.’ West went on to say, “I’mma let you finish, but…” – words now seared in to the brains of music and pop culture lovers everywhere – before telling the entire world why Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ video was more deserving than Swift’s.

It looked like the moment might recreate itself when Beck took the Grammys stage to accept one of the night’s biggest awards for his album, ‘Morning Phase.’ The singer-songwriter was up against the likes of Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Pharrell and – yes — Beyonce. So when West appeared, it seemed all too likely that he would once again defend his pop star friend.

Instead, West broke out in a smile, left the stage and returned to his seat. Beck took the moment in stride, even later expressing his admiration for the rapper, telling E!  (via Daily Beast), “I still love [West] and think he’s a genius. I aspire to do what he does.”

Kanye West’s stage-crashing antics aside, Beck’s win led to one major question: “Who is Beck?” In fact, the question quickly became a trending topic on Twitter following his win for Album of the Year. It wasn’t the first time, either. A similar trending topic cropped up when indie singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, who goes by the stage name Bon Iver, won the award for Best New Artist back in 2012. (The hashtag “WhoIsBonnieBear” proved some people really didn’t know who he was.)

While many questioned the 2015 Album of the Year winner, we all understand the magnificence that is Beyonce. Her fifth, self-titled effort – the one that lost out to Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ – is the absolute pinnacle of her career. Not only did it make listeners rethink how female R&B artists can sound, it was a profound statement in feminism. On the album, the powerhouse singer candidly opens up about sex, marriage and motherhood in a way that felt unprecedented and new. With starkly honest lyrics that are significant in both their strength and vulnerability, Beyonce announced that women are many things, but lest of all what society wants or expects them to be. In 14 tracks, Queen Bey accomplished all of this, all the while proving she has a long career ahead of herself, one in which she will undoubtedly continue to break the designated molds.

With that said, Beck is an iconic artist in his own right.

While Beyonce’s self-titled effort was her fifth album, ‘Morning Phase’ was Beck’s 12th in a nearly 30-year career. And while we’re by no means suggesting that the sheer number of albums in an artist’s catalog is representative of their accomplishments or the value of their creative output, in Beck’s case, it is.

Many will recognize Beck Hansen – who has become known simply as Beck – by the very song that helped put him on the map during the early stages of his career. ‘Loser’ appeared on Beck’s third album, 1994’s ‘Mellow Gold.’ The oddball alternative hip-hop track and its corresponding strange, art student-esque video would become a breakthrough moment for the L.A.-born singer-songwriter. Despite its prevalent irony and self deprecation, ‘Loser’’s famous chorus, “I’m a loser baby / So why don’t you kill me?”, would go on to become a kind of anthem for alienated kids everywhere who feel unable to fit in with the unreachable standards assigned to them – not entirely dissimilar to Beyonce’s message in her most recent full-length.

While many perceived ‘Loser’ as potentially being Beck’s one-hit wonder moment, instead he defied expectations by transforming himself with each subsequent album. The ‘Morning Phase’ singer never limited himself to a single genre. Instead, he wandered from his anti-folk and hip-hop beginnings to fuzzy, lo-fi experimental material fused with elements of electronica on his critically acclaimed 1996 LP, ‘Odeley.’ The album would earn Beck his first nomination for Album of the Year at the 1997 Grammys. And while he didn’t take the award home, he did win for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for ‘Where It’s At.’

Beck continued to explore wide-ranging genres, delving into a funkier side of his musicianship for 1997’s ‘Midnite Vultures’ and then a beautifully restrained folk on 2002’s ‘Sea Change.’ Beck’s highest-charting album, 2005’s ‘Guero,’ earned the singer-songwriter a pair of radio hits in ‘E-Pro’ and ‘Girl.’

In fact, ‘Sea Change,’ would serve as a sort of companion piece to last year’s now Grammy-winning ‘Morning Phase.’ The album finds Beck returning to his folk sensibilities with quiet, acoustic ruminations, but this time set to sweeping orchestral arrangements. The newly embellished melancholy spurred standout singles with the lush ‘Blue Moon’ and shimmering ‘Waking Light,’ as well as ‘Heart Is a Drum,’ which Beck performed at last night’s ceremony with Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

In all, ‘Morning Phase’ was recognized as a triumphant moment in the singer’s career, one that found him mining new emotional depths. In turn, the album earned him much critical praise, including spots in the top 20 of many album year-end lists, sometimes even breaking the top 10.

Of course, ‘Beyonce’ was also an outstanding achievement in the former Destiny’s Child songstress’ career. Even the album’s release was game changing. When Beyonce dropped her self-titled LP in December 2013 with zero warning or promotion, it was met with shock and unfiltered excitement from fans everywhere.

In fact, some critics scrambled to rearrange their 2013 year-end lists to include Beyonce’s most impressive effort, some even slotting it as No. 1. Other music journos waited, and the album still managed to earn a place in writers’ memories as one of the best albums of the year – even a full 12 months later. And at last night’s Grammys, Beyonce was nominated for a total of five awards, taking home Best Surround Album, Best R&B Song for ‘Crazy In Love’ and Best R&B Performance for ‘Drunk In Love.’

No matter where your allegiances lie, at the very least, Beck and Beyonce are worthy competitors. But the argument that Beyonce was robbed is not without merit.

Allow us to full circle back to Kanye, Beyonce’s perennial creative advocate. Though he stopped himself short of stealing the microphone out of Beck’s hands, he did share some choice words for Beck, but perhaps more importantly, the Grammys and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences after the award show (via Daily Beast):

I don’t even know what [Beck] said. I just know that, the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We aren’t going to play with them no more. ‘Flawless.’ Beyoncé’s video. And Beck needs to respect artistry, he should have given his award to Beyoncé. At this point, we tired of it. What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. We, as musicians, have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyoncé album, and they feel like it takes them to a different place. And then they do this promotional event, and they’ll run the music over somebody’s speech, the artist, because they want commercial advertising. We aren’t playing with them anymore. And by the way, I got my wife, my daughter, and I got my clothing line, so I’m not going to do nothing that would put my daughter at risk, but I am here to fight for creativity. That’s why I didn’t say anything tonight, but you all knew what it meant when ‘Ye stepped on that stage.

While many will get hung up on the fact that Kanye says Beck should’ve given up his award to Beyonce, he also pointed to a greater issue within the system: “They need to stop playing with us… When you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.”

‘Beyonce’ was a monumental feat. So why was it only recognized for Best Surround Sound Album and ‘Drunk In Love’? Viewers are often surprised when “mainstream” artists often lose out to relatively “obscure,” alternative artists at the Grammys. And oftentimes those lesser known, alternative artists are white men taking home awards over women and artists of color, such as is the case with Beck and Beyonce.

And such was the case in 2011 when Canadian art rockers, Arcade Fire, took home the 2011 award for Album of the Year for ‘The Suburbs,’ beating out 15-year rap veteran Eminem, country powerhouses Lady Antebellum and bonafide female pop superstars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (although it’s worth noting that Arcade Fire does feature frontwoman Regine Chassagne). It left many scratching their heads and asking the same questions they were last night: “Who is Arcade Fire?” And the same was true when Bon Iver took home Best New Artist in 2012 over J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, The Band Perry and Skrillex.

The argument is then whether or not the Grammys’ voting system is broken. While musicians and labels alike submit nominees, it’s a small group of Recording Academy members who sift through those submissions and pick out the ultimate list of nominees. When the list of nominees is decided, it’s turned back over to the Academy’s larger membership to decide who takes home the award. Are those voters biased toward white, male artists? History tells us yes. And last night’s Album of the Year debate tells us that, when it comes to selecting a winner, there’s a lot of factors at play.

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