Adele, Beyoncé, and the Grammys' Fear of Progress

The 25 singer broke her trophy in two for Lemonade, the latest black visionary work sidelined in favor of a white traditionalist one.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Set aside Adele splitting her Grammy like Solomon; forget, for a moment, all the pre-ceremony analysis about the awards’ fraught history with race and taste and tradition. Based solely on the performances last night, viewers would need to be arguing about Adele vs. Beyoncé—it’s hard to think of a more meaningful distinction in popular music than the one between them.

Adele performed twice on darkened stages where the focus could be on nothing other than her singing. For her George Michael tribute, she flubbed some notes and started again, because otherwise what would the point have been? Beyoncé meanwhile offered a floral golden swirl of performance art and video wizardry and spoken word, with holographic and real bodies evoking da Vinci’s Last Supper. Some people will worship it, and some people will mock it; either way, sans sound, Beyonce’s performance could survive as gifs and memes and mashup videos. Adele’s meanwhile could be ripped to MP3 and lose nothing for lack of images.

Adele’s song-no-dance routine, while often impressive, creates less entertaining TV and less daring art than Beyoncé’s audiovisual spectacles do. But the Grammys have made clear which it considers the better approach to music. Adele won all five Grammys for which she was nominated, including the three big awards where she competed with Beyoncé: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year. This extends a sweep of every category in which she’s been nominated since 2011, resulting in a total of 15 Grammys.

If Adele’s dominance seems unseemly to you, Adele sympathizes. Accepting Album of the Year with her team of producers and co-writers, she tearfully offered thanks and then pivoted: “I can’t possibly accept this award … My artist of my life is Beyoncé.” Addressing Beyoncé in the audience directly, Adele said that Lemonade was “so monumental and so well thought-out and so beautiful,” and that “the way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering.” At the end, she broke her Grammy statue in two—presumably to split it with her idol.

Debates will now unfold about the optics of the moment, Adele’s manners, the awkwardness of mentioning her “black friends,” and the parallels with Macklemore’s apology after beating Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys. But Adele’s sincerity burns brightly—just try to be cynical about her backstage testimony of being a “Beyoncé stan” since she was 11 years old and now wondering “what the fuck does [Beyoncé] have to do to win Album of the Year?”

Good question. A follow-up to the megaton musical engine 21, Adele’s comparatively restrained 25 was a strong display of ability from a powerful singer; it sold well but got mixed reviews. As an artistic statement, Lemonade smokes it. It’s not just that Beyoncé’s album had a fully realized video component; it’s not just that it played with juicy tabloid rumors; it’s that it told a story as it alchemized disparate sounds for seriously entertaining songs that no one but Beyonce could have made. It said something about its creator and its world, and it pushed at the boundaries of pop. It was progress.

But the Grammys aren’t, in the end, interested in progress. Adele could have pulled off last night’s performances basically in any decade of the Grammys’ existence. Last year’s Album of the Year winner, Taylor Swift’s 1989, was explicitly retro; Beck beat Beyoncé in 2015 with a collection of folk rock that needed no timestamp; the only black artists to have won the Album of the Year prize in the last 14 years were septuagenarians performing covers.

Beyoncé’s display at last night’s Grammys, by contrast, needed the now. That’s not only in a technological sense (I wasn’t sure what was real and what was fake—were you?) but also an aesthetic and political one. Her forthright celebration of black sisterhood and maternity, her references to contemporary art, and, yes, her music—the synth tapestry of “Love Drought” especially—all reflect the moment. So does the notion of a singer who does more than sing, who disregards traditional notions of musical respectability—the ideal of a woman in a gown standing alone and belting—for a broader sense of the medium’s potential.

Black artists from Prince to Michael Jackson to Kanye West have been on the forefront of this sort of expansion of what pop music means. Maybe that fact has something to do with why they have mostly fared poorly in the Grammys general categories over the years even as they have served up exactly the kind of performances that make the Grammys worth watching at all. Or maybe it’s just a deeper sort of bias: With only three black women ever winning Album of the Year (Lauryn Hill, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston), little in Grammys history suggests a non-white Adele would have the success of this white one. Beyoncé’s one televised win last night was for Best Urban Contemporary Album—founded in 2013 surely to include more artists of color, but with the effect of highlighting how they are sidelined in the general categories.

The awards success of traditionalists like Adele, ultimately, comes across as a rejection of the forward thinkers, a rejection that stings especially when it fits a clear pattern of excluding black visionaries. It’s not as if old-fashioned singers need the Grammys to defend them: 25 has moved more than 10 million copies, while Lemonade sales and streams figured out to 2.1 million units in 2016. Surely change is necessary when even the avatar of tradition, Adele, knows something’s amiss. By saluting Beyoncé on stage, she joins a trend with Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and other influential stars pointing out how strange it is that the Grammys’ judgement of the best in music, year after year, looks about the same.