Beyoncé wins record-breaking 28th Grammy
Do songs tell us who we are? After Beyoncé’s triumph at the Grammys on Sunday night, some think she is the latest in a long line of artists to channel the spirit of her time.
“As an artist, I believe it is my job, and all of our jobs, to reflect the times.” These are the words with which Beyoncé accepted the Grammy for the year’s best R&B performance on Sunday night.
The award is Beyoncé’s 28th, meaning that she has now won more Grammys than any other woman. She is just four away from having more than any other artist in the award’s history.
Other women broke down barriers on Sunday: Taylor Swift became the first artist to win the award for the best album of the year three times, and H.E.R.’s George Floyd-inspired anthem “I Can’t Breathe” won Song of the Year.
But above all, the night belonged to Beyoncé. The win is yet another feather in the cap of an artist who, perhaps more than any other, has captured and channelled the mood of her era. She is not only one of the greatest pop stars in history; she is one of the most influential people on the planet.
So what is it about Beyoncé that millions of people find so compelling?
Some think it is partly about the art form she has chosen. They argue that songs have always had a unique power to speak to our feelings and express our mood.
In the 1960s, the Beatles reshaped music by giving voice to a generation that was calling for social change. In their early career, their lyrics about dating, dancing and generally having fun – which today seem very tame – spoke to a generation that was eager to break free of the social constraints of traditional society. Later, their embrace of recreational drugs and hippie culture helped to bring these trends into the mainstream.
In the same period, Bob Dylan channelled a new mindset of change and protest against the old order in his songs, many of which were used by the civil rights movement.
As people became increasingly disillusioned with modern society, mainstream culture and consumerism in the 1970s, they once again turned to music to express their outrage. Punk rock, with its angry lyrics and provocative imagery, captured this mounting distaste for social conformity.
In the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the USA articulated a sense of disappointment among many Americans: that the American Dream had failed them, that their government had turned its back on them, and that as Americans, they deserved better.
Then, it was hip hop that grasped the public mood in the 1990s, especially amongst African Americans who used it to express the anger and despair of the country’s inner cities.
Today, it is Beyoncé who has been most successful at capturing and shaping the public imagination. In 2016, at the height of the original Black Lives Matter movement, she released the song Formation, whose music video featured Black women in settings and clothings associated with the American South in the slave era.
She has always had a remarkable capacity to speak to both the personal and the political. Her 2016 album Lemonade combines themes from her experiences as a Black woman with the sorrow and anger of processing the unfaithfulness of her husband, Jay-Z.
Do songs tell us who we are?
Music to my ears
Yes, say some. Throughout history, it is songs that have expressed where we have come from and what we want to be. At moments of great social and political change, people have turned to music to voice their hopes and fears. And songs are personal: they can capture our feelings, our heartbreak or our joy, and help us process them and grow as people.
Not at all, say others. Most modern music is really just a cynical trick pulled by very wealthy people on their fans. Beyoncé is, first and foremost, a business devoted to selling her songs. It is absurd to think that someone as rich and powerful as Beyoncé could ever really speak for the powerless – or capture the mood of an entire generation.
- Do you agree with Beyoncé that the job of an artist is to reflect their times?
- Think of the musician who best expresses how you feel in your everyday life. How do they do it? What makes you relate to them?
- Think of a big recent event, in the news or your own life, and write a short song inspired by it.
- Think of five events or trends that seem to define the moment we are living in. What current music seems best to capture these trends, and how?
Some People Say...
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885), French writer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that movements for social change often turn to music – and specifically protest songs – to express their hatred for the old and their hopes for the new. In the 19th Century, socialists all over the world sang translations of the same song, “The Internationale”, to emphasise their common vision and purpose. Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” became an iconic civil rights song. These songs were a way of bringing people under a common banner and describing the change they wanted.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over how exactly music reflects its time. Some argue that musicians’ ideas are always shaped by their environment: as such, all music is simply a product of a particular historical moment. However, others think that music is timeless, because in each new era, people project new meaning on to a song or a piece of music. As such, a single song will gain many new meanings as society changes around it.
- The Grammys, short for “Gramophone Awards”, are the musical equivalent of the Oscars. The first ever awards were held in 1959.
- Derives from a form of music known as “rhythm and blues”, pioneered by African Americans in the 1940s.
- Feather in the cap
- A phrase meaning “an achievement to be proud of”.
- One of the most successful pop bands in history, they achieved worldwide fame between 1960 and 1970, when they broke up.
- Hippie culture
- A countercultural movement of the 1960s. Hippies were often strongly influenced by Indian spiritualism, and many used psychedelic drugs to enhance their experience of reality.
- Bob Dylan
- An American singer-songwriter widely believed to be one of the best lyricists of all time.
- Punk rock
- Originating in the 1970s, punk rock was designed to antagonise middle-class opinion. One famous punk song, Johnny Rotten’s “God Save the Queen”, parodied the national anthem.
- Bruce Springsteen
- An American rock star, often known as “The Boss”, whose songs are often about blue-collar life on the East Coast.