By Brendan O’Brien
Beck. Beyoncé. So hot right now.
I woke up the morning after the Grammys to find that Kanye’s near-Taylor-Swifting of Beck’s acceptance speech had turned my Facebook feed into a battleground. A friend who goes by Rosencrantz had started a war in the comments of a Grammys post, fighting to determine which album deserved to take the title of Album of the Year.
Rosencrantz sure seems to have an axe to grind with Kanye, but given that this is a Facebook rant, let’s do the right thing and ignore the last few lines. Especially because Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are arguing about something that turns out to be a very interesting interesting question.
Is Beck’s album better because fewer people were involved?
Or to put this age old argument in more general terms:
Is the work of an Auteur better than the result of a collective process?
“Auteur” is a word lifted from film theory. Its meaning is a little shifty, but generally it’s used to describe an artist whose work is their own sole vision. People who love Auteurs value the author’s interpretation of a subject over the subject itself.
Those who appreciate Beck as an Auteur admire the fact that he goes out and physically plays the instruments that contribute to the record, arranging and performing almost everything. In Beck’s world, making an album is the personal process of getting the music that’s in his head onto a record. It’s about his vision, everything else is the process of realizing it.
And then there’s Beyoncé. I’m guessing she has the right to veto anything she’s not a fan of, because, well, it’s her name on the album. By that measure, it could be argued that she’s an Auteur, too. But for the sake of this article, I’d point you to the title of track three on her Album-of-the-Year-nominated record, where you’ll see the words “(feat. Jay Z)” added to the title.
That alone doesn’t kick her out of the Auteur club. She could have hired Jay Z to feature on her song and shaped his verse to fit perfectly into her vision of how the record worked. Many Beyoncé fans will want this to be true, that Beyoncé is in fact directing her record. Back in reality, however, the point of featuring Jay Z is to collaborate in order to make something great. The value of adding Jay Z is not to hear Beyoncé’s interpretation of Jay Z, but rather to make the album better by adding additional unique voices. Recording a Beyoncé record is the process of seeking out great collaborators to make the best record possible. Arguably it’s not about one person’s vision at all, it’s about the record.
Many can argue that these approaches to making an artwork are orthogonal—independent, but not mutually exclusive. They’re just different approaches to making art and cannot be used to prove one is better than the other. This is Guildenstern’s argument.
Rosencrantz counters by (throwing a fit, and) saying that there’s more Beck in a Beck record, so Beck wins. History seems to like Auteurs. Apparently, so do the Grammys.
I will take a stand and end the debate. Guildenstern is right. Collaboration is fantastic, and it’s a very bad idea to judge the efficacy of an artwork based on the number of collaborators. It is due to collaboration that music has advanced to the point it has today. And we would have no Becks had no one come before him to inspire him and help him find his Auteur-ial vision.
But before we go, let’s look at the album covers:
And this a separate, but very important point. If Beyoncé is this big collaborator, where is the effort of this collaboration going? It’s going into propping up Beyoncé. And this is where collaboration is intentionally conflated for the work of an Auteur. As an audience we are asked to view this record as the work of an individual, when it is in fact the combined effort of hundreds of people.
This is a subtle turn of phrase. There are two Beyoncé’s: Beyoncé the person and Beyoncé the band. And, I mean, what a killer band.
But so what? We all knew that.
Well, Sia and people like her is why we should care. It’s wholly possible (and nowadays, probable) that we’re attributing creative work to a person who is not its principle author. In Beyoncé’s case, the album boasts 16 producers and dozens of featured artists and songwriters (including Sia). Intentionally conflating “Beyoncé the band” with Queen Bey herself leaves us fans with very little to go on should we dare to ask whose song we’re singing along to.
This is the part of the story that the Rosencrantzes of the world get hyphy over, and here they have a point. The word “collaboration” implies shared creative authorship, and that’s not what’s going on here. Beyoncé is not collaborating. She’s hiring people to contribute their talents to her record. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but there is something wrong with calling the people that work on the Beyoncé record collaborators.
Thankfully, when Beyoncé’s records win Grammys, the Grammy is awarded to all credited authors. They may not be collaborators, but they’re something close.
But, really, Rosencrantz, chill out. No one has ever cared about the Grammys.