Editorial: The pursuit of purity is pointless

“So let’s see… Beck is musically fluent in 14 different instruments, composes entire albums on which he plays everything himself, but Kanye says that Beyoncé, who does not play an instrument and uses a team of co-writers to create lyrics is the real artist.”

So the rhetoric went in the days immediately following Kanye West’s almost-interruption of Beck winning the Grammy Award for Best Album at the expense of overwhelming favourite Beyoncé. The same old debates have been had – Kanye is rude, Beyoncé isn’t that good so why is it always her that Kanye jumps to defend? Sea Change is Beck’s worst album, etc.

All of that is white noise at this point, it is ground treaded too often, but it’s the above quote and the sentiments that go along with it that get the classic Michelle Obama side eye from me. For years, I have wondered why people care who writes the songs they hear. Judging by the radio and the charts, they usually don’t. Now suddenly people who have never heard a Beck song begin posturing over how talented he is, all because he can play a high number of instruments.

Being able to play 14 instruments is impressive, there’s no doubting that, but being able to play a high number of instruments doesn’t make someone an artist. The art created using those instruments is what makes someone an artist. Just like utilising a team of co-writers doesn’t make you any less of an artist; the art created with these co-writers is what makes Beyoncé an artist.

Debates on artistic merit make me queasy. There’s no way to measure such an abstract notion and the idea of comparing a Beck album and a Beyoncé album brings up similar levels of discomfort. Full disclosure: I like neither album, but would never attempt to talk about which is better. They belong in different genres and different conversations.

The idea of Beck being the better artist simply because he plays 14 instruments and writes his songs himself plays into the strange notions of purity that belong in popular music criticism. It is naïve at best, considering how it is that the music industry works. The split within Paramore springs to mind, wherein it was alleged that they had been formed around front-woman Hayley Williams by their record label. The reaction from some fans may have been similar if someone had proven that the Eiffel Tower was actually made of chocolate.

The question must be asked: does it really matter who writes the songs or whether or not a group is manufactured? Not everyone can be Justin Vernon in a cabin in the woods and it holds no real weight how a song/album comes about.

Put it this way: if it emerged that a record label put Messrs Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr into a room and told them to become a band, would they cease being the canonical greatest band ever? Or would it simply be a footnote that matters less than the Quarrymen?

Odrán de Bhaldraithe

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