The False Dichotomy of Justin Bieber and Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza SpaldingAs revolt continues to spread across the Arab world, I’d like to take a moment to deal with a tamer, more domestic disturbance. I’m speaking, of course, of the dustup created last week when the GRAMMY® committee chose to recognize a relative unknown, the bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, with the Best New Artist award, sending the fans of presumed winner Justin Bieber into a state of utter shock. Shock quickly turned to rage as “Beliebers,” as they are known, took to the web to express their displeasure in just about every available forum, including some nasty — and, frankly, racist — edits to Esperanza’s Wikipedia page.

For us in The Arts, however, this whole episode has been celebrated as a triumph of artistry over commercialism: the David of jazz slew the Goliath of adolescent pop. And while it is certainly true that Justin’s market share is just a wee bit bigger than Esperanza’s, the two are probably closer in appeal than all the hubbub would suggest.

For starters, Justin Bieber can both sing and dance. Sorry, but it’s true. He doesn’t need auto-tune, auto-correct, or auto anything. The kid’s got talent. And if you haven’t noticed, Esperanza Spalding ain’t exactly Susan Boyle. She is a young, beautiful, caramel-skinned (yeah, I said it — don’t shoot the messenger) black vocalist who rocks an Afro and an acoustic upright bass with equal aplomb. A marketing exec’s worst nightmare she is not. Also, I’ve been listening to her songs and, despite her immense talent and expansive musical spirit (many possess the former, fewer the latter), her original lyrics are often downright amateurish.

All I’m saying is that people have been a little too quick to hate on Justin — a talented, hardworking kid who, story has it, drove around the country in a van singing in parking lots and at small, local radio stations in an effort to create buzz — and a little too smug in their embrace of Esperanza as some sort of underdog, simply because she isn’t a platinum-selling artist — yet. Plus, the whole thing reeks of “if it’s popular it must be bad,” the borderline misanthropic assumption that underlies musical opinion in certain circles.

And besides, they are both vocalists! A true victory for us artsy fartsy musicians would be if an instrumentalist won Best New Artist. Now that would be a revolution, wouldn’t it?

  1. My two cents: For person who spent the last two years being BLASTED with Justin Beiber songs by the 4th-8th graders that I have worked with, I definitely appreciate the kid. From the get, I noticed actual talent in the kid. A couple years ago there was a link on facebook that said something along the lines of check out this lil white kid tryna act hard. Then I found this link–

    Not only does he perform it technically well–he has such heart and soul that it still makes me tear up. Maybe it’s becuase I can relate…but it’s also becuase he has true talent.

    That SAID- the Beibs has been around for a couple of years. He isn’t a “new artist” in the sense that Esperanza’s recent gigs have just barely started giving her attention. To me she is a “new artist” even though I new about her through Berklee.

    As for songwriting– personally I think that Eperanza’s music can not be whittled down to amateurish lyrics. Frankly, I don’t think they are amateurish and CERTAINLY not compared to Justin’s. Then again one could argue that the two can’t be compared based on the fact that the intentions are completely different. When I listen to Esperanza, I’m thinking and feeling something totally different.

    For me its a good thing not becuase she’s the “under-dog” but becuase it challenges everyone to think about what they are doing. She knows what she’s doing and in the midst of a sea of mindless pop that YES I”M GONNA SAY IT is being recycled OVER AND OVER AND OVER, it’s good to have someone come in and shake things up.

    I’m sad for Justin becuase I think he’s a good kid–BUT I feel pretty confident that this will only challenge him to come at the world with something different. He’s in a transitional period. His voice really has changed. He’s been in this world of celebrities, something that has been known to discard any shred of humanity. I hope that this will challenge him to go harder and break out of his box.

    As for the actions of his fans…obviously they are totally out of line and need to get a serious reality check! This is the first time I’ve really commented about this. I think it’s becuase you took a different approach and I appreciate that buuuuttt… really. I have googled to see Justin’s reaction and there is nothing. I’m hoping that’s becuase he KNOWS that there are more important things and/or he’s in the studio planning his next moves. I hope that gets a chance to grow to show the “artist” world that he has talent and skills. I also hope that Esperanza’s win challenges everyone to explore other styles and art forms!

  2. just wanted to back up my argument with a link

    The lyrics are simply another texture in the all encompassing sound that has been orchestrated by the artist. Yet, they still don’t seem “amateurish” to me. This is of course only my opinion.

  3. a better example– as this one is not a cover (sorry–I didn’t realize it)

    same story, beautiful textures, great groove, exciting movement throughout the song.

    It’s not about the lyrics!!

  4. Jeremy,

    Am I reading this right? Are you a Belieber now, too? Just kidding, kind of. Though as a marketer, I’m so intrigued by Justin Bieber and his mass appeal — it’s not only intoxicating for teenage girls but even adults are jumping on the bandwagon. There’s something there, I just haven’t figured out what…

    Great post!


  5. As thrilled and proud of Esperanza as I am, for our mutual alma mater (Berklee College of Music) and for the sake of anti-current-pop music, I don’t think Justin has any less merit as an entertainer.

    The big question is, what exactly do the Grammy Awards represent—musicianship, entertainment value, or popularity? And was Esperanza voted upon for “obvious” winner status, or as a blind statement against the other nominees?

    Either way, rock on Esperanza Spalding and the potential for future musicians to shine without saturated commercial appeal!

  6. I would have to agree with these assessments. Bieber is not the anti-christ, and Esperanza is not the saviour of music. Both have strengths and weaknesses as artists as detailed above.

  7. I haven’t listened to Esperanza, but couldn’t agree more with your enlightened and fair praise of Justin. I went to his movie with Nell & Annabel on Sunday with modest expectations, but I walked out entertained and impressed, especially with his dancing and extraordinary stage presence. The kid has something special, and it isn’t manufactured like a lot of previous teen sensations. Thanks for standing up for him!

  8. I’m confused about how a language can win a grammy

  9. For me, I hear nothing remarkably good or bad in the music of either. I suspect that both would be confident and somewhat interesting in an intimate live space, but no recording of either makes me believe they’d be better than young musicians I’ve listened to in less professional gatherings. To me they are similarly talented, and their talent is exactly what Jeremy alluded to above: they’ve both put in the huge amount of work to make the marketable career. Really good musical competence is very common. Generating and consistently converting opportunities with their levels of stamina and positivity is, to me, their shared (& notable) talent.

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