Pop rivalries nearly disappear from Grammys

Where are the great pop rivalries à la rock vs. disco, East Coast vs. West?
Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

The Grammy Awards have long encouraged the pairing of strange bedfellows—recall Elton John crooning with Eminem—but this year’s ceremony takes musical intermingling to a new level. Stevie Wonder will sing with Gallic house robots Daft Punk, saucy soulster Robin Thicke with M.O.R. veterans Chicago, wordy gangsta rapper Kendrick Lamar with anthemic pop-rockers Imagine Dragons, lightning-riding quartet Metallica with lightning-quick classical pianist Lang Lang. At this rate, the entire music industry will soon be holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

So whither the pop rivalries of yesteryear? What happened to rock vs. disco, punk vs. prog, Toby Keith vs. the Dixie Chicks—heck, Lennon vs. McCartney? Chart battles are nearly non-existent; even last year’s highly touted faceoff between Katy Perry and Lady Gaga fizzled quickly. Even as Perry’s Prism easily eclipsed Gaga’s Artpop, both shunned conflict, with Gaga reprimanding her followers: “Don’t fight with Katy’s fans, or anyone.”

The kind of barbed interchange we once saw between Neil Young with Southern Man and Lynyrd Skynyrd with Sweet Home Alabama is an endangered species. Thriving instead are name-calling and ugly spats: Chris Brown and Drake’s entourages trash nightclubs over Rihanna; Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus trade wrecking balls over Cyrus’s image. The best pop feuds have both musical and wider cultural dimensions: Oasis vs. Blur, for instance, evoked southern England vs. the north, middle class vs. working class, and art school vs. the school of life, with both groups’ love for the Beatles serving as a complicating factor. The East Coast vs. West Coast beef, also in the ’90s, took in the history of hip hop from New York to California and competing ways to “deliver the truth,” as GZA has said, “in a brutal fashion.” Nowadays, differences are smoothed over in a YouTube-led pop monoculture—in the U.S. and Canada last year, only 11 songs hit No. 1.

One of these was Royals, and its singer, Lorde, is portrayed as a dissident voice; she has said her hit song skewers the likes of Nicki Minaj and Drake, whose lyrics about “opulence” she’s called “completely irrelevant.” In another song, she goes so far as to diss a pop cliché: “I’m kinda over being told to throw my hands up in the air / So there.” As statements go, this is hardly “No future for you.” And, as she’s on the same label as Minaj and Drake (and Perry and Gaga), we shouldn’t expect fireworks at her Grammy performance. Conglomeration, it seems, has contributed to the dearth of pop rivals. CelebrityAccess senior editor Larry LeBlanc says, “There are so few labels. They make sure [their] releases don’t bump into each other.”

LeBlanc, who has covered the music industry since the ’60s, offers a historical perspective: “We’re not creating any new stars. With certain artists—Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder—you can feel the earth shift when they come into the room. We have a lot of C- and B-celebrities, but we don’t have many A-stars.” And most music writers are now more Ryan Seacrest than Lester Bangs, nurturing the monoculture by agreeing on everything.

The one rivalry to emerge from last year’s Grammys pitted Justin Bieber against Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, who declared, “The Grammys are?.?.?.?for music and not for money.” He then proceeded to impersonate the bucket-urinating star on a parody Twitter account, bravely alienating potential fans in an era of slumping sales.

Bravest of all is Kanye West, who has rebounded from his and Jay-Z’s smug Watch the Throne (the throne they share as two non-competitive royals) with the clattering Yeezus; alas, it’s nominated only for best rap album, and he won’t be performing. Having baited everyone from Bruno Mars to Taylor Swift to Nike CEO Mark Parker, he’s so volatile, he could probably start a feud with himself. But his rants are always about ideas, about ambition and art—and commerce, too—and bound up with the risks he takes. He’s not afraid to show his rough edges. At the Grammys, as his collaborating colleagues smooth out their own, they might do well to ponder, “What would Yeezus do?” will be live-blogging the Grammys! Join us on Sunday at 6:30 pm EST.