Aging fiercely: Mariah Carey’s Caution and the new realities of pop music

The hottest selling R&B album in the nation currently belongs to…Mariah Carey. No, it’s not the 1990s it’s the 2010s and Carey still matters.  Carey has spent a lot of time perched at the top of the charts but at 48 she’s defying the typical music industry logic. Her determination to remain an active recording and touring artist is quite remarkable considering all the sexist and ageist rhetoric that relegates women over 40 to the has-been heap. 


Mariah Carey’s 2018 album  Caution  is an acclaimed and popular set that has garnered favorable reviews and healthy sales.

Mariah Carey’s 2018 album Caution is an acclaimed and popular set that has garnered favorable reviews and healthy sales.

Almost 30 years ago, when Carey first rose to prominence, the industry measured success by multiplatinum album sales, propelled by multiplatinum singles launched by traditional delivery systems—music videos, radio and select promotional appearances.


If her newest album Caution goes gold or has a single radio “hit” even her harshest critics would consider her truly back in the game. This may seem odd, but it tells you a lot about an industry that eats its young after they age and has struggled to avoid obsolescence. After decades of overcharging for CDs the digital revolution has altered the consumer landscape. Few artists are selling albums that go gold or platinum. How did we reach such low expectations for impact?


Around the time Carey experienced a generation gap (end of the 1990s) young people were discovering Napster and hip-hop was growing more insular. By 2001’s ill-fated release Glitter radio was more consolidated, and the short-lived teen pop and Latin pop bubbles were growing increasingly tired.


Just as Carey’s status of as the queen of 1990s pop seemed destined for other singers, she nearly fulfilled the prediction with the underwritten, overproduced and fussy Charmbracelet. The MC comeback trail actually began with 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. MC changed her aesthetic to leaner, more groove- oriented material and brilliantly synthesized elements of contemporary hip-hop and neo-soul without surrendering her almost baroque vocal style.


This happy balance generated four genuine hits and earned her newfound respect in the modern R&B world. Frankly, in terms of female vocal icons R& had few contemporary heroes left besides Carey, Mary J. Blige and the slightly younger Erykah Badu.


Though 15 years into Carey’s career was only a ripple compared to Streisand, Franklin, LaBelle, Warwick, Ross, Turner and other veteran vocalists, rare was the ‘90s pop star who thrived in the mid-2000s. Despite the increasing defragmentation in pop music—including the emergence of streaming services, the growth of YouTube and the nichification of pop (which deepened the adult and teen listening divides) 2008’s E=MC2 was a hit. It debuted at #1 and spawned a #1 pop single. Since then, the hits have been less fewer, but the albums have grown more distinct.  Memoirs, Elusive, the new Caution and even Merry Xmas II You are distinctly Carey. She remade herself into a persona—that of the maturing star who is gleefully adolescent at times and expects to be understood as a survivor/veteran/legend.


Distractions like the reality show or even public fiascos like the New Year’s Eve lip syncing debacle never fully erase her primary public identity as a recording artist whose best ideas typically emerge in recording studios rather than film studios or tv soundstages. In the era of “branding” certain moves solidify her brand as that of an idiosyncratic human, in stark contrast to the polished and well-behaved Carey of the early 1990s.


Carey and Ty Dolla Sign perform “The Distance” on  The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon  in November 2018. In the mid-1990s Carey pioneered the R&B and hop-hop fusion that persists today.

Carey and Ty Dolla Sign perform “The Distance” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in November 2018. In the mid-1990s Carey pioneered the R&B and hop-hop fusion that persists today.

Caution makes the case for Carey as comfortably accomplished by lowering the keys, scaling down the production and aiming for a more casual listening experience. Upon first listening few cuts will grab you the way hook driven pop music does typically. Rather, the record insinuates itself into your consciousness gradually. After listening a few times, you will find certain melodic fragments, rhythmic phrases, vocal passages and lyrics reverberate. It’s an unusually subtle element we do not usually associate with pop-soul divas. Everything is tightly produced—whereas before her vocal runs and the burnished production made every sentiment crystal clear, here she whisper-sings and phrases seductively with a laser sharp consistency.


For most of the album you must listen closely to understand and unpack what she’s saying. Despite the title of her last album the diva here is elusive. For once, you as a listener must do a little work to understand what have become increasingly personal blues. Critics have attributed all kinds of subtexts to her lyrics; whether this speculation is accurate is less notable than the fact that Carey has enough of a life and presence for there to be subtext.


In 1990, Carey was one of many mainstream voices competing for attention including Paula Abdul, Anita Baker, Michael Bolton, Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, MC Hammer, Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Vanessa Williams among others. Several of these artists periodically release music on major record labels, but most have branched into other ventures, retired or faded from the mainstream. Understood in this light, Carey’s ability to stay current and yet still be her own artist is remarkable. Caution debuted at #1 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart, #1 on the separate Hip-Hop albums chart, and #5 on the Pop albums chart.  Once again Mariah is on top.




Me, you and Mariah: A re-introduction of sorts

I resented her at first. Like many people listening to pop radio in the summer of 1990, I recall the soaring notes, the skillful gospel inflections, and soaring chorus of “Vision of Love.” The talent on display was undeniable. Yet, after growing up with the mellifluous tones of Whitney Houston did we really need Whitney II?

Many a diva had tried, and mostly failed, to imitate the power and technique Houston wielded and I was unwilling to relent. Further, there was the matter of race. Though Whitney received a lot of criticism from black people for “sounding White” and “lacking soul” we were proud of her achievements. She was not just the ultimate black diva of the era—she was the ultimate diva, period. She crossed over in a way no black female pop singer (even Diana Ross and Donna Summer!) had done before her, and I (we) felt very protective of her legacy.

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Gradually, the details about this new diva Mariah emerged. Though Columbia Records marketed her as a pop artist, and was thus tacitly “white,” she was biracial actually. She had a white mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father and honed her talent listening to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the Clark Sisters and other legends mostly associated with African-American music. She was also open about her black, and white, cultural roots with an emphasis on the black musical influences.

Though she was open about her heritage, as a white-appearing singer she was still “suspicious” to some listeners and critics. She had more immediate pop access than many more phenotypically black singers, and as a Columbia Records artist she certainly had more marketing muscle behind her than a lot of other talented soul divas. Regina Belle, a black vocalist signed to Columbia had not really crossed over to the pop audience by 1990. Mikki Howard was still primarily known to the black R&B audience. Veteran divas like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman, who began recording in the mid-1970's, were still striving for greater recognition. Who was this new voice and why was she so special?

For me, these questions remained present, but became less relevant as I continued listening. After “Vision” came lovelorn ballads such as “Love Takes Time” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and the sassy dance tune “Someday.” By 1991, Mariah was the most successful female singer in pop. She won two awards at the 1991 Grammy's, beating out Houston, Bette Midler, Sinead O’Connor, and Lisa Stansfield for Female Pop Vocal Performance, and was a commercial phenomenon. The moment that solidified my interested were her almost ridiculous coloratura notes at the outro of her 1991 dance-pop hit “Emotions” the lead single from her new album Emotions. I had never heard any pop singer reach those heights technically, and on an emotional level, there was something about her exuberance and passion, and virtuosity, that spoke to my 15-year-old ears.  More hits from the album followed, and though I did not watch her 1992 MTV Unplugged episode when it first aired, she and Trey Lorenz’s soulful remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” mightily impressed me. To re-record such a classic and balance respect for the original with a personal flair was hard to pull off and they did it. My understanding is that even Michael Jackson was a fan.

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As high school was ending I began developing other musical affinities including savoring new voices like the sultry tones of balladeer Toni Braxton and the modern girl groups Xscape, Jade, and SWV, whose debut I listened to incessantly on my black cassette player. Still, Carey’s voice always hovered somewhere in the background. My brother lent me his copy of Music Box, which had songs like the fluffy confection “Dreamlover” and the “inspirational” songs like “Hero” and “Anytime You Need a Friend.” If the lyrical themes were too literal, the singing and arrangements were gorgeous. Theoretically, based on demographics, I was supposed to be enjoying Tupac Shakur or Nirvana, but Mariah compelled me more. I remember combing the liner notes and being impressed by her level of creative control. Not only was she the singer, but also a writer, arranger, and producer. This seemed so different from what I remembered about other singers like Houston, Braxton, and Celine Dion. 

The summer before leaving for college, I interned at the local daily newspaper and saved my money well. Within my first semester at Emerson College, I had spent hundreds of dollars on cassettes tapes of the pop music I loved from childhood including Houston, Carey, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Taylor Dayne, etc. I shopped mostly at Tower Records, but when my money ran low, I went to great used record stores in Boston, like Mystery Train and Newbury Comics. I was doing my own music education and Carey was part of my curriculum. That winter she released Merry Christmas, whose lead single “All I Want for Christmas is You,” I adored. It was one of the few seasonal songs I could stand to listen to beyond the season. My college friends, many of whom liked more outré music, seemed puzzled by my adoration. When you were in college in the mid-1990s you were supposed to like edgier, darker, more ironic music, but I was adamant that Carey was special. Even when she was obvious, or overwrought, I still forgave her.

In summer 1995, I returned to the internship and continued spending my salary disproportionately on music. I finally bought the MTV Unplugged EP. As impressive as the Jackson 5 cover was, I was impressed by her lean live arrangement of her live version of “Emotions” and transported by the way she and her background singers soared on the Carey and Carole King written soul ballad “If it’s Over.” The audience, whoever they were, applauded righteously. A few months after this purchase, Carey released “Fantasy” in a pop version and a remix featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B). It was the second song to debut at #1 on the singles chart (after Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”) and signified something new for Carey. After five years of wholesomeness, there was something funkier and even a bit trashy about the juxtaposition of Carey with O.D.B. I bought 1995’s Daydream the night of its release from Tower and could not wait to run to my dorm room and listen to it, as well as review the liner notes. Shortly after, I reviewed Daydream very positively for the college paper The Berkeley Beacon. I also noticed other reviews, such as Time magazine’s Christopher John Farley noticing something younger, sexier, and more interesting about Carey.

Mc if its over.jpg

Daydream was an artistic and commercial apex for Carey spawning three number one hits, earning her multiple awards and nominations, including six Grammy nods, and even a spot on a few year-end Best-Of lists. After five years, she was finally earning the critical respect I felt she deserved. I also felt vindicated in my tastes; even people who loathed pop, and Carey specifically, warmed up to songs like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby.”

1997 began my scholarly interest in Carey. Right before departing Boston for graduate school in Ohio in late August 1997 news emerged that she and her husband, Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, were separating and her forthcoming album Butterfly was the first product of her newfound freedom. Carey, who always seemed upbeat and inaccessible, suddenly seemed more human and vulnerable than ever. Though she led with the hip-hop inflected single “Honey,” promoted via an escapist video of Carey escaping to an island, dancing with a group of sailors, and jumping into the arms of another man at its conclusion, the album was not exactly hip-hop. Mostly she used the ballad form, her greatest strength, to reflect on her childhood (“Close My Eyes”), racial insecurity (“Outside”), and heartache (“Whenever You Call”), co-written with her collaborator Walter Afanasieff. She also managed to blend her style with younger artists including the brilliant “Breakdown” recording with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the taut “Babydoll” co-written with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Though the album featured hip-hop associated personnel, the album is mostly downbeat. Lyrically, it is also richer in detail and the songs flow into each other with far more deliberateness than her typically singles-oriented albums. There are some meandering melodies, and at times, she barely enunciates, but it feels like her most personal work yet.

I wrote about Carey’s gospel influences in a music course I was taking and built from this blueprint by presenting papers on her music at academic conferences. I decided Carey’s life warranted deeper exploration and made her the focus of my Master’s thesis.  I collected a formidable archive of articles and images, watched her commercially released videos, and became a Carey “expert.” I was simultaneously meditating on the political economy of popular music. She was the rare female pop figure to possess such high levels of creative control. And as a biracial performer she was in an odd position: Though she was marketed as a pop singer with a soulful sound that could appeal to fans of black pop, she had fought with Columbia about integrating more hip-hop into her music and was defeated. That is, until she had earned enough commercial clout to do so; and this apparent “gamble” paid off.  She was a racially ambiguous singer typically read as “white,” who gradually integrated blacker urban influences into her music, as pop music itself was becoming more influenced by hip-hop. Though Mary J. Blige is understood as the queen of hip-hop soul, “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” blended hip-hop, R&B and pop in a quietly transformative way. After Carey’s success in this style Houston embraced it on 1998’s My Love is Your Love, and even Celine Dion started adding R&B touches to her albums.  

Since the late 1990s, Carey’s influence on other singers has grown more apparent (e.g., Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson) but her struggle to remain relevant has also emerged. Butterfly debuted at number one and had two number one hits but was not the colossal success of her previous albums in sales or in airplay. 1999’s Rainbow just missed the number one pop albums spot, and though she had two big pop/R&B hits from it the set was also perceived as a downturn in sales.  Her experience is similar to other female pop singers who regularly enjoyed robust sales and airplay in the 1990's such as Janet Jackson. In the 2000's Carey struggled personally and professionally to uphold her previous image. Midway through the decade she had a “comeback” with 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi, but has struggled to maintain its momentum as she has matured and as the record industry has adapted to the digital revolution, changing demographics, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores and competing forms of media influence.

MC we belong mtv.jpg

Carey emerged in the midst of “big pop” a period when pop stars regularly sold multiplatinum albums that spawned multiple singles, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. This was the era of mega-selling albums such as Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Purple Rain, She’s So Unusual, Whitney Houston, No Jacket Required, and Faith. She filled a void on Columbia’s roster and provided the label with a reliable commercial anchor who could compete with Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna and other chart-makers of the early 1990s. She proved herself to be musically adept across age, format and taste cultures during several transitions in pop music. As a relatively self-contained musician, typically in tune with musical trends, her instincts served her well for over a decade. After over 25 years of recording, she has had to confront the artistic quandary for big pop stars:  Their talents gave them an audience, but as audiences shrink and tastes change, they have to figure out how, and if, their talents can keep them in the spotlight. The alternatives are to try to adapt to changing tastes and/or to relinquish the spotlight and simply make the music they want to make rather than competing with contemporary pop.

Pop fame is a remarkably addictive temptation. Legendary performers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan all had fallow periods when they tried to stay current. Their natural abilities often clashed with attempts to cover rock material and they eventually returned to the kind of music that made them famous. 

Carey has to figure out how viable she is for present and future audiences.  As a listener I distinguish her career from more traditional divas like Houston and Dion who have always depended more on outside material and producer/executives’ instincts to shape their sounds. She also differs from singers like Jackson and Madonna whose careers depend more heavily on their personae and performing abilities than vocal precision.  Arguably, two promising approaches that continue to constrain her are ambition and risk. First, though pop is full of pretentious “art rock” and “concept albums” that go nowhere, I rarely sense Carey developing her albums conceptually. Beyond writing well-crafted love songs and scoring hits, it is not clear if she is thinking on the conceptual plane that musicians as varied as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, U2, or Stevie Wonder have employed. She seems capable to this listener but I am not sure if she believes it.

Second, Carey might benefit from looking at the payoffs for some of pop music’s risk takers. A few examples:

·         After six years of albums featuring orchestras and show tunes Barbra Streisand made peace with modern pop on 1971’s Stoney End and Barbra Joan Streisand adding Carole King, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson to her repertoire alongside of Harold Arlen and Jules Styne. Though she is not a rock singer by any stretch, she modernized her sound finding some folk-pop, R&B, and soft rock that gelled with her sound. She mostly maintained her audience and gained new ones.

·         Donna Summer quickly became the “Queen of Disco” around 1976, and she gradually grew beyond its confines adding conceptual dimensions, and other stylistic influences that peaked on 1979’s Bad Girls. But her finest album was actually 1980’s The Wanderer, a moderately popular but thoroughly accomplished album with touches of rock, new wave, pop, and even gospel that redefined her sound and career for the 1980s.

·         Linda Ronstadt completely upended her image in the 1980s by performing in Pirates of Penzance and La Boheme in New York, recording three standards albums with Nelson Riddle and recording what eventually became a trilogy of Spanish language albums. Though her record label was highly reluctant, she had earned the audience and profits to more than justify these experiments, which ultimately transformed her singing. 1987’s Trio and 1989’s Cry Like a Rainstorm illustrated her enduring commercial appeal even after seemingly abandoning mainstream pop.

·         Madonna had a succession of hit albums and singles from 1983 forward and from these successes came 1989’s Like a Prayer. Though it is clearly aiming for “seriousness” her conceptual reach indicated greater artistic ambitions than being an MTV provocateur. The album’s genuine explorations of religion, sexuality, and family propelled her from an entertainer to an artist and afforded her newfound critical respect without diminishing her commercial appeal.


As odd as it seems to reference albums recorded from 1971-89 this is part of my larger point: Pop musicians of Carey’s generation rarely deviate from established formulas. Daydream was definitely a progression in its blend of hip-hop elements with pop/soul, and Butterfly was even more experimental in many respects. But, there is an element of daring missing from Carey’s repertoire that would help her grow artistically and enrich her critical stature. Whether audiences will follow is less relevant than her potential to lead.

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To enjoy listening to someone like Mariah Carey is a kind of badge of vulgarity, right?

She seems so obvious, so commercial, so pop, so excessive, so shameless, so over-the-top, so obsessive, so slick. Respectable people are not supposed to take pop divas like Carey (and forebears like Whitney Houston, or followers like Kelly Clarkson) “seriously.” Carl Wilson’s brilliant 2007 book on Celine Dion (reprinted and expanded in 2014) Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste is one of the best analyses of this subject of musical taste.

In rock and pop critical circles, “Serious” is a term reserved for male singer-songwriters in rock, soul, hip-hop and certain subgenres of country. “Serious” is mostly for music that is not “pop” except when it is. The critical community champions rock and roll for its cultural revolution of bringing black influenced culture to the mainstream. Yet, up until the 2000's, the demographics of rock criticism were incredibly homogeneous and conservative. Few non-white males had the opportunity to gain the national prominence or critical respect of Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh to name a few rock critic superstars.

As such, rock criticism’s’ insularity has narrowed the discourse of the aesthetic expressions respectable in mainstream popular music. Rockers, country outlaws, gritty soul men and hip-hop are OK. Women can also enter this club as long as they adhere to these archetypes. When critics accord female pop singer respect, they often write in tones of shock and condescension. Who knew she could do that.

Women who are angry and gritty are admitted to the canon, but other kinds of expression—vulnerability, optimism, ambivalence, buoyancy, sensuality—are harder to trace in the language of pop/rock criticism. The easiest way to address “pop” is to dismiss it as ephemeral drivel. Kelefan Sanneh has addressed this in her 2004 critique of Rockism in the New York Times, and it bears repeating (“The Rap Against Rockism,” New York Times, October 31, 2004, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 32). I disagree with the Rockist perspective on pop, and I have devoted much of my previous writing exploring the kinds of singers and genres critics often dismiss as light, trivial, and irrelevant to notions of “art.” Within this, I have located reservoirs of artistic richness and depth easy to dismiss if you are never encouraged to look.

Among these overlooked figures, Carey fascinates me because her vocal palette, range of skills, and facility with synthesizing influences is highly unusual in the pop world. My observations may sometimes seem defensive or even feature moments of appreciation, but my reading is not a defense or an appraisal. I am raising the question of why it might be useful to examine Carey critically, for I have seen little that convinces me that she is unworthy of study. I will state upfront that she is not conceptual in the vein of a pop artist like Madonna, nor is she renowned as a “performer” in the vein of singer-dance-performer extraordinaire Michael Jackson, to name two pop figures frequently subject to cultural criticism. Some of her contemporaries, notably Mary J. Blige, have stronger “personae” than she has ever mustered. Regardless, I still find her compelling; I always want to know what she it up to presently and next.

Buried within her discography are hundreds of special moments that set her apart. Her 2003 double-disc Remixes is as important to understanding her as her Greatest Hits collection. Her singles and her albums (in the digital era) regularly feature bonus cuts that include unreleased songs or interesting remixes that suggest all kinds of artistic frequencies beyond what you might hear on the radio or watch on a video channel. In the 1990's, she may have seemed like the most conventional, middle-of-the road (MOR) formulaic pop diva, but she was actually a champagne cork ready to be released. Things slowly seeped out on 1995’s Daydream, a pivotal recording where she began to split from MOR goddess to a more modern and believable singer. She aged backwards, embraced hipper styles and grew more sensuous abandoning the kind of wholesomeness that made her songs anthems of beauty pageants, proms and weddings.

Despite the misbegotten notion that she suddenly became “black” when she thought it would sell more records there are few pop singers of her generation more influenced by classic “black” American musical styles—especially gospel and jazz. At her best, her melismatic control, fluid phrasing, call and response arrangements and instrumental choices brilliantly signify to her musical predecessors. Within these, she has also integrated traces of hip-hop seamlessly. The little scat passages in “Dreamlover” and on the dance remix of “Anytime You Need a Friend” hint at vocal prowess yet unleashed. Her background vocal arrangements on songs like “Vision of Love,” “If It’s Over,” “Jesus (Oh What a Wonderful Child),” “I Am Free,” “Outside,” and “Fly Like a Bird” could easily make her a stellar full-time gospel arranger.

Carey’s challenge is the “hint” element. The raw talent is there and when it comes together, it is as brilliant and accomplished as any contemporary post 1980's popular music. Her struggle to pull it all together consistently is part of the appeal. She has accumulated an abundance of micro level ambitions that surface in fragments and patches, rather than the whole we favor in the albums era. I am faithful/hopeful her records have suggested what she can do but that more is to come.

From 2001-2004 she risked becoming a 1990's relic; then in 2005 she turned things around with The Emancipation of Mimi. 2008’s E=MC2 was less impactful though it spawned the requisite big hit (“Touch My Body”) and debuted at #1. Too bad, because in many ways it is a more idiosyncratic and distinctly personal album. If Emancipation re-established Carey as a commercial force in the digital era, E=MC2 allowed her more personal freedom. Rocker Ryan Adams had a very revealing interview that spoke to the odd frequencies she was operating in.

According to Adams, “I feel like Mariah is loosening up, finding herself again. This is a woman who makes amazing albums. She got panned for Glitter, but she was just taking a stab at her 8 Mile, Purple Rain and Xanadu. With The Emancipation of Mimi she figured out how to dig back into songs and jams and not overdo it vocally. Her pride probably got hurt, she had something to prove, she went nah, watch this, I’m going to emancipate myself — and the record demonstrated this. E=MC2 (Island) is a very sexy, cool record. She’s funny, the beats are great, a lot of slow jams. She’s not a pop star; she writes her own stuff, and she really collaborates. Her sampling ideas are well informed; she’s very involved in her recording process. Her records are masterpieces” (“A Dash of Metal and A Whole Lot of Mainstream,” New York Times, October 26, 2008, AR29).

 Though Carey does not need Adams to affirm her, he is a restless eclectic in the manner of Elvis Costello, who has certainly soaked up a lot of pop music in his day. Similarly, Ben Folds, wrote, “She’s got the most amazing voice. Although the production on her new album, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island), may turn some off, I find the sheer talent involved reason enough to listen. I love classic soul ballads like “Mine Again” and “Fly Like a Bird.”' I also like that she's using her voice on this album more like a male singer might, like Prince. She could show off and belt but she’s evolving and doesn’t seem to need to prove herself every bar, so you get the Interpretation of an amazing singer” (“Arty, Twangy and Carey,” New York Times, May 8, 2005, p. A17). 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is even weirder—there are traces of humor, regional slang, and allusions that defy the stereotype of Carey as a pop-soul simpleton. Her most recent studio album, 2014’s wildly eclectic Me. I Am Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse, was not a big hit, but it also unpeeled some musical and personal layers.

I share all of this because I am working toward a book of cultural criticism on Carey. My interest in exploring Carey’s career as a book project is not to redeem, condemn, preserve or other finite functions, but to illuminate tones and layers people are not hearing. Her racial and ethnic identity, her relationship to different musical genres, the media’s framing of Carey’s professional relationships with men and women, and other related themes, are areas I am excited to explore. I hope this preview leads you to reconsider the familiar.




LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 2)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 2! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress. Check out last month's blog for Part 1's discussion of Barbra Streisand, Cleo Laine, and Diane Schuur.


1968's  Eli & the Thirteenth Confession  is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

1968's Eli & the Thirteenth Confession is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

When I started listening to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in college I began with her cover album of ‘50s doo-wop and ’60 soul music with LaBelle 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle. I was so enchanted that I bought her first three albums of original material immediately afterward.  Her urgent, wailing sound felt like something I had been craving for years without realizing it. Sadly, around the time I started immersing myself in her serpentine melodies and impressionistic lyrics, she died. At the very least, some trickles of recognition emerged including Time and Love, a tribute to Nyro featuring an array of female admirers, was released with her blessing, and a double disc compilation. Though many people know songs like “Stoney End,” “Time and Love,” and “Stone Soul Picnic,” most people I knew were unfamiliar with her as an artist.

The music industry and critical establishment tend to spotlight a few artists to represent certain genres, and for female singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell emerged as the quintessential singer-songwriter, for achieving both acclaim and commercial success. They applied the same lens to Carole King and Carly Simon, but Nyro is the least commercially successful of all of them even if she is the most original. She was also the most controversial. Nyro has a piercing, full-bodied singing style that many people hear as overwhelming and shrill. Some critics have extended this interpretation of her sound to her music, which has been viewed as pretentious and self-serious.

 Critics are not the primary variable shaping the popularity of singers, but they are tastemakers whose voices partially shaped the late 1960s and informs rock histories and canon making venues like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nyro finally received a biography in 2002 via Michele Kort’s excellent Soul Picnic, many of her more obscure albums have been remastered and re-released, in 2012 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her (finally), and jazz-pianist Billy Childs released 2014’s well-regarded album of Nyro songs Map to the Treasure which won a Vocal Jazz Grammy.

 Despite these accolades, Nyro remains a kind of shadow figure; it is painful that her only “hit” as an artist was a moderately popular cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof.” Granted, it is a lovely version, but it hardly tells her story. The Mitchell of the 1960s sings in a delicate soprano borrowed from singers like Mary Travers and Judy Collins that is instantly recognizable as a young feminine folk voice. Nyro has a heartier and more seasoned voice that sounds more overtly “white ethnic” but it is hard to place. She borrows more devices and phrasings from R&B but there is something dark, gothic, and sensual about her voice that is not purely traditional soul music but is far tougher and streetwise than folk. I frequently joke with my friends that I have never put Nyro songs on a mix with other singers because when I listen to her I only want to listen to her because for me she constitutes her own genre. Barbra Streisand’s most successful entrée into modern pop was her 1971 hit cover of Nyro’s “Stoney End.” Besides being born Jewish women (Nyro was part Jewish) in New York (Nyro is from the Bronx, Streisand is from Brooklyn), they have few similarities, but critically they are innovative voices whose distinctions from their predecessors was a source of acclaim and disdain.

Just as Streisand was not a Doris Day clone, Nyro was not a compliant polite folkie. She was willing to write about, sex, drugs, mortality, and urban life unfiltered. There is something jarring and disruptive about Nyro, especially if one grew up listening to the polite and highly polished pop music of the early to mid-1960s, like Connie Francis, Joanie Somers, and Andy Williams Vocally she is fearless, unfettered and somewhat wild in her approach to melody and dynamics. As such she is incredibly freeing to listen to; she disrupts almost any conventional notion of pop singing and the unorthodox shape of her songs matches. 1967’s More Than a New Discovery stands out, but Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry push her into even more dynamic and unpredictable vocal twists. Hers is a wholly original sound that needed to be heard. Beyond the sonic qualities were the stories she told about female emotional intimacy and sensuality, and her broader philosophical observations evident on songs like “Poverty Train” and “Time and Love.”  She made it OK for female songwriters to write in code, just as Dylan did years earlier, and like Dylan, she had an unconventional sense of sound and structure. Whereas Dylan’s innovations grabbed attention relatively early in his career, Nyro remains a thrilling discovery.


Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

In a 1998 appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show Tony Award winning actor Jennifer Holliday relayed how Ethel Merman told her she would have to tone down her voice to make it on Broadway. The irony of Merman telling another singer to sing more subtly is fairly ridiculous, but Holliday did not object overtly, she simply stayed true to the dynamic style she introduced to audiences Your Arm’s too Short to Box with God which propelled her to award-winning stardom as Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway. Her signature “And I Am Telling you I’m Not Going” is more than a torch song: it is a gut wrenching inferno. Singing in an almost guttural style, Holliday sang the song four years in a row and solidified herself as one of the greatest finds in musical theater since Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Stephanie Mills. In addition to receiving the Tony Award, she won a Grammy for the pop version, which exposed people without access to Broadway to a vocal style unmatched in intensity. Holliday’s bravura performance of the song, as well as “I Am Changing,” drew from the stylistic well of gospel, musical theatre, and torch song, and ultimately made her one of the decade’s most promising new star. Poised for success she never reached the heights of previous Broadway-cum-pop star predecessors.

 In the early 1980s, the music industry was as racially bifurcated as it had ever been with black singers confined to quiet storm ballads and funk and whites to soft rock and rock with few overlaps. The notion of a “black Streisand” was less than tenable, so rather than relying on Broadway material her Geffen debut featured a mix of relative “radio friendly” songs like the ballad “I Am Love” (an R&B hit) and the dance cut “Just Let Me Wait.” Her follow-up repeated this approach of targeting the neo-disco and adult soul markets. Unlike white Broadway predecessors like Streisand, Holliday needed to cross over from the black market to reach the pop audience and none of her songs performed at this level commercially. Holliday switched from Geffen Records to Arista Records in the early 1990s, but this did not change her fortunes significantly and she has remained a mostly independent recording artist. Sunset Boulevard’s aging, delusional fading silent film actress Norma Desmond believed she was not a successful actress because “the pictures got smaller,” rather than her talents. In Holliday’s case, the situation was the inverse: At the peak of her talents the industry got smaller, increasing the gap between black and white music, and reducing the space for singers with large voices to fit into an increasingly electronic musical landscape. The rise of MTV also increased racial segregation and a byproduct was the erasure and silencing of full-sized black female physiques like Holliday’s body. Though black women’s musicality was integral to the soul music that influenced ‘80s MTV pop stars like Annie Lennox and George Michael few black women had a prominent role on the channel.

Holliday’s talents were too big for the industry; she defied the industry’s emerging new standards and outside of Broadway found limited success in film, television or other arenas during the mid-to-late 1980s. Holliday has reflected on her struggles with weight, depression, and romance. I would imagine the failure of the industry to respond to the scope of her talents may have informed these struggles. In the mid-1990s, Holliday began appearing on television, including a recurring role on Ally McBeal, and in the early 2000s, she was back on Broadway and the dance charts. She has also released albums of gospel songs and standards, and benefited from some of the renewed attention to Dreamgirls that accompanied the 2007 film. These moments indicate clear awareness of her gifts within the industry, but she deserves a sustainable vehicle for her art.  In 2002, I saw her perform in concert in Washington D.C. and was awed by her talent, which included fine performances of the songs of Patsy Cline and Ella Fitzgerald, respectively, as well as her signature showtunes. Holliday, who was only born in 1960, still appears to be performing at her peak, and deserves to be seen and heard.


A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in  The Bodyguard .

A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in The Bodyguard.

Whitney Houston is one of the most misunderstood pop music icons because our society provided limited space for someone in her position to be understood. As a young black woman who debuted in the mid-1980s, audiences probably expected her to sing funk in the vein of Chaka Khan and Teena Marie, and/or gospel inflected music like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Though hardly rebellious, Houston defied these racial and gender expectations. Houston’s energetic performances of dance tunes and sultry ballad interpretations indicated a vast aural sensibility. You hear elements of gospel in her voice, but there are also elements of Streisand style belting, Ross like drama, with traces of funk and disco, but ultimately no surrender to a singular sound. Houston does not sound stereotypically “white” or “black.” She sounds multiculturally black, meaning she is grounded in some familiar black idioms and able to illustrate how rich the palette of black music is in actuality.

Tellingly, before her album debuted she sang a version of Home on The Merv Griffin Show. Stephanie Mills originated “Home” in the original production of The Wiz and part of its innovation was its fusion of gospel elements with the control and showmanship of Broadway. The Broadway soul element is a deeply important texture of Houston’s music that a lot of music critics, steeped rock and soul music, miss and fail to appreciate in Houston’s music. Though reviewers always recognized the beauty of her voice, they have always fought the idea that black singers have something more to offer than the most obvious variations on the sound popularized by Franklin. This limits the room for other kinds of black vocal expression, thus by her second album (1987’s Whitney) Houston was maligned critically for making crossover pop (for white people) rather than some notion of  “authentic” black music. The only way such a notion is tenable is if you hold the essentialist view that black expression is finite and exhausted of possibility.

The notion that she was failing her people aesthetically, and by virtue politically, undoubtedly led her to record the rather muddled and unsatisfying album I’m Your Baby Tonight. In an effort to connect more deeply with urban black pop she collaborated with the urban L.A. funk brain trust of Babyface and L.A. Reid on multiple songs. The New Jack Swing title track was a big pop and R&B hit, but none of the other dance cuts made an impact. The album’s most successful cut was its most Houston-traditional: Her rendition of Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore’s anthemic “All the Man that I Need” produced by Narada Michael Walden, a black producer who shepherded most of her biggest hits previously.  Even working with Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder failed to produce magic. The set is a downturn in her career, but she reversed her fortune with the most natural fit: the soundtrack to the soapy melodrama The Bodyguard.  After years of occasional acting cameos and a career of Broadway soul style singing the film’s music provided an appropriate context for her singing, which reached astronomical vocal heights on her propulsive version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and suitably dramatic original songs “Run to You” and “I Have Nothing.” The album’s triumph featured some of her best singing, and set the stage for her similarly accomplished performances on the Waiting to Exhale and Preacher’s Wife soundtracks. Paralleling these triumphs were well-covered personal struggles in her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug addiction that derailed her career transforming her from a formidable voice to a caricature.

1998’s My Love is Your Love, her last great recording, was an agreeable fusion of  her “classic” Broadway soul approach with more contemporary rhythms provided by hip-hop and R&B producers. Her voice was slightly more seasoned and her range was smaller but she still had an appealing sound. The album was her last consistent success, spawning several hits and winning her awards and such, but it was a swan song in many regards. She finally achieved R&B credibility, for what it was worth, but she had already shown herself to be both within and beyond R&B confines.

Critics ultimately have limited access to a singer’s psyche and personal demons. Arguably, the pressure to balance commercial crossover ambitions and to appeal to black audiences was an artificial pressure she inherited and navigated gracefully for many years before it seems to have consumed her. We still struggle to envision female artists beyond the cartoonish “girl next door” and” bad girl” tropes which can leave female artists stranded between being themselves and trying to acquiesce to expectations. Music critics are not responsible for Houston’s death but the faux binaries they employed did not honor her artistic life.


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Mariah Carey has always stood apart musically and professionally from most female pop singer-songwriters of her generation, yet critics constantly try to frame her in generic diva terms which diminishes her accomplishments. In 1990, when Carey debuted, videogenic singers with modest voices, like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, defined mainstream pop.  The primary exception was Whitney Houston whose powerful belting fused dulcet tones with gospel fervor on songs ranging from the fluff of “How Will I Know” to the rafter rattling angst of “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.” In between these extremes were solid singers like Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, Karyn White, and Vanessa Williams, who also had slices of the commercial pop diva pie.

Though some parallels existed between Carey and these singers, including the emphasis on either dance-pop or romantic ballads in her repertory, she stood apart. Her voice had a top range that exceeded even the pop coloratura flights of Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. Her technique, particularly her command of melisma conveyed an authority to her songs that bellied her age. The fact that Carey co-wrote and arranged her songs, was atypical, as was her production credit on the album’s most unique cut, “Vanishing” featuring just voice and piano. “Prisoner” which featured Carey rapping verses to a faithless lover, years before hip-hop soul queens like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill premiered was also a key track buried within the album. In short, she seemed like another diva but a closer look revealed a wider range of colors to her musicality. After her debut grabbed critics’ attention, sold well and won her awards a backlash ensued with her follow-up Emotions. Featuring dance pop co-produced with Cole & Clivilés (the architects of C+C Music Factory) and ballads with a 1960s soul flair, she became a critical target. Suddenly, she was accused of being bombastic, writing “schoolgirl” diary lyrics, and being the result of marketing hype. Her 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged surprised many people who witnessed her live vocal mettle and had to concede that she was an excellent singer and commanding performer, not a studio concoction. The performance was released as an EP on the strength of her excellent interpretation of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” featuring call and response vocals from Trey Lorenz. This incredibly tender song could sink into saccharine mush in the wrong hands, or collapse under the weight of over singing, but she and Lorenz honor the original while singing with their own flair. I can think of no comparable singer who could have done this better. 1993’s Music Box found her garnering praise for employing her sensuous lower range more prominently, but some critics balked at generic lyrics, while others felt she downplayed her usual dynamism too much allowing the melodies to carry the day too prominently.

Three years and four albums in her critical profile remained confusing. She was either too over the top or not dynamic enough, and though she persisted in writing, producing and arranging her material and demonstrated genuine interpretive skill, she remained framed as a product of marketing. Her 1993 marriage to Sony’s CEO probably did not help with these perceptions. Critics also faulted her for being inaccessible and seemed poised to unmask her when her first tour began with an underwhelming performance in Miami. Carey was apparently a quick study, for her remaining dates impressed critics with her vocal poise and personable stage presence.

1994’s Merry Christmas elicited predictably mixed responses but the rousing closer “Jesus Oh What Wonderful Child” was a gospel masterpiece and “All I Want for Christmas is You” became an instant holiday standard. Carey’s turning point was 1995’s Daydream where she fused a range of musical interests in romantic pop ballads, ‘70s soul, 90s hip-hop, disco, and funk into a mini-masterpiece. She modernized her sound and image and won over new listeners, including critics, with an irresistible fusion of pop and urban music, a path she has pursued successfully since, most notable on 1997’s Butterfly, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi and 2008’s E=MC2. Because the press has turned its attention to her physical appearance, relationships, and alleged diva behavior younger audiences mistakenly view her as a quirky celebrity diva. Her best music is some of the most accomplished and influential pop music of the last 30 years. Carey’s career is uneven in spots, but she is a distinctive vocal artist not merely a generic diva.



Gender and genre at the Grammys

Tapestry (Carole King), The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill) and 21 (Adele) are female helmed albums that won Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1972, 1999, and 2012 respectively. Were they the “best” albums of the year?—possibly. Within the parameters of the Grammys, which are conferred by the industry and tend to reward commercially successful albums with some modicum of critical success, these albums defined a certain period commercially and were relatively non-controversial choices.


This past February when Taylor Swift accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year for 1989 she informed the audience that she is the first woman to receive the award, considered the Grammy’s most prestigious honor, twice. She continued, “… I want to say to the young woman out there, there are going to be people along the way who try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you will look around and you will know it was you and the people who love you who put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.” Many writers and critics interpreted this as a direct response to comments Kanye West made about Swift in the lyrics of a recent song “Famous.”

 Though I have zero interest in the supposed feud I think it’s interesting to consider the Grammy’s record of recognizing female artists in the most prestigious category. Just as many critics questioned the lack of racial diversity at the Academy Awards, especially in the acting categories, the Grammys have a mixed record in recognizing women and certain genres in the Album category.

 As an industry award commercial success and broad appeal are integral. Independently released albums and albums without a hit single are almost never nominated. The first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year was Judy Garland whose 1961 double disc concert album Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall is a dynamic showcase of Garland’s stage command and a powerful trip through her repertoire.  The album also topped the albums chart for 13 weeks. 1989 was also a chart-topping album; it stayed at the top for 11 non-consecutive weeks and spawned multiple hit singles. In retrospect its win was predictable—though its competition included acclaimed albums from country (Chris Stapleton’s Traveller), hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly), R&B (The Weekend’s The Beauty Behind the Madness), and rock (Alabama Shake’s The Sound & The Color) 1989 had the biggest commercial impact and the broadest appeal.

 Among the women nominated for Album of the year since the Awards’ 1958 inception five have received three or more nominations. Four of the five won the ward at least once, and when they don’t win the album prize they typically receive a Grammy in performance categories like Female Pop Vocal Performance. Barbra Streisand, who won for 1963’s The Barbra Streisand Album, has received the most nominations, including six for albums released from 1963-66 and nods for 1980’s Guilty and 1985’s The Broadway Album.  Here’s their commercial profile

 Album Title                             Highest Chart position

The Barbra Streisand Album    8

People                                         1

My Name is Barbra                    2

Color Me Barbra                        3

Guilty                                           1

The Broadway Album               3

 My Name is Barbra and Color Me Barbra were both tied to TV specials aired on CBS so in a sense they have a multimedia tie-in that may have boosted their prominence. Guilty, which featured three popular singles, was written, arranged and produced by the creative team (the Bee Gees, Albhy Khaluten and Karl Richardson) behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown was a safe nominee. It lost to Christopher Cross, but Streisand and Gibb won for their debut “Guilty.” The Broadway Album lost to Paul Simon’s Graceland but won Streisand a Female Pop Vocal Performance award.

 The remaining women have three nominations. In order of seniority, Bonnie Raitt won for 1989’s Nick of Time and was nominated for 1991’s Luck of the draw and 1994’s Longing in their Hearts. Before the Grammys Nick had peaked at #22. After the win it rose to the number one spot. Luck peaked at number 2 and Longing peaked at number one. Luck lost to Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable with Love won her a Rock Vocal Performance Award, Rock Vocal Duo or Group and Female Pop Vocal Performance.

 Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut album was nominated for Album of the Year but lost to Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required. She won the Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single “Saving All My Love for You.” Her sophomore album Whitney was the first by a female singer to debut at number one on the album charts; it featured four number one hits. Though she lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree she won for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Houston reached her commercial and awards peak with The Bodyguard soundtrack which won Album of the Year as well as Record of the Year and Female Pop Vocal Performance honors for “I Will Always Love You.”

 Mariah Carey’s debut was nominated for Album of the Year, as well as Record, Song, and Female Pop Vocal Performances for Vision of Love. Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block won Album, Phil Collins won Record (“Another Day in Paradise”), and Julie Gold won Song for “From a Distance.” Carey won Best New Artist and Female Pop vocal Performance for “Vision.” 1995’s Daydream debuted at number one and earned six nomination including Album of the Year but lost to Alanis Morissette’s 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi earned eight nominations, and won three in R&B categories, but lost U2 on the Album award for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

 Swift’s Album of the Year winner, 2008’s Fearless, was a chart topper with strong showings on the pop and country charts. 2013’s Red completed Swift’s transition from a country identity to pop, staying at the top for seven non-consecutive weeks and earning her a second Album of the Year nomination. This year she triumphed again with 1989 which featured the popular singles, “Shake it Off,” “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space.”   

 To summarize, the albums most likely to be nominated for Album of the Year by female performers are typically commercially successful pop-oriented albums. If it’s the best-selling album of the year the chances might be enhanced. Among the albums referenced above Streisand’s debut was a landmark for traditional pop vocal and cabaret music.  Her other albums were essentially restatements of her talents. Though Houston and Carey’s earliest albums are somewhat formulaic musically, in terms of influence their debuts helped them become arguably the most influential pop-soul singers of the last 30 years, inspiring a raft of imitators. Carey’s Daydream is probably the definitive album to blend pop and hip-hop soul production values via songs like “Always be My Baby” and “Fantasy.” Nick, Luck and Longing are not especially innovative but they’re well-executed albums that helped Raitt gain greater industry stature after paying dues since the 1970s. Swift’s career is too new to assess her artistic impact, especially as she has shifted from country to pop. She is the closest thing to a commercial sure thing besides Adele, Beyoncé and Eminem so I’m sure her future albums will continue to garner Grammy attention.

 The commercial nature of the award has certainly influenced male winners including repeat winners like Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and U2. But male performers have arguably been recognized for a wider range of genres. For example Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (2008) was an acclaimed jazz album mixing vocal versions of Joni Mitchel’s songs with instrumentals. Within the jazz community the set was a hit but its popularity grew significantly after Hancock won. Many viewed the win more as a nod to Hancock’s accomplishment as a veteran musician and Mitchell’s as an influential songwriter and performer than a reflection of the best music recorded that year.

Artistically speaking some of the most innovative and/or acclaimed albums recorded by female performers in the pop/rock/soul/country sphere were never nominated for Album of the Year even if they were recognized in genre categories. Some examples include Aretha Franklin’s album I Never Loved a Man (1967) and Lady Soul (1969), Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis (1969), Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971), Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Imagination (1974), Phoebe Snow’s debut Phoebe Snow (1974), Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams (1977) and Cry Like a Rainstorm Howl Like the Wind (1989), Donna Summer’s The Wanderer (1980), Anita Baker’s Rapture (1986), Jennifer Warnes’s Famous Blue Raincoat (1986), Madonna’s Like a Prayer (1989), Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? (1992) and The Breakthrough (2007), Toni Braxton’s debut album Toni Braxton (1993) and Secrets (1996), Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) and The Velvet Rope (1997), P!nk’s Missundaztood (2001) and The Truth About Love (2010) and Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid (2010). Jazz, gospel, New Age and classical albums are almost never considered for thee Album category though Natalie Cole’s winner Unforgettable with Love and Diana Krall’s nominated When I Look in Your Eyes were big enough  jazz hits commercially to squeeze in.

 In terms of genre the Grammys were originally founded to distinguish “quality” pop (e.g. pre-rock pop and jazz) from “commercial” pop (e.g. rock and roll, R&B). As such the Album winners tended to fall under the pop and cabaret labels. The recognition of bossa nova (Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz’s 1964 winner Getz/Gilberto), rock (The Beatles’ 1969 winner Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band), country-pop (Glen Campbell’s 1968 winner By the Time I Get to Phoenix), R&B (Stevie Wonder’s 1974 winner Innervisions), and hip-hop (Lauryn Hill’s 1999 win) represent slight breakthroughs beyond the most obvious pop lens. The Grammys are frequently behind the curve. Bob Dylan was not recognized in a major category until 1997 for example. They are also generally better at recognizing pop/rock breakthroughs like Sgt. Pepper and Graceland than other genres. For example in the 1970s an innovative soundtrack like Superfly, or a landmark R&B album like What’s Going On were unlikely contenders in the general categories whereas a lot of commercially popular but ephemeral material (e.g. Starland Vocal Band) made the cut. 

 In 1995 after Tony Bennett’s Album win for MTV Unplugged inspired a backlash the Grammys retooled the nomination process to ensure a more diverse and representative group of nominees through a special nominating panel. This created a pattern whereby each year there’s a perfunctory attempt at multi-format representation. For example, in 2010 the nominees included a bluegrass/country flavored album (winner Raising Sand by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant); R&B (Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman); hip-hop (Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III); mainstream pop/rock (Coldplay’s Viva La Vida); and modern rock/alternative (Radiohead’s In Rainbows).

 The artistic gerrymandering represented by the Album nomination format seems well-intentioned but ineffectual. In this regard the genre categories seem more interesting because voters are comparing music within a genre rather than essentially selecting an overall winner. At the risk of narrowcasting it seems a bit unlikely that consumers are comparing Chris Stapleton to Kendrick Lamar, so what does it mean to reward one over the other? A good comparison is the Album award at the NAACP Image Award. The ceremony tends to focus on music made by performers who identify within the black diaspora. This is often R&B/pop-soul, which can be limiting, but there’s some tacit recognition that black performers are often overlooked by awards shows honoring the most widely known music. 

 Cultural questions always pertain to any informed critique of the ways our culture recognizes and institutionalizes popular art. A bias toward commercialism is an obvious site of contestation for the Grammys, but related to the commercial question is the matter of who do we conceive of as making musical art as opposed to just commercial music? What musical genres do we correlate with “art”? How do commercial expectations impact artists’ abilities to transcend genre expectations? Identity, genre, notions of art and commercial expectations are inextricably linked in popular music. Taylor Swift’s win for a slickly produced highly commercial pop album strikes me less as a victory for female artists (all of its multiple co-producers were men except for Swift) or distinctive aspects of women’s expression than an extension of a formula that typically benefits men but is open to women who conform to certain industry norms. I am more concerned that young female artists, who are willing to risks, are better able to garner access to record music and broad distribution than for them to limit themselves to Grammy formulas.