All the single ladies, all the single ladies. For this year’s Grammys, it’s all about the single ladies — and the married one, too.
Beyonce, whose “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” is up for song of the year, leads all artists at Sunday night’s ceremony with 10 nominations. Taylor Swift, whose multiplatinum “Fearless” was the top-selling album of 2009, is up next with eight nominations. Other top nominees include Lady Gaga, with five nods, and Colbie Caillat with four. It’s the first time female artists have been the top two Grammy nominees since 1999, when Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain led the night.
Beyonce, Swift and Gaga will duke it out in all three of the top categories — album, song and record of the year. No band or single guy can say that this year, not the Black Eyed Peas, not Kings of Leon, though “Use Somebody” is up for song and record of the year, and not Maxwell.
“The nominations definitely reflect what’s happening in the music industry,” says Jay Frank, author of the book “Futurehit. DNA” and CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy. “It was ‘The Year of Taylor’ across the board, and Beyonce’s somebody who’s always made hugely successful music and is now getting her critical due as well.”
However, many, including Frank, say the domination of female artists at the Grammys also signals a broader shift in the music industry. “It’s a reflection of the shift online,” Frank says. “Traditional radio has not always been as receptive to female artists as they are to male ones. But today, when so much music is discovered and consumed online, more and more people are likely to sample a song when it’s connected to a female image.”
The numbers back that up. In 2009, the two biggest-selling albums of the year were from women — Swift’s “Fearless” and Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream” (Boyle’s album came out in November, missing this year’s Grammy deadline). If you remove Michael Jackson’s “Number Ones” from the equation, since it was released in 2003, and its 2009 sales came mainly due to his untimely death, then women were responsible for the top three albums (Gaga’s “The Fame” would be No. 3) and four of the top five (the soundtrack to the “Hannah Montana” movie would be No. 5).
Another reason for the strong female showing at the Grammys is that music fans are increasingly becoming attracted to a different kind of female artist, says Allison Hagendorf, host of Fuse’s “The Pop Show.”
“I call them the 360-degree female performer,” says Hagendorf, who worked at Columbia and Epic Records as an A&R rep before moving to the cable music channel. “They are great performers, talented and skilled songwriters and businesswomen with relentless work ethics. They are undeniable.”
Although there are numerous female artists who have balanced these talents for years, Hagendorf says the new generation of singers has an additional talent. “They are great at making themselves as ubiquitous as possible,” she says.
Beyonce, Swift and Gaga all certainly fit the bill. In addition to their musical pursuits, Beyonce is an established actress and clothing designer. In fact, it’s Beyonce’s extracurricular work that gave her the edge in nominations, as she landed nods for her work in “Cadillac Records” — “At Last” in the best traditional R&B vocal performance category and “Once in a Lifetime” as best song written for a motion picture.
Swift will be making her movie debut in “Valentine’s Day” next month, while Gaga has already signed on as a creative director of Polaroid and released her own line of headphones. Perhaps the most telling sign is that all three wrote or co-wrote their entries in the song of the year category, a Grammy that goes to the songwriters, not the singers.
Writing their own material is one of the main keys to their success, Frank says.
“The audience can sense when something is manipulated,” Frank says. “People want authenticity. They are begging for authenticity from their artists. Taylor helped set that trend. She is a singer-songwriter who is perfectly aimed at the young market. But the audience responds to her authenticity. On the surface, she’s writing a little pop song, but her feelings and the way she expresses them makes her a modern-day Joni Mitchell.”
In other words, a song like “Fifteen” is far more believable when Swift, who was 19 when she released it, writes and sings it than when it is written by 40-something men living in Sweden.
Authenticity is also something Grammy voters, most of whom are artists in one field or another, truly value, as well as command of all parts of the recording process, meaning both ladies may have good nights Sunday. Beyonce and Swift even co-produced their entries for record of the year.
Producer Benny Blanco — who has worked with Britney Spears, Katy Perry and, more recently, Ke$ha, on her No. 1 single “Tik Tok” and on her No. 1 album “Animal” — says these days he gravitates toward artists he can write with, such as Santigold, Jazmine Sullivan and his new discovery, Neon Hitch.
“I’m in it for the music,” he says. “I like to work with people who are involved. I can’t work with an artist who’s like a T-shirt on a coat hanger anymore. People are tired of manufactured pop stars, and so am I. I’m into working with people who write, so we can inspire each other.”
Blanco is quick to point out that he thinks there is room on the pop music landscape for all sorts of artists. “I’m not gonna Kanye West anyone, I think they’re all deserving,” he says, adding that he doesn’t worry too much about the gender of the artists he works with or how intense their work ethic is, as long as the songs turn out well.
He does add that maybe there is a simpler explanation for this year’s female-dominated Grammy night. “Women rule the world,” Blanco says, jokingly. “Would you rather see Ke$ha or some chubby guy dancing in a video?”
// Notes from the Road
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