With a two-word phrase in his post-telecast comments, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow sealed the legacy of the 2018 Grammys as the one where female artists were told they would have to “step up” to receive equal representation at the awards to their male counterparts.
It came after an awards ceremony that saw just four female artists — SZA, Julia Michaels, Lorde and Alessia Cara — nominated in the big four categories, with Cara walking away as the lone winner, for best new artist. The paucity of female nominees, combined with Portnow’s comments, inspired the formation of the Grammys Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, headed by former Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen, designed to ensure more equal representation at music’s biggest night. And so, when the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammys were unveiled this morning — with eight nominees per big four category this year, expanded for the first time from the usual five — of all the big questions about inclusions and snubs, the most pressing was surely: Will female artists be properly recognized this year?
The answer, at least for the four major categories, is a resounding yes. Of the eight nominees for album of the year, female artists are responsible for five, and appear on a sixth (the various artists-assembled Black Panther soundtrack), while a resounding six of the eight artists nominated for best new artist are female (one of which being the duo Chloe X Halle). Meanwhile, in the song and record of the year categories, female artists appear on five of the eight nominated songs — though several in each are cross-gender collaborations. The genre categories are a little more hit and miss in this respect — three female-fronted acts in the best dance album is the most the category has seen in a decade, but in the rock categories, there are as many all-male bands with female-sounding names nominated as there are actual female artists — but when it comes to the big four, it’s a resounding showing, particularly compared to the splits of the 2018 nominations.
But if you think there being a greater gender balance among the 2019 nominations means that your favorite female pop star definitely got recognized, might wanna wait on sending that congratulatory tweet. There’s an impressive variety of female artists recognized in this year’s big four, but maybe not the ones you were expecting — and some huge names are still nowhere to be found.
First, though, the female artists we were expecting to see: Cardi B has been on a continuous winning streak since breaking out with “Bodak Yellow” in the summer of 2017, culminating with the blockbuster April debut of Invasion of Privacy and its spinoff smash “I Like It,” her historic second Hot 100 No. 1 single — it’s no surprise to see them nominated for album and record of the year, respectively. While it’s slightly unexpected not to see Ella Mai join her Billboard cover co-star Dua Lipa in the best new artist category, R&B radio favorite “Boo’d Up” was one of the year’s biggest and best-enduring hits, and a predictable best song nominee. Maren Morris, Lady Gaga and SZA were all part of well-received big-ticket collabs (“The Middle” with Grey and Zedd, “Shallow” with Bradley Cooper and “All the Stars” with Kendrick Lamar, respectively) that are logical fits for both record and song of the year. And while Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monae were slightly longer shots for their less-mainstream efforts, their respective Golden Hour and Dirty Computer sets were two of the year’s most unanimously acclaimed LPs, making them understandable album of the year nominees.
But two artists joining Musgraves and Monae in the album of the year hunt were far less anticipatable: underground R&B breakout H.E.R. and country-folk singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. H.E.R. got some best new artist buzz for her sparse, smoky blend of traditional soul with modern production — not to mention some entrancing live performances, including a viral performance alongside Daniel Caesar at this summer’s B.E.T. Awards — so her nomination there isn’t shocking. But few saw her also scoring an AOTY nod for her self-titled debut set, a modest commercial and critical success that was a quintessential mainstream slow burn. And while Carlile has her fair share of industry supporters, including at least one former president, her mainstream presence has been fairly muted. An album of the year nomination for her By the Way I Forgive You isn’t unprecedented — Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was an AOTY nominee with a similar profile just a couple years ago — but record and song of the year nods for that album’s lead single “The Joke” were much less anticipatable. It’s the first song of the year nominee to not even hit the Billboard Hot 100 since Bon Iver’s “Holocene” in 2012.
Of course, with eight nominees per category, a couple total surprises were practically inevitable. But what’s more surprising than these fringier nominees were the superstars they bested. Taylor Swift, a two-time album of the year recipient (including for her previous effort, 2014’s 1989), was relegated to a best pop vocal album nomination for her best-selling Reputation LP, while her opener on that ensuing tour, the ascendant Camila Cabello, joins Taylor in that category and best pop solo performance (for a skirting-eligibility-rules live version of “Havana”), but is similarly absent in the majors. Perhaps most surprisingly, Ariana Grande — who hit new career peaks with her widely acclaimed, Billboard 200-topping Sweetener — joins Cabello in those two pop categories (for Sweetener and its hit single “God Is a Woman”) and appears nowhere else.
All of these obvious pop favorites getting shut out of the major categories arguably continues the trend started last year, with predicted Grammy heavy (and previous record of the year winner) Ed Sheeran failing to score a big four nod for his chartbusting Divide set or its 12-week-reigning No. 1 hit single “Shape of You.” With hip-hop continuing to lay siege to the mainstream, the genre appears to have sucked up the oxygen for more traditional top 40 pop — first last year with major nominations for star rappers JAY-Z, Logic, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, and now this year with Cardi, Drake (album of the year for Scorpion and song and record of the year for “God’s Plan”), Post Malone (album of the year for Beerbongs & Bentleys, record of the year for “Rockstar”) and again Kendrick Lamar (song and record of the year for “All the Stars”) and Childish Gambino (song and record of the year for “This Is America”).
It seems that while the expanded nominations of 2019 has added extra room for further hip-hop star power, it also had the effect of polarizing the vote in favor of smaller, more acclaimed artists of the adult-alternative variety: Musgraves, Carlile, Monae and H.E.R. The most pronounced presence for traditional pop in the big four categories comes via best new artist, where Lipa is joined by longtime pop supporting act turned leading lady Bebe Rexha — but even there, the top 40 representation is matched by the presence of alt-country critics’ darling Margo Price and British R&B singer-songwriter Jorja Smith. (The expanded field also allows room for a couple more traditional genre favorites in throwback rock stars Greta Van Fleet and old-school country breakout Luke Combs.)
Undoubtedly, if a wide-ranging field of musically and culturally disparate nominees was the goal of this year’s Grammys (and their Diversity and Inclusion Task Force), this list of nominees is a win: each of the major categories sports an impressive array of artists from different genres and demographics, while female artists need “step up” no longer to be recognized. But for as much as award shows are at their heart simply popularity contests, it’s surreal to see the one group of artists getting almost totally left out of the competition being the pop stars.