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The Grammy Nominations Are the Latest Installment of Pop Music's Identity Crisis

by Andrew Unterberger
December 19, 2018, 11:16am EST

Look at the names of the most surprising snubs from the 2018 crop of nominees in the Grammy Awards’ major categories and you’ll notice a recurring theme: Taylor Swift. Ariana Grande. The Carters. Camila Cabello. Even Sam Smith and P!nk. Despite the Big Four categories -- album, song and record of the year, and best new artist -- expanding from five to eight nominees this year, many of the world’s biggest pop stars are nowhere to be found. And that’s in spite of the fact that, in the past three years, most of the top categories were won almost exclusively by blockbuster pop names like Adele, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and, yes, Taylor Swift.

Big Pop has been left out in the cold at the 2019 Grammys. The major categories have largely split into rootsier, more adult-oriented singer-songwriter-type nominees like Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile and Janelle Monáe -- the NPR-ification of pop -- and certified rap superstars like Drake, Cardi B and Kendrick Lamar. Even Lady Gaga, the most recognizable pop name in the Big Four, is represented by “Shallow,” a Bradley Cooper duet and country-rock power ballad from A Star Is Born that bears little resemblance to the left-field dance-pop with which Gaga initially ruled radio.

Dive further into the year’s pop-specific categories, and the genre seems in a state of flux. Best pop solo performance, a category that is usually a layup for the biggest top 40 hits, is now comprised in part of a non-Billboard Hot 100 hit from an alternative rock star (Beck’s “Colors”), a 2-year-old ballad that barely scraped the charts as a single (Gaga’s “Joanne [Where Do You Think You’re Goin’?]”) and a live version of a smash that would have otherwise been ineligible (Cabello’s “Havana” -- the studio version was released in September 2017). Even Post Malone’s “Better Now,” a pop radio fixture in 2018, is from an artist thought of as a rapper. Of the five songs, only Grande’s “God Is a Woman” is a nominee one would normally expect to see in the category.


This type of identity crisis for pop might be the latest fallout from hip-hop’s ascent. As the genre continues to consume a larger slice of the pie -- hip-hop songs accounted for Spotify’s top seven most-streamed tracks of 2018, and reigned on the Hot 100 for a record 34 consecutive weeks, from February to September in 2018 -- other genres have innovated, often together. You can see it in the major categories with crossover collaborations like “Shallow” and “The Middle,” the latter of which, despite being probably the most conventional top 40 pop tune present in either the record or song of the year category, is the work of a country star (Maren Morris) and two EDM acts (Zedd and Grey). Rock’s gradual disappearance from the Grammys has been endlessly discussed during the past half decade, and in 2018 the genre is mostly visible in the major categories courtesy of its remaining overlap in sound and audience with country, folk and hip-hop. (See: Post Malone’s “rockstar,” a rap song about being, well, a rock star, which is nominated in two categories.) Perhaps it’s just pop’s turn to get squeezed.

Or maybe listeners should start recalibrating their definition of it. As a genre, pop has never been a static concept; it has shifted from era to era depending on what music presides at the mainstream’s center. The dominance of divas and triple-threat stars on top 40 radio for most of the 21st century means we still think of those performers when we hear the term “pop.” But that wasn’t the case when rock or country was the most commercial genre -- and likely won’t be forever, given the trends toward rap on streaming and the charts; and now even at the Grammys. Post Malone’s “Better Now” pop nod is telling: In a lot of ways, hip-hop is pop now, with traces of its takeover evident in Drake’s melodic sing-rapping, Cardi B’s titanic choruses and Lamar’s involvement with a blockbuster film brand -- as well as the eye-popping sales numbers posted by all three. After all, by definition, “pop” still just means “popular.”

2019 Grammy Awards

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 22 issue of Billboard.