The Beyoncé/Adele Grammy Showdown: For the Recording Academy, It's No Contest

Beyoncé performs at Super Bowl 50.EXPAND
Beyoncé performs at Super Bowl 50.

When the 2017 Grammy nominations were announced yesterday, most of the headlines centered on Beyoncé and her field-leading nine nominations, as well as the fact that she’s now the most nominated female artist in Grammy history. She’s even the first artist ever nominated in four different genre categories in the same year, according to a Grammy rep who spoke yesterday to Complex. There's already some speculation that Queen Bey could wind up winning eight golden gramophones, surpassing Alison Krauss' tally of 27 to become the Grammys' most-awarded woman of all time.

Such an achievement would certainly be well-deserved. Lemonade is a remarkable work, especially for such a high-profile, mainstream artist — politically charged, musically adventurous, as uncompromising in its own way as YG’s Still Brazy or Kanye’s The Life of Pablo (both of which the Recording Academy snubbed; Brazy received zero nominations and TLOP was relegated to the rap categories). And remarkably, even though she’s won 20 Grammys, Beyoncé has only been honored in the major categories once, garnering Song of the Year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2010. So she’s way overdue for an Album of the Year or Record of the Year win.

Receiving a relatively modest five nominations, Adele has gotten a bit lost in all the Beyoncé hoopla — if it's possible for an artist whose last album sold 10 million copies to get lost. But for now, Beyoncé is clearly the media favorite, and maybe the fan favorite, as well. None of which matters — at the end of the day, that mysterious and famously unpredictable voting bloc known as the Recording Academy gets to decide which of them will win in the major categories (or lose out to, say, Lukas Graham or Sturgill Simpson — don't put it past them).

Given the Recording Academy's abysmal track record with honoring artists of color in its major categories, the cynical money is on Adele, an adorable, white British lady whose most controversial attribute is saying "fuck" a lot. Beyoncé, by contrast, outraged Middle America by evoking the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl halftime show. And as Kendrick Lamar can tell you, being an outspoken black artist might not prevent you from winning some Grammy hardware, but you'll only get play in the "urban" categories.

But from the Recording Academy's perspective, the deck might be stacked against Beyoncé in an even more intractable way. Adele's 25 racked up its staggering sales numbers the old-fashioned way, by staying off streaming services (it wasn't available on Spotify and Apple Music until seven months after its release) and mostly moving physical units, at a time when most artists are struggling to sell albums. Lemonade, by contrast, reached its audience through newer, less traditional channels: It was surprise-released as an exclusive on the streaming service Tidal, which Beyonce co-owns, and promoted via a one-hour film (essentially an extended music video) on HBO.

So while the Beyoncé/Adele Grammy showdown can be framed in any number of ways — black versus white, British versus American, adult contemporary versus R&B — it also will serve, in a way, as a referendum on the music industry's embrace or rejection of new business models. Will the Recording Academy celebrate the good old days when fans flocked to the record store to buy CDs, or will it honor an artist who is finding new ways to connect with fans?

Sadly, I think we all know the answer. Beyoncé might, at best, win one major category — probably Record of the Year, for "Formation" — but the Recording Academy is unlikely to pass up what will almost certainly be its last chance to give a 10 million–selling album its highest honor. Look for Adele to once again leave the Staples Center with an armload of Grammys.


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