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.