As 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 shock. Shock quickly turned to rage as “Beliebers” 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,” this 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 can 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 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?