Kings and Queens, Knights and Ladies — and Grammys

Beyoncé performing in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: José Goulão. CC BY-SA 2.0

Records are made to be broken.

Especially if the record is one you never want to hear again.  It used to be great fun every so often to snap a vinyl LP that you loathed.  I can still remember the joy of taking a ball-peen hammer to Kenny G’s debut album of 1982, Kenny G. A final jagged complaint of protest was the most pleasing sound that that disc ever made.

The death throes of vinyl do not emit the snap, crackle and pop of shellac, a far more brittle and therefore fragile substance. I bought a 1930 gramophone twenty years ago in Chichester on England’s South Coast and happily lugged the box around Europe for the summer, playing old records on trains and ferries before bringing the  conveniently portable, sustainably powered machine back to the States.

I quickly learned to handle 78s with utmost care. Yet if one takes against a vintage shellac record (the format continued to be manufactured into the earlier 1960s) they do shatter with real style.  Some years ago I picked up a stack of 78s at the local Salvation Army and among the take was “Feudin’ and Fightin’” sung by Dorothy Shay. She shamelessly fashioned herself the “Park Avenue Hillbillie,” and the song was a big hit in the late 1940s. I wasn’t sorry when I “accidentally” dropped the disc and it jitterbugged one last time all over the floor.

As Kyle Devine has shown in his Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music of 2019, an essential book on the production and consumption of recorded sound already once praised in this space, the environmental fallout from supposed improvements in recording technology becomes greater with each successive “innovation”—from shellac to vinyl to the plastic of CDs and now to the vast carbon emissions resulting from downloads and streaming. What Devine doesn’t register is the fact that deleting a playlist is a mirthless action offering none of the joys of destruction.

Speaking of records and gramophones, much was made this week of Beyoncé surpassing Sir Georg Solti’s lifetime tally of Grammy awards.  So efficient was Solti at winning these little trophies that when he received his 31st and final one in 1998 he wasn’t even alive. He’d died the year before at the age of eighty-four. Beyoncé captured her 32nd Grammy at the age of 41, less than half Solti’s age when he set the record a quarter of a century ago.

Coming a two years after his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, Solti posthumously landed his last Grammy for four-hour-plus, his four-CD set of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with a powerhouse cast of soloists (Ben Heppner as the heroic young songster Walther). Such colossal works were typical of the projects that garnered Solti his awards.

In contrast to these epic campaigns of massed forces, Beyonce’s recordings rely on a leaner unit of creators and producers. Given their non-Wagnerian durations, her work puts rather less of a strain on the attention span, though Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce of 2008 was a double album. It raked in six Grammys in one night and was nominated for a seventh—Album of the Year. Beyoncé still hasn’t won in that supposedly most prestigious prize. She was snubbed in the category again this year.

Whether doled out for a four-minute song or a four-hour opera, a Grammy is still Grammy.

A couple of days later zin the same venue— Arena in L. A.—another record fell. LeBron James dethroned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Queen Bey and King James may reign with different weapons, but they’re in the same business: entertainment

Kareem had held his scoring record for 38 years, surpassing his erstwhile rival Wilt Chamberlin in 1984.  Wilt had stood atop that list for eighteen years.

Records may be made to be broken, but not all of them can be. Wilt will retain some of his in eternity, none more impregnable than his 100 points in a single game, that mark set in 1962.

Solti has a lot more Grammys than Wilt, who was never even nominated. But he really could sing, recording “That’s Easy to Say” a couple of years before he scored that century in a game.

Chamberlain’s name may have drifted down to number seven in the NBA buckets list, but he remains the scoring champion off the court. In his 1984 autobiography, Wilt: Larger than Life, Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women.

Whatever one makes of this unverifiable tally, sex is a leitmotiv of many a record-setter on court or podium.

Solti was an infamous Lothario, purported to have bought white furs for his conquests made while director of the Royal Opera in London.  When he turned to take his bows at the Covent Garden opera house he would of an evening have seen dozens of these dead animals shimmering out in the audience wrapped around the shoulders of his lovers.

Solti’s memoir came out just after his death and offer some insight into his methods of seduction, ones that on the surface seem not so different from those of certain Hollywood producers:

“A few months later, in September 1964, Valerie Pitts, a young journalist and television personality, came to the Savoy [hotel in London] to interview me for the BBC, As usual, I was a little behind schedule, and I had to shout from the shower, ‘Wait a moment. I’m not dressed.’ I eventually went to the door in my bathrobe, and I asked Valerie to help me find my socks, which I had mislaid.  I think we both fell in love within minutes. After the interview, I invited her to lunch, and a passionate love affair began … but we were both married.”

That Pitts become Solti’s second wife and mother of the couple’s two daughters hardly makes the passage less creepy.

Given his own womanizing, it is amazing that Solti had time to mount all those Grammy-winning productions, not to mention meet his daunting schedule of concerts. To be sure, conducting is not quite as physically draining as basketball, especially when you’re pouring in an average of 50 points a night as Wilt did in the 1961-2 NBA season. But then again, you don’t play basketball full on, if at all, in your eighties or even seventies, as was clear when Kareem came onto the court to hand over the ceremonial basketball to LeBron on Tuesday night in L.A.

Among Beyoncé’s record-breaking take at the 2023 Grammys was the Best R&B Song, “Cuff It.” The song is about sex—and explicitly so. The lyric begins with an emphatically clear statement of desire: “I wanna fuck something up.”  The “something up” is a semantic fig leaf.

More metaphorical treatments of the topic follow—“I need some drink in my cup.” A choreographic query—“Can I sit on top of you?”— stops the music for a the better part of a second—an eternity in the euphoric on-rush of this dance tune.  The urgent beat makes room for consent.

This love is grounded in the senses but shoots for the stars, “I wanna go higher … Spaceships fly.” This itinerary takes a whimsical, if somewhat redundant, turn late in its four minutes:  “Hypersonic, sex erotic, On my body, boy, you got it?”  The music orbits its topic like a high-speed satellite singing its own escape velocity: “Space ships fly / fuck it up, fuck it up”.  The video raps out the text in white capitals against a black background, the words synchronized to Beyonce’s voice and made to dance in time with the relentlessly unhurried beat.

The celestial trajectory takes us heavenward in the chorus: “Bet you you’ll see stars / Bet you you’ll elevate / Bet you you’ll meet God.”  God is separated from the next “fuck” by only a single intervening line.

I don’t see or hear this as blasphemous. Bach’s music in praise of God is infused with an erotic charge drawn from operatic elements he and his colleagues imported from Italy into the Lutheran church service.  Solti won one of his Grammys for conducting Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Chicago Symphony and Chorus.  That result does not hold up to renewed listening. “Cuff It” will age much more vibrantly and gracefully than the remnants of Solti’s army gasping and wheezing as it drags across the polyphonic steppes, the maestro cracking the whip he as rides his Grammy-winning warhorse into the frozen ground.

It is only with the reduced forces of the work’s arias that Solti mercifully fails to exert his full, crippling control. The maestro can’t completely extinguish the eros of the Bach’s love song: Laudamus te, benedicimus te, Adoramus te, glorificamus te (We praise You, we bless You, we worship You, we glorify You.) sung by the redoubtable Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.

Like Beyoncé, Bach sends his love towards the firmament. He does so with a genius way beyond anything Elon Musk could muster. In the final movement (“Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe”: You alone are the Lord. You, Jesus Christ, alone are the Most High) of the Gloria section of the Mass, Bach dramatizes the unattainable , unimaginable highness of God by deploying the lowest of wind instruments—two bassoons in rumbling contrapuntal dialogue urging on a solo horn, also low in range compared to the angelic trumpet. Likewise, the vocal part is given not to a soprano but a bass. The horn and voice continually strive towards to the top of their ranges. Their radiant arcs of melody push upward towards heaven with fabulous futility.

Furloughed from militaristic precision and blast of the famed ranks of the Chicago brass section, the orchestra’s long-time principal horn player Dale Clevenger, who died last year at the age of eighty-one, invests his part with rapturous assuredness, right from the opening octave leap towards the high sky. This would-be spacecraft of a Quoniam chugs along at a brisk pace, the powerful and persuasive bass, Glynne Howell, even pushing the tempo ahead, as if impatient to ascend to the glories of this music.

Bach and Beyoncé: brazen birds of a funky feather!

By the way, Kenny G has been nominated for sixteen Grammys, but the Academy has deigned to let him win only once. That single prize came in 2008 for Best Instrumental Composition for the saccharine feedback loop that is “Forever in Love.”  If I had a hammer …

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at