Beyoncé enters the 65th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday in rarefied air — a pop deity festooned with trophies, supported by one of the music world’s most ardent fan bases and on the precipice of Grammy immortality. So why does she also feel like an underdog?
Already the winningest woman in Grammy history, with 28 victories, Beyoncé has a field-leading nine nominations this year. She is tied with her husband, Jay-Z, for the most nods collected by any artist, with 88.
In what could make for dramatic television, Beyoncé needs just three more Grammys to match — and four to beat — the record for most overall wins, a position currently held by the conductor Georg Solti, who died in 1997. And for the third time in her career, Beyoncé, 41, is nominated in all three top categories — record, song and album of the year — raising the possibility that her crowning moment could come at the climax of a show that in recent years has struggled to find an audience and generate positive headlines.
While many Grammy watchers believe Beyoncé will enter from a position of strength, with “Renaissance,” her dance-infused album, garnering both commercial and critical success, the singer’s coronation is far from assured, thanks to her own complicated history with the awards. Despite Beyoncé’s oodles of wins, she is just 1 for 13 in the major, all-genre categories for releases on which she was a lead artist.
As the ceremony approaches — with stars like Adele, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Kendrick Lamar and Bad Bunny also in contention for the premier prizes — the key question for fans and industry insiders isn’t how big she will win, but rather: What if she loses, again?
This year more than most, public perception of the Grammys’ relevance may come down to the fate of a single artist. A prominent win for Beyoncé could be seen as an overdue make-good, which is something of a Grammy specialty. But a notable loss could call into question the redemption narrative that the Recording Academy, the institution behind the awards, has been carefully tending for years, as it has tried to address longstanding criticism that the show too often fails to recognize Black talent with top awards.
That complaint, along with suspicions about the voting process, have led some high-profile Black artists to abandon the Grammys in recent years, like Drake, Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. But there are also some signs that the awards may be changing. Last year, Jon Batiste, the Black jazz bandleader, took home album of the year, and in 2021 a Black Lives Matter protest anthem by H.E.R. won song of the year. A push to attract a younger and more diverse voting pool has resulted in 19 percent more women and 38 percent more members of “traditionally underrepresented communities” since 2019, the academy says.
Those numbers would seem favorable for Beyoncé. But her track record in album of the year, traditionally the most coveted prize, is especially wrenching. In 2010, her “I Am … Sasha Fierce” lost to Swift’s “Fearless.” In 2015, Beck’s mellow “Morning Phase” was the upset winner, beating out Beyoncé’s internet-breaking, self-titled surprise LP. Two years later, when Beyoncé’s paradigm-shifting visual album “Lemonade” lost to Adele’s “25,” Adele seemed almost embarrassed to accept the award, calling Beyoncé the “artist of my life.”
Should Adele win a third album of the year trophy on Sunday, with “30” — or if Styles, Abba, Coldplay or Brandi Carlile come out on top — it would be the fourth time that Beyoncé has lost that prize to a white artist, noted Paul Grein, the awards editor at Billboard. “The Grammys would get beat up,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
After two years of disruption by Covid-19, the Grammys are finally back in Los Angeles, on their home court, the Crypto.com Arena (formerly known as the Staples Center).
Bad Bunny, Lamar, Lizzo and Mary J. Blige round out the competition for album of the year, and besides Beyoncé, the night holds some potential buzzy moments. Bad Bunny’s “Un Verano Sin Ti,” a streaming juggernaut, is the first release entirely in Spanish up for album of the year. After five failed nominations in song of the year, Swift could finally win for “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” an extended remake of a track she first released in 2012.
The performers on Sunday will include Styles, Bad Bunny, Lizzo, Sam Smith and Kim Petras, Steve Lacy, Blige, Luke Combs and Carlile. Fan cults and industry gossips have been speculating for weeks over whether Beyoncé, Swift, Lamar or Adele will also perform.
But the story line that has drawn by far the most attention is Beyoncé’s. And as much as fans desire a triumph, pessimists have history on their side. Only three Black women have ever won album of the year — Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill, all in the 1990s — and of Beyoncé’s 28 wins, only one has been in a top category, song of the year. That was more than a decade ago, when she was recognized as a songwriter for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”
“The fact that she has not won a major award since 2010 is insane,” said Brandon Katamara, a student in Cardiff, Wales, who has run @rumiyonce, a Beyoncé fan account with more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, since he was 13.
Katamara, now 20, said that even if Beyoncé’s No. 1 hit “Break My Soul” came away with wins in song or record of the year, it wouldn’t lessen the sting. “We don’t care if she just takes one award,” he said. “We just want her to win album of the year.”
And should she lose? Katamara predicted a “9.5 out of 10” on the social-media backlash scale. (The nightmare scenario for the BeyHive: a shutout that results in their heroine being passed by the Americana artist Alison Krauss, who has two nominations in genre categories this year and trails Beyoncé by only one win as the most-awarded woman.)
Harvey Mason Jr., a producer who is the chief executive of the Recording Academy, said it would be unfair to look to a Beyoncé victory or loss in any single contest as a test of changes to the voting membership, which numbers about 11,000.
“If voters are more diverse,” he said, “my hope is that the results would be more diverse across the entire field, not in just one category.”
According to figures provided by the Recording Academy, the largest voting blocs by genre are pop at 23 percent and jazz at 16 percent. Rock and alternative are counted separately but, if combined, would make up 25 percent of voters; R&B sits at 15 percent.
In 2018, the academy also expanded the number of nominees in the top categories to eight from five, and increased that number again to 10 nominees in a last-minute change in 2021, potentially adding more unpredictability to the results.
Yet for many Grammy observers, Beyoncé is indeed a barometer of the awards’ complex treatment of Black musicians overall.
“It’s always rocky,” said Cipha Sounds, a veteran radio personality now with 94.7 The Block, a throwback hip-hop and R&B station in New York. “It feels like they don’t give the same amount of love that they do to other genres, but when they do it feels kind of forced,” as if the academy has to “check the diversity boxes,” he added.
Still, he said, Black artists and fans crave the affirmation that comes with winning a Grammy. “We just want regular credit,” he said.
For the academy, a nonprofit group that draws the bulk of its revenue from fees related to the television broadcast, attracting eyeballs to the annual show is vital. Those numbers have been sliding for years. In 2021, 8.8 million viewers watched the show, an all-time low; last year, it was 8.9 million.
At the same time, the Super Bowl halftime show has emerged as perhaps the most gargantuan media event in music — last year an average of 103.4 million people watched a nostalgic hip-hop segment with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and others — and this year’s show, on Feb. 12, featuring Rihanna, has been bubbling for weeks as a huge pop-culture moment. Recently, an email bounced around the offices of Billboard magazine. “Music’s Biggest Night is coming up,” it read. “And a week earlier, there’s the Grammys!”
In recent years, the Grammys have been buffeted by a series of controversies over nominations, performances and even the power struggles within the academy. As unpleasant as those may have been for the organization, they did drive a certain amount of interest. This year, there has been much less buzz, good or bad. Is the Beyoncé question enough to make it a successful show?
“I’m OK with there not being controversy before the show,” Mason, the academy chief, said diplomatically. “I like to think it’s going to be about the music.”