With Demi Lovato coming out, how do (or will) non-binary artists change Billboard chart and awards history/future?

(May 29, 2021).  As of today, for historical and statistical purposes, Billboard still bins solo artists in only male and female categories.  One needs to look no further than the May 23 Billboard Music Awards to see artists like Gabby Barrett take Top Country Female Artist and Taylor Swift win Top Female Artist (overall) awards, or The Weeknd win Top Male Artist while Bad Bunny earned Top Latin Male Artist honors.  

No solo gender-based award categories were dedicated to artists who don’t fall in either of the two traditional cisgender groupings, a fact that Billboard and other music institutions may end up having to address as more and more artists begin to identify themselves in non-binary gender terms.

FILE PHOTO: 2018 Billboard Music Awards – Arrivals – Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., 20/05/2018 – Demi Lovato. REUTERS/Steve Marcus/File Photo

This prospect became even more compelling when just last week pop superstar Demi Lovato came out as non-binary and announced they were changing their gender pronouns to they/them.

And with that announcement, they instantly advanced the cause for the LGBTQ community and joined a growing list of queer artists who once identified by the genders assigned to them at birth, but have now changed that designation, with many shelving the pronouns that went along with them.  Other notable chart-topping artists who’ve done so in recent years include Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus, although Miley still prefers to use she/her pronoun references. 

For those who aren’t familiar, Demi Lovato has been a major fixture on the Billboard charts for nearly 13 years.  All seven of their studio albums have reached No. 4 or better on the Billboard 200, including their most recent – last month’s Dancing with the Devil…the Art of Starting Over – which peaked at No. 2, and their lone chart-topper, 2009’s Here We Go Again.

Many of those albums charted during various phases of Lovato’s coming out as a queer artist, but all the albums predated last week’s announcement of the singer’s non-binary gender status.  

So what does it mean for Billboard chart history when a chart-topping artist changes genders?  And is Billboard (along with other major music industry institutions like the Grammys, the American Music Awards, etc.) behind the times for not yet having formally recognized this cultural evolution with gender-appropriate award and chart statistical categories?

From a historical standpoint, this may seem trivial, but it’s not really.  

Think about it.  If an artist decides she no longer wants to be seen as female on any level, then they appropriately should not be lumped into “female” categorization for things like awards shows, chart statistics, and historical or other references.

That means, for example, that Lovado’s No. 1 album from 2009 should no longer be relegated to the list of female artists who topped the charts that year.  

This may not seem like a big deal, but any change in gender statistics for females is significant in this case because 2009 currently stands as the year where the second-most albums by women topped the Billboard 200 list.  There were ten such chart-toppers that year and it is only exceeded by 2003, which had eleven No. 1 albums by female solo singers.

With Lovato’s statistics altered, 2009 now has nine No. 1 albums by female solo acts and falls into third place behind 2003 and 2008 (which was formerly tied with 2009 at ten chart-topping albums by women).

Singer Miley Cyrus

The year 2008 interestingly includes the only other woman in chart history to have topped the Billboard album charts and later declare her gender as non-binary.  That would be Miley Cyrus, who reached No. 1 that August with the ironically titled album Breakout.  It’s worth noting that Cyrus still prefers to use feminine pronouns, so the issue isn’t as compelling for her as it is for Lovato or former male soloist Sam Smith.

Smith has also topped the Billboard album chart – with their second release, The Thrill of It All, in 2017.  Smith announced their non-binary status in 2019, two years after that lone No. 1 album and four years after winning a Billboard Music Award for “Top Male Artist” in 2015.

Singer Sam Smith

Smith’s awards history further illustrates the dilemma for Billboard, which essentially since the beginning of charting popular music has always broken out categories for men and women in its year-end charts and awards shows, but not gender-fluid artists.  Up to now, there hasn’t been a real compelling case for a change as all of the aforementioned names – Lovato, Cyrus and Smith – have only come out as non-binary after their most recent or biggest chart successes.

But this year may be the first time that Billboard has to decide how to treat a non-binary artist in its year-end summary as Lovato’s latest album, Dancing with the Devil…the Art of Starting Over debuted and peaked at No. 2 and is still on the Billboard 200 list (at No. 109) in its seventh week on the chart.  By year’s end, it could conceivably rack up enough points to place Lovato in the running for a top-10 ranking in the female artists category, except that wouldn’t be appropriate now.

The same dilemma exists for next year’s BBMAs, which uses a skewed April-March fiscal year for its awards which, ironically, would capture the entire chart cycle for Lovato’s album, making it an even stronger contender for recognition there.  

As far as awards go, there is one major institution that doesn’t have to worry about this kind of thing any longer: the Grammys.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences – or the people who oversee the Grammys – got rid of gender-specific award categories a decade ago.  After 2011, categories like Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Female R&B (or Country) Vocal Performance no longer exist.   Instead, since 2012, all solo performances in the major categories of pop, soul, country and rap have been designated as Best Solo Performances in the respective fields without reference to gender.

And speaking of awards, earlier this week (May 27), Lovato performed a joint tribute to Sir Elton John at the iHeartRadio Music Awards, where he was presented with the Icon Award for his lifetime achievements.

Demi Lovato at the iHeartRadio Music Awards on May 27, 2021.

Interestingly, the iHeartRadio awards are among those that still have top categories for male and female artists but not gender-fluid acts like Lovato or Smith.  The Weeknd took Top Male while Dua Lipa won Top Female artist at this year’s awards.

It would seem that a millennial platform like iHeartRadio would be leading the way in driving a change towards gender-fluid recognition at its award shows.  After all, it’s already made Generation Z-like adjustments by including categories for Best Fan Army (BTS this year) and Best TikTok Bop (The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”).  

Maybe it would take an iconic LGBTQ artist like Sir Elton John declaring a non-binary status to really change the game and force the issue for institutions like Billboard and all the others.

Can you imagine?  The most successful male soloist of the 1970s, Sir Elton John, rewriting history (and perhaps his own knighthood) by doing that?

The prospect is unlikely, and it’s certainly a big burden for one man to bear, even one as outspoken and trailblazing as Elton.

But the impact could be huge!

DJRob 

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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