On Sunday, Fox will air the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards show at 8 p.m. EDT. But the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ credibility as an arbiter of excellence will face justified skepticism because Beyoncé went 0-for-6 at the Creative Arts Emmys last week.
She was nominated for her work on Homecoming, a documentary that captured her performance as the first black woman to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And just as it was with 2016’s Lemonade, her previous visual album, America’s greatest living pop performer was royally snubbed.
For insight on how that snub might have been received, we can look to the self-titled album released at the end of 2013, which was accompanied not just with music videos but also documentary snippets that explained her mindset. One was about losing, and why she chose footage from her first professional loss — her childhood group, Girls Tyme, losing Star Search — to precede the grimiest, most boastful song on the album, “***Flawless.”
“I was only 9 years old, so at that time, you don’t actually realize that you could work superhard, and give everything you have, and lose. It was the best message for me,” Beyoncé explained. “When I put Ed McMahon introducing us as the ‘hip-hop-rapping Girls Tyme,’ it clicked something in my mind. I feel like something about the aggression of ‘Bow Down’ and the attitude of ‘***Flawless,’ — the reality is, sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose and you’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. And it happens when it needs to happen.”
The pop star’s shutout at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys didn’t need to happen, but it did. And it’s completely reasonable that her team is having trouble embracing the outcome.
Beyoncé’s Netflix concert film Homecoming was nominated for six Emmys: outstanding directing for a variety special; outstanding variety special (prerecorded); outstanding costumes for variety, nonfiction or reality programming; outstanding music direction; outstanding production design for a variety special; and outstanding writing for a variety special.
Here’s what won:
- Directing — Springsteen on Broadway
- Variety special (prerecorded) — Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool
- Costumes — RuPaul’s Drag Race
- Music direction — Fosse/Verdon
- Production design — Rent
- Writing — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
The television academy’s decisions for music direction and variety special strike me as, at best, misinformed and, at worst, insulting. To understand why, let’s take a deeper look into what made Homecoming excellent, first with musical direction and then the show.
In crafting the musical arrangements for Homecoming, Beyoncé and music director Derek Dixie did something incredibly ambitious, something that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of black music and a broad imagination and acuity for music theory.
What dominates Homecoming is a sustained nod to New Orleans. It extends past the tracks that originated on Lemonade, an exploration of Beyoncé’s Creole heritage. Dixie and Beyoncé didn’t just adapt her music for a marching band; they conducted a sonic archaeological dig and placed her within a continuum of black music. The orchestrations are reminiscent of the approach to pop music at Motown. Queen Bey’s hits benefit from the use of modern technology, which allows artists to take advantage of infinite possibilities. But they’re also written in a way that comes alive with a live band, an indication of top-notch songwriting and inspired orchestration.
See: the Homecoming arrangement of “Deja Vu,” which, after the first few measures of its bassline, drives into the song with horns that take a little from the funk of B.T. Express’ “Do It (T’il You’re Satisfied),” which is sampled on “Deja Vu,” and mixes it with strings more associated with Philadelphia soul.
Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show. The horn runs on “Say My Name,” for example, are exquisite — a blizzard of notes, played not by one person but a group. The greater the number of musicians attempting to play the same run in unison, the greater the likelihood that the sound will become muddied, which is why a classic choice for trumpet section battles at football games is “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
On “Say My Name,” those runs are clean, tight and distinguishable. But they are part of a bigger sonic and visual machine. Besides the horn runs, there are the vocal harmonies from Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child mates, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. Then add the percussive beats, separate from the drum line, that come from the steppers.
Everything has to happen in unison and is being performed in large part by college students. To attempt to do the whole thing not once but twice, and then stitch both performances together in postproduction, is, in a word, crazy.
When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies and the music they can play and the drum rolls and haircuts and the bodies — it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”
Then there are the screaming trumpets that are integral to the sound of a historically black college or university (HBCU) band. If you’re listening to the Homecoming album, you can hear them in full force at about 1:37 into the first track, “Welcome,” and again in the last 40 or so seconds. Hitting those notes requires a skilled level of musicianship. Being able to hit them again and again over the course of a two-hour set, as Homecoming calls for, is harder because horn players have to retain their chops, or their embouchure, so that their facial muscles aren’t giving out before the performance is over.
These challenges are different from those faced by the music department of Fosse/Verdon, led by Alex Lacamoire, which won the Emmy for the first episode of the seven-part miniseries. Fosse/Verdon is about the personal and professional lives of dancer and actor Gwen Verdon and her creative and romantic partner director and choreographer Bob Fosse.
Lacamoire was charged with an assignment that was almost the reverse of what Dixie and Beyoncé were doing. He had to take highly recognizable songs across several different musicals, written by different composers, and aurally unify them, creating a soundtrack that feels like it’s a collection of songs from one musical called Fosse/Verdon.
Even though “Big Spender” is from Sweet Charity, and written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and “Mein Herr” is a number from Cabaret, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Lacamoire’s arrangements make them sound like they belong in the same television show. In Lacamoire’s case, the artists unifying the collection are a dancer and a director, not a leading vocalist. The Music of Fosse/Verdon is from a variety of artists, from The Fandango Girls to Alysha Umphress to Bianca Marroquín. Creating and shaping that thematic continuity is not an easy feat.
Still, the recording sessions for Fosse/Verdon didn’t have to take place during a live concert in which the musicians are also performing choreography for two hours — without sheet music. The songs of Fosse/Verdon, which included “Cabaret,” “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” were originally written for musical theater. That doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult to play, but they were composed with the intention that a live orchestra would do so for eight shows a week on Broadway.
Listen to the Fosse/Verdon version of “All That Jazz,” the opening number of Chicago and one of the most iconic songs in musical theater history:
Sometimes songwriters will torture Broadway musicians with arrangements that test the limits of human endurance, but it’s usually vocalists who suffer. That’s what happened to Audra McDonald when she did Porgy and Bess on Broadway. Her teacher’s assistant at Juilliard described the role as “difficult” and a “voice-killer” because of the range it demanded and the frequency of the performances. In a 2012 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, McDonald spoke about the arduous task of singing “What You Want With Bess” eight times a week.
When Beyoncé took the stage in April 2018 at Coachella, the festival livestreamed the performance. In real time, the singer’s contemporaries marveled at what she’d accomplished.
“How. in. The. Fuh. Did. She. Pull. That. Shiii. OFF!!!!??? It’s like 170 musicians onstage,” tweeted Questlove. “I mean the stage plotting. The patch chords. How many monitor boards were used??! Bandleading that s— woulda gave me anxiety. Hats off man. Jesus H Christ.”
If Questlove, who is about as experienced and virtuosic a bandleader as a person can be, declares that the job would have given him anxiety, that’s a good indication that what’s taking place onstage is extraordinary.
So why didn’t the television academy see it that way?
“It’s got everything to do with the voting membership, which skews much older, whiter, and more male than the industry or audience,” tweeted actor Rebecca Metz, who plays Tressa on the FX show Better Things. “The awards reflect their taste and viewing habits. I’m on a mission to recruit young, diverse members for this very reason.”
Let’s turn to the broader picture: What makes Homecoming uniquely great television? What Beyoncé accomplished in two performances at Coachella and with the Homecoming documentary is like a Broadway show. There’s singing, there’s dancing and there’s a story. Remember, the Emmy is not for the live performance itself but for the documentary. We’re asking specific questions here: How do Homecoming and Carpool Karaoke, which won the Emmy, function as pieces of television? What do they offer visually? What role does the music play in the delivery of a larger narrative?
Again, Beyoncé is operating in a space that’s not dissimilar from her competition. Corden, before becoming a late-night host, was an actor. He sings and dances, as evidenced by his stints hosting the Tony Awards. Both Corden and Beyoncé are invested in a type of musical theatricality. Corden is just more self-effacing about it.
“Carpool Karaoke,” Corden’s running gag on The Late Late Show, is reliably great. Corden has a magical capacity for disarming his guests. He offers a fun, anodyne form of celebrity schmoozing that isn’t weighted with self-serious pretension. It’s viral internet gold: Corden drives around with popular musical artists, sings their songs with them, and the whole thing is recorded. Past participants include rappers Migos, singer Adele and even then-first lady Michelle Obama, who rode with artist Missy Elliott.
Look at the episode of Carpool Karaoke that won the Emmy for best variety special (prerecorded) over Homecoming, in which Corden sings with Paul McCartney while driving around the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England.
There’s some editing that takes place when Corden and McCartney are singing the “beep beep beep beeps” of “Drive My Car.” Clearly the show was able to get McCartney to do the bit at least twice, once in the passenger seat and then once as the driver, with both edited together.
Beyoncé does something similar in Homecoming, but she takes it to the extremes we have come to expect but perhaps do not appreciate. Homecoming editors Alexander Hammer and Andrew Morrow are responsible for a great cut that takes place about 6 minutes and 15 seconds into Homecoming, when the band, dancers and steppers are transitioning from “Crazy in Love” to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” First, the band is facing the cameras dressed in yellow. When Juvenile says, “Drop it,” the band members turn. Their backs are to the crowd, and everyone is in candy pink — which was the color of the uniforms for the second Coachella performance. The two were cut together, and the effect is almost supernatural. For that tiny bit of visual trickery to work, all 151 performers had to hit their marks at the same time, in the exact spots, for both performances, doing JaQuel Knight’s choreography.
That’s not for the Coachella audience — that’s just for television.
By the way, that choreography is informed by the history of New Orleans. While it’s identified in modern parlance as twerking, the moves go back to the days of segregated New Orleans, when black dancers performed in the city’s nightclubs that lined Rampart Street, such as the Dew Drop Inn and the Tick Tock Tavern. They performed something called “shake dancing,” one of the many descendants of the mixed-race social dance that took place at events known as quadrilles, held in 19th-century New Orleans ballrooms.
Shake dancing, as LaKisha Simmons explains in Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, was not just an illicit thrill. It was a rejection of respectability politics and of arbitrary definitions of propriety. It represented creativity and sexual freedom, two of the themes that pervade Beyoncé’s oeuvre. But it wasn’t seen in such generous terms by white writers documenting the culture of Rampart Street, or well-to-do blacks who avoided it. So putting the dance moves of these women onstage at Coachella and setting them off with sequins, discipline and precision becomes a way of honoring them and their labor.
In executing her Coachella set, Beyoncé elevated to an enormous stage an aspect of American culture that tends to be overlooked and misunderstood: the role of HBCUs in shaping pop culture. She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora. She repeatedly demonstrated how the mélange of cultures in Louisiana, from the French whites to Afro-Caribbean residents to enslaved and free African Americans, influenced American culture.
“At least two centuries had passed since those unnamed slaves Thomas Nicholls observed had helped their mistresses in and out of their shoes, so that the white ladies could learn routines increasingly redolent of Africa, perhaps while their servants snuck away to try out some French steps of their own,” NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote in her 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, making the connection between New Orleans quadrille balls and Beyoncé’s decision to appear in the music video for “Formation” as both a quadroon and a bounce dancer. “In that long span, countless dances had been danced, many identities blended and forced apart. The taboo baby had grown up and become a matriarch.”
Beyoncé was able to seamlessly and coherently weave together the words and cultural contributions of Nina Simone, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison and others with contemporary figures such as Lil Yachty, Fast Life Yungstaz, Sister Nancy and O.T. Genasis. She pulled from the go-go sounds of Washington, D.C., the horn-heavy jazz of New Orleans, J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and the music of her own husband, just to name a few, within an epic recounting of her 25-year repertoire. It was all valid, all valuable, all part of a vast quilt of what it means to be black, to be a woman, what it means to be American, to be human. And she was the vessel embodying all of it, from the militant self-love of Malcolm X to the regality of Nefertiti.
In that way, the work is euphoric, forward-looking and optimistic, even as it’s held together by the glue of the past.
The shows in which Verdon danced and Fosse directed and choreographed are in no danger of being overlooked. Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Certainly the legacy of the Beatles has been well-appreciated. These artists have been beatified with awards and decades of recognition.
But the musical and dance tradition that informs so much of American pop music, beyond Beyoncé’s, isn’t regarded with the same reverence for its innovation, its influence, its history. Instead, it remains marginalized as part of the African American story rather than the American story.
What a shame that American institutions such as the television academy still bypass recognition of the epic historical record and scholarship embedded within Beyoncé’s music because it is easier to see it in work that’s long been regarded as classic. This time it is they who have lost, not she.