Some people – be they loyal Beyhive members or longtime Queen Bey haters – won’t read this.
They’ll see the headline and go into immediate comment mode, either assuming the title is somehow suggesting that Ms. Knowles is more talented than the four other legends mentioned (it’s not and she’s not), or that the article was written by a Beyoncé hater who would love nothing better than to launch another social media war involving the soon-to-be mom of three.
Neither of those things is true (except the mom of three part, of course).
But what is true is that Beyoncé Knowles Carter will soon have more babies than Patti LaBelle and Diana Ross have Grammys combined. And when you throw fellow R&B legends Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight into the equation, Bey’s 20 trophies outnumber the combined foursome’s total of 19: ten for Chaka, seven for Gladys, two for Patti and zero for Diana. (Note: this stat only includes competitive field categories, not honorary Grammys like Lifetime Achievement, which would give Diana Ross one.)
And if those numbers aren’t shocking enough, these might be: Beyoncé has more wins (20 vs. 18) and twice as many nominations (62 vs. 31) as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
That last number includes the Grammy nominations for 2017, which were announced in December and will be awarded this Sunday, February 12 in Los Angeles. Beyoncé has nine noms this year, making her the most nominated artist for 2017. Those nine practically guarantee she’ll be bringing home even more trophies after Sunday’s ceremony; no artist has ever been nominated more than seven times without winning at least one award.
What’s more, her new total of 62 Grammy nominations makes her the most nominated woman in history, regardless of genre. And her 20 wins is second among all women only to bluegrass-country singer Allison Krauss who has 27 (out of 42 nominations). Some readers may actually find Krauss’ feat astonishing, but, for now, I’m focusing this article on R&B artists and their achievements.
Put simply, Beyoncé has more Grammys than any woman whose primary music field is R&B.
Which begs the question…how can that be for an artist whose career only spans 20 years – less than half that of any of the other soul divas I’ve named? Granted those singers – Diana, Gladys, Patti and Chaka – aren’t nearly as active in the recording studio as they once were, but between them they bring at least (and I’m being conservative here) 200 years of combined professional experience in the field of recorded music. When you throw Aretha in the mix, that number swells (don’t go there!) to 250.
Now, I highly respect Beyoncé as an artist, but even I was astonished upon realizing this statistic, so I decided to research the matter for djrobblog and I’ve come up with five reasons that I believe explain what some consider a statistical anomaly…others a sign of the times…and still others a music industry love-fest for this century’s “chosen one.”
Whatever you believe, hopefully, the following explanations will debunk at least one of those theories…
1. Women Have Come A Long Way
Let’s face it, the music industry – and by extension the industry-driven awards that recognize its accomplishments – has been dominated by men for nearly all of its existence. This was especially the case in the earlier years when superstars like the five divas I mentioned were at their career peaks. The Grammys reflected that reality year after year, with men taking home the big wins while women were mainly relegated to “Best Female” categories designated for them.
Let’s take the top prize for example, Album of the Year – an award open to both genders for which Beyoncé has been nominated four times (including this year for Lemonade and including once as a featured guest on Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster album…yes, that counts in Beyoncé’s stats, folks).
Since 1990, excluding mixed-gender acts, women have taken home that trophy eleven out of 27 years, including six(!) times in the 1990s. Men have won Best Album 14 times in that span, with a mixed act and a soundtrack winning the remaining two.
This contrasts drastically with the first 31 years of the Grammys’ existence. In that span, women won the Best Album award only three times, while men took home 25 of those trophies, including every year of the 1980s. Mixed acts and soundtracks accounted for the remaining three awards.
Similarly, women have been nominated for best album in all but two of the years since 1990 (the missed years: 2001 and 2013). In the 31 years from 1959 to 1989, solo women and all-female groups were omitted from contention eleven times. Of the remaining 20 years in that earlier span, Barbra Streisand alone accounted for six nominations (and one win).
Needless to say, there wasn’t much in the way of diversity in the old days when it came to the Grammys’ top prize. And while “Best Album” is but one category, it’s an important one because it’s the one for which most artists strive to compete.
Clearly, the gains that women have made in that category alone during the past three decades are compelling, especially when considering that Beyoncé has four such nominations (all in the past seven years and most of any women since 1980) while the five older R&B divas I named have, um…zero…in their lifetimes.
Which brings me to the next reason…
2. More Racial Acceptance
Ella Fitzgerald was the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Album Grammy during its inaugural awards back in 1959, which was quite an accomplishment given the times. However, another solo African-American woman wouldn’t be nominated until 1974 (Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly) and then not again until 1980 (Donna Summer, Bad Girls). The first time a black woman actually took home the Best Album Grammy was in 1992 when Natalie Cole won for Unforgettable…with Love. That was a full 33 years after the awards began.
Two other African-American women have won it since (Whitney Houston, Bodyguard, and Lauryn Hill, Miseducation), but that’s only three wins in 58 years.
So why was it that women like Aretha, Patti, Gladys, Diana and Chaka were not recognized more in their heyday? They were clearly crossing over to mainstream pop radio (all of them had No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, except Chaka who still had two respectable No. 3 smashes – including one with her group Rufus).
A simple explanation might be that they were mostly singles-oriented artists who would have – at most – two hits from an album before their labels moved on to another project. A more likely answer, however, would be that black acts were still being mostly relegated to niche categories specifically created for them (Best R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Album, Best Gospel…etc.).
A prime example would be Aretha Franklin, a woman who (for now) has had more Hot 100 singles than any woman in history (73 of them). For the unenlightened, the Hot 100 is essentially Billboard’s pop music chart, although it’s been billed as an all-genre chart in recent years. Regardless, it’s the trade magazine’s main songs chart and for now the Queen of Soul has had more hits listed there than any other woman, period.
But all of Aretha’s Grammy wins have either been in the R&B category or the gospel one. From 1968-75, she won the first eight Best R&B Female Vocal Performance awards, a category seemingly created especially for her at a time when soul music was coming into prominence.
Chaka Khan’s wins have also been in the R&B field, with the exception of a dubious, non-denominational win for “Be Bop Medley” with Arif Mardin (Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices). At least in Khan’s case, four of her 22 nominations have been outside the R&B field, although the Mardin collabo stands as her only non-R&B win.
Similarly, Gladys Knight mostly won in the R&B field, with one exception – “Neither One Of Us” won a Best Pop Group award in 1974.
Both of Patti LaBelle’s wins have been in the R&B category and, surprisingly, classics like LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” her stellar solo albums I’m In Love Again (1983) or Winner In You (1986), and her hit with Michael McDonald, “On My Own,” are not among them. Instead her winners are Burnin’ (album), which won Best Female R&B vocal performance in 1992, and Live! One Night Only (album), which won Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance in 1999.
Perhaps the diva with the most shockingly ironic track record in this study is Diana Ross. If anyone among those listed had a chance to dominate outside of R&B, it would have been The Boss herself.
Diana Ross has twelve nominations (not including the 2012 Lifetime Achievement award), including two with the Supremes. Of those twelve, five were in non-R&B fields (one each for “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Touch Me In The Morning,” and two for “Endless Love.”
Diana Ross went home trophy-less every time, a fact that may have had less to do with lack of racial acceptance and more to do with a personal blacklisting. That’s just my theory, but I was around then and remember how much Ms. Ross was disliked by the industry for what was perceived to be her dismantling of the Supremes and favoring shown by Motown label boss Berry Gordy.
Regardless, that same type of backlash hasn’t yet affected Beyoncé, who herself isn’t a stranger to controversy and who would certainly be a textbook blacklist candidate, particularly in a year that saw her raise eyebrows during a wake-up call on race-relations at the 2016 Super Bowl. In fact, her provocative Lemonade album and its envelope-pushing subject matter about race, marital infidelity and life lessons in general only seemed to raise her Grammy stock.
I should note here that, though Lemonade is nominated this year, Beyoncé has yet to actually win an Album of the Year Grammy, so she hasn’t yet benefited from the strides made by blacks in that category.
But African-Americans in general have clearly made gains in that and other categories over the past three decades, especially with R&B (during the 1990s and 2000s) and hip-hop (1990s to now) being far more mainstream and accessible to larger audiences than ever before.
For proof, you need look no further than the five acts with this year’s most nominations. All of them are black: Beyoncé (9), Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West (each tied with 8) and Chance the Rapper (7). The 40 combined noms by these five black acts has never happened before in the history of the awards.
Of course, that statistic may be tied to this next reason for Beyoncé’s recent dominance…
3. More Categories
Let’s face it, as music has become more hybridized over the years, the Grammy people from NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) have had to keep up. There are now genres within genres, making the Grammys far more complex than they were when they were first created in 1958.
Back then, during the first awards, there were only 28 Grammy categories and Best R&B female vocal wasn’t one of them. As previously mentioned, that category began in the 1968 Grammys, well after Motown Records had made its mark on mainstream popular music, and during the height of the Memphis soul era popularized by Stax and Atlantic Records. More notably, it reflected the year that Aretha Franklin began having gold records.
By 1977, there were 49 categories. In 1997, there were 90.
The number of categories peaked in 2011 when there were 109 different awards given to artists in various fields. It was at this point that the Grammys underwent a major overhaul and cut the number of categories down to 78 in 2012. It has since crept back up to 84 with this year’s awards.
Even the R&B field itself is splintered into various sub-genres now, making it possible for more people to win. Urban-contemporary, Contemporary R&B and Traditional R&B divisions have crept into the mix in recent years, with NARAS’ rules on what makes an artist eligible for one over the other about as complicated as the awards themselves. Artists like Mary J. Blige, for example, inexplicably bounced back and forth between the specific Contemporary R&B category and the more general R&B field.
Of course, rap music has been recognized since 1989, and with rap/R&B collaborations being a thing for most of the time since, the Grammys had to create a Best Rap/Sung Performance category to acknowledge its importance in contemporary music.
Eclectic superstars like Beyoncé certainly benefit from this diversity. She won three Best Contemporary R&B Album awards during that category’s existence (2003-11) with her first three solo albums. That award, by the way, has been since condensed to Best R&B Album.
Her nine nominations this year alone include nods in four different music genres: pop (for the song “Hold Up”), urban contemporary (a subsidiary of R&B – for the album Lemonade), rock (for a collaboration on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes) and rap (recognizing her collaboration with Kendrick Lamar for “Freedom”).
Interestingly enough, none of Bey’s nine noms this year are in the general R&B field, with the Urban Contemporary nod being a sub-genre recognition.
Our other divas in this study usually had one or two fields in which they could compete. They were either R&B or they weren’t. And as talented as those singers are, few of them can claim to have as diverse a palette as Beyoncé has had, especially this deep into her career, with forays into pop, rap, rock (and even country) on this latest album.
4. Multimedia Appeal
Music and how we consume it has undoubtedly changed over the years, perhaps never more so than in the past 35 years. The advent of the music video has certainly made visual media as important to promoting one’s art as the music itself.
And advances in sound production technology have further made the listening (and viewing) experience a far cry better than what was even fathomed 40 or 50 years ago, with digital mastering and surround sound being as essential to the listening experience as the music itself.
The era of the music video was ushered in just as Diana, Patti, Chaka, Gladys and Aretha were moving past their prime years. In their heyday, what was most important was the music itself, not the videoclip that promoted it. This is not to say that those divas didn’t take advantage of the medium, they indeed did (or attempted to) with several of their late career hits. But you’d be hard pressed to cite the contents of one of their music videos if I asked you to name their most memorable.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, has reaped the benefits of a generation that is fixated on visual media. What’s more, her music has reached even wider audiences than the other women in this study by way of music and video streaming on smart phone devices that likely everyone who consumes popular music now owns.
The Grammys have kept up with the times by creating multimedia categories that weren’t around 30-35 years ago. And Beyoncé and others of her generation have been beneficiaries.
For example, Bey has two career nominations in the Best Song Written for Visual Media – an award that recognizes songs created for movies and which has existed since 1988 – for “Independent Women Part 1” (with Destiny’s Child in 2001), and “Once In A Lifetime” from Cadillac Records (2010).
She also has a nomination this year for Best Music Video – an award category since 1984 – for “Formation,” which is surprisingly her first nom there. (No, the “Single Ladies” video did not win a Grammy.)
As Beyoncé has morphed into a video-album artist in recent years, so she has been recognized by NARAS. Her Lemonade video album is up for Best Music Film (also an award since 1984) this Sunday night. This follows previous noms for Beyoncé and Jay Z: On The Run Tour (2015) and Beyoncé – I Am…World Tour (2012).
Surprisingly, Lemonade would be her first win in that category.
But here’s the multimedia capper: Beyoncé has also taken home an award for Best Surround Sound album (in 2015 for Beyoncé – the self-titled album). She was eligible for the category by virtue of having been credited as one of the Surround Sound Producers on the album.
That last category has only been around since 2005, well past the prime years of the other divas in this comparison.
Needless to say, in summary, a small fraction of Bey’s record-shattering 62 noms have been in categories for which the other women simply would not have been eligible – or in which they wouldn’t have even cared to compete.
5. Grammy Attitudes Changing
In the era of hip-hop, EDM and other genres favoring the youth movement, the Grammys may not be as stale as they once were. There was a time during the awards earlier years when edgier, more provocative artists were not recognized during their primes, instead being relegated to wins during their legacy years for work that arguably did not represent their best.
My two favorite examples are Bruce Springsteen and the late Prince. Bruce Springsteen has won 20 Grammy awards, with only two of them coming before 1995 (go figure). Three of Prince’s seven (I know, a travesty) awards came after 2005. The other four were for Purple Rain (two), “I Feel For You” (as made famous by Chaka Khan) and “Kiss.” That’s it.
Prince was likely not even a consideration for his arguably greater pre-Purple Rain work (1999, Controversy, Dirty Mind, etc.).
Indeed, NARAS has made missteps in its attempts to become hip. In 1989 when they created the Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Recording Award, the music industry let out a collective laugh when the award was given to the folksy prog-rock band, Jethro Tull, who were about as far from heavy metal as a white band could be. It clearly showed that the people at NARAS (and those voting on awards) did not have their finger on the pulse of what was happening in contemporary music.
The times have definitely changed for the Grammys, something that may likely have been accelerated (even forced) by the hip-hop era. Youthful, more contemporary artists are now more and more recognized during the height of their careers. Just last year, Kendrick Lamar was nominated 11 times (2nd most ever behind MJ in 1984 with 12) for what has been considered as arguably one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever.
While this dynamic didn’t detract from the ability of singers like Diana, Patti, Chaka and the others to win during their commercial peak periods (they were certainly nominated and were likely considered “safe” by NARAS), it does tend to benefit artists like Beyoncé who is getting her recognition now while she’s able to enjoy it, rather than ten or more years later as a charity-award case.
Which leads to my conclusion in all of this analysis: Beyoncé is no more (or less) talented than any one of the five other women in this comparison. At least I, for one, wouldn’t touch that argument with a ten-foot stripper’s pole as it is not my goal to assert that one way or the other (I’ll leave that to her fans and haters to duke it out – and believe me they will).
But Beyoncé’s talents as a multimedia performer are certainly different than those legendary women and she has indeed been a product of her time – a highly successfully and much respected one at that.
So when she appears at Sunday night’s Grammy ceremony, all aglow from her current pregnancy and ready to hoist even more trophies to add to her collection, it will indeed be her night to shine – and to build on a legacy that really needs no comparison to those who came before.
It just is what it is.
Next up for Beyoncé? Catching Allison Krauss’s record of 27 wins for all women. Bey needs to win eight of the nine for which she’s nominated to own that record out right.
Think she can do it?