A key narrative emerging from the nominations for the 2018 Grammy Awards announced Nov. 28 was the diversity on display in the four main categories — album, song and record of the year and best new artist: Jay-Z has eight noms, Kendrick Lamar seven and Bruno Mars, Hawaii-born and of Hispanic descent, has six. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ubiquitous hit “Despacito” (yes, featuring Justin Bieber) is up for both song and record of the year.
Yet that diversity only goes so far: Female artists are significantly under-represented in the biggest categories. While three of the five new artist nominees are women — Alessia Cara, Julia Michaels and SZA — solo female artists received exactly two of the 15 total nominations in the other three categories, and even that comes with a caveat: Michaels’ “Issues” is nominated for song, a songwriters’ award she would share with four other (male) writers. That’s unlike Lorde’s “Melodrama,” up for album, which is awarded to the artist. And though SZA, Cara and Ledisi had strong showings (with five, four and three nods, respectively), three men have five nominations, six men have four and 20 men have three. To paraphrase James Brown, this year’s nominees list is a man’s man’s man’s world.
Several quick answers emerge when examining the situation. The biggest female artists and/or winners in recent years — Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Pink, Kelly Clarkson — did not release albums in the eligibility period, although the latter three are nominated for individual songs. Hip-hop, which dominates the top categories, is indisputably ruled by male artists. Recent albums from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga underwhelmed critically and commercially. Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” was expected by some to receive an album nomination, but in another surprise, country music was absent from the top categories for only the second time in 24 years.
Yet other categories show how many women qualify for this year’s awards. Clarkson, Pink, Gaga and Kesha comprise four of the five nominees for Best Pop Solo Performance; Lana Del Rey is up for Best Pop Vocal Album. Cardi B, Kehlani and Ledisi scored rap or R&B noms; Alison Krauss and Maren Morris were nominated along with Lambert for country awards. Kesha, who has become a rallying figure against sexual assault for her ongoing lawsuit against former mentor/collaborator Dr. Luke, is nominated twice and provides the kind of cause-related storyline that awards shows often favor. And despite their high profiles, with the exception of Best New Artist, females have won relatively few big categories in the 2000s: Album of the Year winners were Adele, the Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones and Swift (and Krauss with Robert Plant); along with the above artists, Song and/or Record has gone to Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Lorde and Amy Winehouse.
But this isn’t just about the opinions of the Recording Academy’s 13,000 voting members: A look at BuzzAngle’s top 50 songs of 2017 through Nov. 23 (based on audio sales and streams, video plays, radio spins and Shazam tags) reveals just three songs by solo female artists — three in 50 — and no female names even appear above No. 17. And while there’s no shortage of female voices on the airwaves and digital platforms, most of them are featured on songs by male artists (Swift with Zayn Malik, Selena Gomez with Kygo, Cara with both Logic and Zedd). Radio data indicates that such low numbers are nothing new, at least for the past few years: According to Mediabase, which monitors radio station airplay, there haven’t been more than three female artists among the Top 10 most-played artists per year since 2014, when the company began measuring the metric, and women artists have accounted for 30% or less of each year’s top 40.
So are women being shut out, or is this just the way the cards fell this year? Reps for the Grammys and BuzzAngle declined to comment, but Alissa Pollack, EVP of global music marketing at iHeartRadio, says, ” There are certainly a lot of single females succeeding in pop and I think there is a universal desire to see more women represented across all format charts. BuzzAngle reflects more on what people are actually consuming rather than what’s being put out,” she notes, adding, “Also, it often comes down to timing. Release schedules are cyclical and I think there are definitely times when there is more male representation than female, but also the reverse.”
Sony/ATV Music Publishing U.S. co- president Danny Strick said he doesn’t think the dearth of women in the top categories this year represents a sea change, but he does view the nominations as a kind of “perfect storm.” “For one, it’s a reflection of the urbanization of the mainstream. Also, an artist like Katy Perry, who traditionally has Grammy [nominations], released an underperforming project, and due to timing you don’t [fully] have Pink, Taylor, Adele, Beyonce. But certainly SZA, Alessia Cara, Julia Michaels and Cardi B [who’s nominated for two rap awards] are really important examples of the new breed of female artists emerging. I think you’ll see the cycle shift in the next year.”
With albums by Swift, Pink and Clarkson eligible and new releases from Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Meghan Trainor, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Loretta Lynn and others expected in 2018, he may be right. But time will tell …