By Brian Ives
The GRAMMYs, like any other long-standing institution, is easy to make fun of, and occasionally their nominations are true head-scratchers. Their gold standard for goofy nominations came in 1989 when Jethro Tull was infamously nominated for Best Hard Rock/ Metal Performance and actually won (over Metallica, no less).
Some are treating Beyonce’s Best Rock Performance nomination for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” at this year’s ceremony with the same amount of derision. They shouldn’t. The song deserves to win, but even if you don’t agree with that, it at least deserves to be taken seriously.
There are probably several reasons why rock fans are getting bent out of shape over Beyonce’s inclusion in this category. For one thing, Bey is the ubiquitous queen of popular music today; she isn’t a rock singer. Second, in this particular era, where rock music is further from pop culture’s zeitgeist than ever, it seems particularly insulting that a non-rock singer would get one of the few rock nominations at the GRAMMYs. But all of that is contextual information. It’s also beside the point. Let’s listen to the nominees and take each of them based on their merits.
Beyonce’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” is a furious, raging, rock performance. It’s a collaboration with Jack White — a twelve-time GRAMMY winner, three of those wins have been for rock. More to the point, if you replace Beyonce’s voice with Alison Mosshart’s, well, it sounds just like White’s band, the Dead Weather. The song features White on vocals and bass guitar, White’s Raconteurs bandmate Patrick Keeler on drums, occasional White sideman Mark Watrous on Hammond organ and Ruby Amanfu, from White’s solo band, on backing vocals. It’s practically a Third Man Records limited edition 7″ single. With any other singer, that’s what it would be. It just so happens that the singer on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is one of the most famous, most popular singers in the world. And it just so happens that the lyrics are part of a narrative that much of the world is familiar with: namely that Beyonce’s husband, Jay Z, allegedly got caught cheating. “I am the dragon breathing fire,” she hisses menacingly. “Beautiful mane, I’m the lion.” And if some of the lyrics are more in the parlance of hip-hop and R&B — “Hey baby, who the f— do you think I is?/I smell that fragrance on your Louis V, boy” — the way she roars them is pure rock and roll. So is the Led Zeppelin sample: the song uses elements of Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
Let’s take a quick look at Beyonce’s competition in the category. She’s up against a bona fide rock legend, David Bowie, for the title track from his final album, Blackstar. There’s no doubt that Bowie’s final bow was a masterpiece; a rarity for final albums. But if you take Bowie’s vocals out of the song, “Blackstar” not what you would call “rock.” It’s a beautiful, sad and fascinating, song and it almost creates its own genre: it’s somewhere between jazz, electronic music and pop. Arguably, it should have been nominated for Song of the Year. And you could make a great argument that Blackstar should have been up for Album of the Year. But “Blackstar” is not a rock performance.
Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens” may be the favorite to win this GRAMMY; they’re one of the few new rock bands to break through to arena status in recent years, and that alone will appeal to rock voters. But if you’re going to go after Beyonce’s rock bona-fides, keep in mind that Twenty One Pilots are a guitar-less rock band. On “Heathens,” frontman Tyler Joseph plays bass and keyboards, but there’s no guitar at all. Plus, there’s lots of programmed sounds; to a genre purist, the organ/bass/drums of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is surely more recognizably “rock.”
Alabama Shakes are nominated for “Joe (Live from Austin City Limits).” A great song, without a doubt. But if the GRAMMYs really wanted to recognize it, why not go with the studio version — which, by the way, was only released a bonus track on international versions of the 2015’s Sound & Color. Also, the song would probably fit in better in the blues or even gospel categories.
And finally, the Disturbed’s cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” the “Live on Conan” version. As with the Alabama Shakes, if the song was that worthy of recognition, why not go with the original version from 2015’s Immortalized? Beyond that, “Sounds of Silence,” while being a timeless classic, is not really rock music. And certainly not next to “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”
The category in question is “Best Rock Performance,” not “Best Performance by Artist Associated with Rock Music.” David Bowie is a rock legend, no one would argue that point. Disturbed brought new energy to heavy metal when they debuted in the ’90s. And Alabama Shakes have brought a roots rock sensibility back to the mainstream… at least as much as any rock band can in the 2010’s. If rock purists are going to complain about a non-rock singer in the category, they should at least be consistent and also complain about other songs that aren’t rock.