I like Adele. Tim likes Beyoncé. We’re both good friends, but given the results of the Grammys nearly a week ago, you’d get the sense that we shouldn’t be. The whole coverage surrounding the Grammys is symbolic of the very pernicious trend of division in our culture that seems to infect everything it touches and seeks to erode our common links.
It took a while to understand that the more I read, the further I was drifting from my friend. It was silly to feel that way. We’re talking about the Grammys – not religion, or war and peace, but the dichotomy established by the structure of the coverage made the choice between Adele and Beyoncé zero-sum and fundamental.
Let’s take an article featured in the New York Times before a few days before Grammys. It’s as good as any to highlight my point. The article, “Adele vs. Beyoncé: What’s at stake for the Grammys?” creates a tone centered around conflict, beginning with the title itself. I’m not opposed to competition, but not every competition is absolute and fundamental and zero sum. To establish that they are ensures that unity or understanding of any sort, social or otherwise, is evasive and that we’re doomed as a country to endless conflict and counter-conflict.
The article peppered readers with many aggravating hints of division – like the suggestion that Beyoncé is disadvantaged and victimized by an Adele win. According to their tone, Adele is no underdog to Queen B, but rather a symbol of institutional bias that will confirm or deny racism as overcome or dominant in America. It’s beyond dispute. Beyoncé is the bigger star, and the more seasoned talent. She didn’t win her well earned respect by winning Grammys, she won it through sheer cultural power and symbolism.
Devices like the one employed by the article, subtly taking real controversial issues and injecting them into places that appear apt when in fact they’re not, is an egregious manipulation of passions. The central tone of the whole piece borrows shamelessly from the divisive cultural wound left by the Presidential Election to drive its narrative. This narrative seeks to inject Beyoncé and Adele into two competing ideological categories weighted by political and racial implications. The argument made by the authors is not blatant and in-your-face, but leaves a thin veneer of division artificially and superficially imposed seeking to seed animosity between Americans.
If the hyperbole and false narratives emanating from the West Wing represent a danger to national norms, they are not exclusively created there but are in vogue, as recent coverage of the Grammys indicates, along with many other places of national significance. The Oval Office simply wins the distinction of being the best at perfecting this sinister device.
It took me a week of quiet irritation to finally rebel against the false choice foisted on me by Grammys coverage. This sort of reporting is just as dangerous as those who peddle “alternative facts” or claim that the press is “the opposition.” These devices are pernicious, false, destructive, and ultimately counter-productive to national solidarity. It is a lens that forces everything into an ideological showdown seeking to divide.
It’s not to deny that who wins doesn’t matters. It does, it surely does – but not in the way that those pushing a divisive narrative want it to matter. Choices inherently mean things, and awards by their very nature are value-assigning, but to suggest that one award is an absolute commentary on national identity and direction is absurd.
If the authors wanted to report the social significance of the choice they would do the country a service by diffusing the false narrative rather than inflaming it. To temper anger they could’ve written about the differences between the artists in a more constructive fashion.
For example, they mentioned that Adele is indicative of traditionalism and that Beyoncé represents an edgier hip-hop vanguard. Fantastic, great analysis – absolutely true. But then they get lazy, tying the difference to the divisive election, a continuation of the choice between Clinton and Trump. Here the article is cheap and shallow.
They missed the opportunity to stem possible division and temper controversy by saying that the cultural vanguard-rebel (Beyoncé) may indeed lose. Such a loss is the opportunity cost a rebel understands and in a way courts. Rebels understand the price to rebellious currency gains value in retrospect. The vanguard by definition is ahead of her time, displaying courage in her edgy rebellion and understanding that rebellion is not universally recognized in its time. Rebels don’t seek institutional accolades and values, they seek to challenge them. Rebels are always recognized in retrospect and over time are owed a monumental debt of national gratitude for being on the frontier of cultural creation and discourse. The media could have assured as all that Beyoncé’s talent and meaning will always be secure regardless of the outcome at the Grammys.
On the other hand, an Adele win isn’t a win for white traditionalism as the coverage hints. Adele is surely a traditional talent in style and substance, a reminder of time-tested collective values. She’s universally loved and will likely gain institutional recognition at the Grammys. But her Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald inspired style, isn’t a “snub” to African American artists, it’s an homage to them. An Adele win is devoid of racial significance.
The choice between Adele and Beyoncé isn’t a showdown of black vs. white, country vs city, red vs. blue. To establish such a polarizing narrative – harmless as it may seem – is inimical to the national good and simply not true. At best, it’s irresponsible journalism. At worst, it’s shameless sensationalism for sales.
To be sure, there is an ideological battle being waged that calls for active resistance. More than ever, there is a concerted, deliberate effort on behalf of some to erode our national unity and slowly but surely destroy the very foundations of our nation. Our democratic spirit, our diversity, our values and norms are under assault, but not by the Grammys or the Oscars.
The ramparts of the City upon a Hill are being besieged from Moscow and Raqqa and parts of Tehran. They seek to undo the American experiment, not by fire and lead, but by our own hands. They’re using the power of narrative to pit American against American, using American means. They’re embedding controversial narratives and trolling comments in every forum of American discourse, and they’re counting on our division to undo us.
Little by little, subtle hint by subtle hint, they want us to move through our culture, accumulating bits of uncompromising hate towards one another in every choice we make and in choices we see others making. They seek to pollute our public squares slowly raising the temperature day by day, word by word, and election by election until we find ourselves in actual battle lines arrayed in streets.
I for one refuse division. An Adele win found me playing Lemonade, and rejoicing at the talent and creativity this country creates both in its traditionalism and its pioneering frontier, knowing we can’t listen to one without the other except with peril to both.