Women — two in particular - poised to dominate today’s Grammy nominations

Chicago Tribune Entertainment 3 weeks ago

When Dua Lipa was named best new artist at the 61st Grammy Awards in February, the British dance-pop singer couldn’t resist taking a playful jab at the Recording Academy’s outgoing president, Neil Portnow, who’d made waves the year before by suggesting that women should “step up” if they wanted to be recognized at the Grammys.

"Where I want to begin is by saying how honored I am to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists," Lipa said in her acceptance speech, referring to a category in which six of the eight nominees were women. Then, with a sly grin, she added, "I guess this year we really stepped up."

Long criticized for undervaluing music by women and people of color, the academy appears poised to push back further against that established image with the nominations for the 62nd Grammys, which will be revealed Wednesday morning in a televised announcement from New York.

Billie Eilish and Lizzo are widely expected to dominate the nods, with industry insiders predicting that both artists — the former a 17-year-old goth-pop sensation, the latter an experienced R&B belter finally breaking through at age 31 — may turn up in each of the Grammys' four major categories: album, record and song of the year, along with best new artist. (Record of the year recognizes performers and producers; song of the year is a songwriters' prize.)

Other acts tipped for high-level nominations include Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Maren Morris, Beyoncé, Tyler, the Creator, Khalid, Ariana Grande, Lil Nas X, Lana Del Rey, Rosalía — oh, and Bruce Springsteen, who if nominated for album of the year with his "Western Stars" would become the oldest lead artist, at 70, ever to compete for that prize. (In a marketer's dream of a coincidence, Eilish would be the youngest.)

The nominations will serve as a public debut of sorts for Deborah Dugan, who took over from Portnow in August as the academy's first female president and chief executive. A former exec at Disney, EMI and Bono's AIDS advocacy group Red, Dugan — flanked by a new academy board chair, Harvey Mason Jr. — has pledged to boost the diversity of Grammy voters, telling Billboard that her goal is to steer an academy membership that's "representative of the creative music community" with all its "genres, genders, voices." The academy counts approximately 13,000 professional musicians, producers and engineers as voting members, though nods in the major categories are also shaped by a secretive committee.

The nominations also come at "a time of optimism" in the music business, according to David Bakula, an analyst with Nielsen, which tracks the industry. Music consumption is up 16% so far this year over 2018 thanks in large part to the widespread adoption of digital streaming, which has begun to make up some of the losses caused when the shift to downloading decimated sales of pricier physical product.

"Consumers are getting more access to more music in more places, and they're taking advantage of it," Bakula said, referring to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, which together boast upward of 160 million paid subscribers.

Newly bolstered though they may be, the Grammys are still known — and often scorned — as a uniquely bewildering awards show, one trailed by long memories of head-scratching wins like Beck's for album of the year in 2015 (over Beyoncé's culture-moving self-titled LP) or Esperanza Spalding's for best new artist in 2011 (over Drake and Justin Bieber).

And for all the apparent certainty of a duel between Lizzo and Eilish — which would represent the first time two artists have swept the major categories in the same year — plenty of questions remain about the nominations for the 62nd annual ceremony, set to be broadcast Jan. 26 on CBS from Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Among them is whether Swift — a longtime academy favorite with 10 Grammys to her name — will return to the race for album of the year after being passed over with 2017's uncharacteristically harsh "Reputation." Her follow-up, this year's cheerier "Lover," was much better reviewed; the singer also went further in promoting it with interviews and television performances. Those in the know say they'd be surprised if "Lover" didn't make the cut.

Swift, who's currently embroiled in a public dispute with two industry power players over rights to her older work, is also in the running for record of the year with her would-be LGBTQ anthem "You Need to Calm Down." But it's hard to imagine a single more deserving of that award than "Old Town Road," Lil Nas X's viral country-trap smash that set a new record for most weeks (19) atop Billboard's Hot 100. How "Old Town Road" fares will be a test of the Grammys' ability to understand hip-hop beyond the realm of veterans like Jay-Z and Eminem.

Ditto the academy's treatment of Post Malone, whose latest full-length, September's "Hollywood's Bleeding," came out after the Aug. 31 cutoff date for eligibility. (The Grammys' peculiar eligibility window is why Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's double-platinum "A Star Is Born" soundtrack may be nominated for album of the year at this ceremony instead of the last one.)

Yet Malone's "Sunflower" — a Gen Z smash with more than 2 billion streams on YouTube and Spotify — was so successful that the academy "has to deal with Post," said Lenny Beer, editor in chief of the music industry trade journal Hits, even if the singer-rapper's genre-blurring style has turned off more traditional voters in the past.

"He's the biggest artist in the business, or he's getting close to it," Beer said.

Other points of speculation involve Beyoncé, whose live-from-Coachella "Homecoming" could be the rare live album to garner significant nods; Lewis Capaldi, the ultra-sincere "Someone You Loved" balladeer looking to follow Adele, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran into twin nominations for record and song of the year; and Rosalía, whose electro-flamenco "El Mal Querer" — named album of the year just last week at the 20th Latin Grammys — is likely to benefit from the academy's realization that it should be following Spanish-language pop more closely.

Beyond the big four categories — there are 84 in total — observers will be watching to see whether BTS, the wildly popular K-pop boy band, will vie for best pop duo/group performance and to find who makes the cut for best rap album following Cardi B's historic win in February as the first solo female rapper to take that prize.

Whatever happens — and however many arguments are spawned — the record business is sure to relish the attention brought by the nominations. As Bakula pointed out, last year’s most-nominated artist, Kendrick Lamar, enjoyed a 25% increase in album sales the week after nods were announced.

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