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The Old Pollution: Beck, Kanye, Steely Dan, and the Grammy Circle of Life

Beck, Grammys

In popular music, you either die cool, or you live long enough to see yourself become the establishment. When Beck Hansen was advocating giving the finger to the rock’n’roll singer back in the soy un perdedor halcyon days of 1994, it would have been virtually impossible to imagine a time when he would serve as the exemplar of musical complacency at a show like the Grammys, the guy who has to apologize for beating out the consensus pick for Rightful Winner. But there he was last night, standing sheepishly at the podium in front of a stunned audience, the “Loser” made Winner. It was a surreal and considerably uncomfortable moment, for Beck more than anyone else.

Everyone well, everyone except the people who actually voted, presumably seemed to agree that Beyoncé’s self-titled album should have beat out Beck’s Morning Phase for Album of the Year last night. Kanye West was ready to rush the stage in order to protect the Queen’s honor for a second time, and Hansen seemed perfectly content to bequeath the stage to his near-interruptor. Afterwards, Yeezy claimed that the singer/songwriter should have given his statue to Bey, and Beck happily agreed. There was no Instagrammed mea culpa of texted regret, but otherwise, Beck played the role of the 2015 Grammys’ Macklemore to perfection.

It’s hard to come up with a terribly convincing argument that the award went to its rightful recipient. Beyoncé’s album was a high-water mark in a career full of peaks, an artistic and commercial coup in an era with fewer and fewer blockbuster albums, and a triumph of formatting and marketing that changed the way the entire industry now approaches packaging music in the mid-’10s. Beck made a very pretty Beck album. Matters of musical superiority will never be entirely objective, but outside of biases in demographic and genre, it’s hard to imagine how enough people could have preferred Morning Phase to Beyoncé for the voting to end up falling in the Scientologist’s favor.

But there, of course, lies the rub. Where the Grammys have concerned, the Recording Academy has forever been a hotbed of such prejudices  against younger artists, against artists working in genres outside of classic rock or pop, against essentially anything your parents might find objectionable, because these are your parents. That’s how Frank Sinatra beat the Beatles for Album of the Year in two consecutive years in the late ’60s (September of My Years, ’66 and A Man and His Music, ’67); that’s how Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down reigned victorious over Prince’s Purple Rain in 1985, and that’s how Kanye lost to Ray Charles, U2, and Herbie Hancock in the three years he was nominated in the ’00s. It’s understandable that it smarts for Kanye to see a fellow Throne family member snubbed the way he thrice was, before the Academy deemed him unfit even for AOTY nomination.

It’s worth remembering, though, that it also probably smarted for Beck when it happened to him twice around the turn of the millennium. In 1997, the then-alt-rock prankster’s mastework Odelay  the most-acclaimed album of the previous year, according to crit-aggregation site Acclaimed Music, and one of this publication’s eventual top five albums of the decade — lost to Celine Dion’s Falling Into You, a much less demanding album from a longer-established performer.  Three years later, Hansen’s Midnight Vultures — a less universally lauded effort than Odelay, but still an exciting, genre-hopping LP that challenged both rock-radio conventions and his own audience’s expectations — lost to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, an album far better remembered today for its stupefying Grammy win (also over Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead’s Kid A) than for any of the music contained within.

And you know what? Two Against Nature‘s win was even a vindication of sorts for Steely Dan, who were nominated decades earlier for Aja and Gaucho but lost to a less-difficult album by a commercial powerhouse (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, ’78) and a sentimental favorite by a rock legend (John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, ’82). This is the way the Grammys work, and pretty much always have: Your earlier, more vital work gets under-recognized, but hang on long enough and/or come back at just the right moment — as Daft Punk did last year in a less-traditional genre last year with their AOTY-winning Random Access Memories, the duo’s first album to even get nominated for top honors, natch — and then you might have a chance.

That’s not to say that young, relevant, deserving artists never win. Adele (21, 2012) and Taylor Swift (Fearless, 2008) both became worthy Album of the Year recipients before even reaching car-rental age, and as much as the Arcade Fire’s win for The Suburbs was a product of it being the only rock-ish nominee in a category full of pop-leaning artists (like Morning Phase this year), it rewarded a respected outfit at the point of their commercial and artistic zenith. But it’s a pattern that’s repeated itself often enough over the last half-century that it shouldn’t really come as a surprise anymore to anyone involved. As strange as it is to see Beck’s still-youthful visage now representing the face of industry staidness and self-satisfaction, give it a decade or two, and it just might be Bey’s Morning Phase or Yeezy’s Two Against Nature that takes home the biggest trophy while the Internet grouses on behalf of some younger, more vital artist left golf clapping in the audience.