One Diva At A Time: R&B At The Grammys

For all the high drama that this Sunday's Grammy Awards may bring — Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift, Round 2? — there's little question of who's going to walk away with "Best Female R&B Performance." Beyonce's "Single Ladies" almost surely has the award on lock; never mind that the song came out in 2008 and is somehow up for a 2010 award. Given that 3-D chipmunks are parodying the song, "Single Ladies" is far past overexposed. But it's arguably the most influential R&B song of the past decade, excluding Beyonce's previous mega-anthem, 2003's "Crazy In Love."

But what makes this even less of a horse race is the imbalance in the competition. This isn't meant to slight talents such as Lalah Hathaway or Jazmine Sullivan; both of their nominated songs are better written than "Single Ladies." But this award, in particular, almost never goes to the underdog.

One of the striking things about the "Best Female R&B Performance" category is that it's exceptionally prone to blocks of wins by the same artists. Through the magic of YouTube, you can see the Grammy award given out for the category from 39 years back. Aretha Franklin won in 1971 for "Don't Play That Song" off of her Spirit in the Dark album, and she jokes, "Call me the moment you have another one for me!"

It was a cruel joke — at least for her competition, which now reads like a who's-who of great R&B figures: Nina Simone ("Black Gold"), Candi Staton ("Stand by Your Man"), Esther Phillips ("Set Me Free") and Dee Dee Warwick ("She Didn't Know"). As impressive a lineup as that seems, Franklin was unstoppable in that era. The Grammys created the category in 1968, and between then and 1975, she won every year.

That seemed to set up a trend in which the award ping-ponged among the same usual suspects in any given era. After Franklin, Natalie Cole won twice in a row. Chaka Khan racked up three between 1984 and '93. Anita Baker won five times between 1989 and '96, only to be followed by Toni Braxton's four awards from 1994 to 2001. In the last 10 years, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige have won four times and twice, respectively.

The male counterpart to this award has some dominant figures, too (never bet against Stevie Wonder), but there aren't the same runs on winning. The difference is even more stark compared to the (ill-defined) "Best Female Pop Performance," where only Whitney Houston has won more than twice in the last 30 years.

To be sure, this probably reveals a lack of imagination amongst Grammy voters in the category. But it may also say something about the landscape of female R&B in particular. The icon of the soul diva lingers in the popular imagination in a way that doesn't exist amongst soul men, let alone the mercurial climate of Top 40 pop. Aretha Franklin almost certainly didn't have the best R&B songs in every year from 1968 to '75, but as a presence, she looms in our memory in a way that Warwick (no slouch of a voice herself) and Phillips do not. Similarly, Beyonce or Alicia Keys likely overshadow compelling but less commanding artists such as Ledisi or Jill Scott.

We seem to desire — need? — a consistent female soul voice to fall back on. As my friend and colleague Ann Powers at the L.A. Times recently put it, "The soul diva role has a strong maternal cast, and we want our mommies to be consistent." In other words, their constant presence is a source of reassurance — the —ice that shines out of the darkness — and —at comfort-giving quality may help explain why single voices tend to dominate over time. As Powers also noted, "The soul singer is a heroine, and survival is heroic," a quality certainly taken up by Gloria Gaynor's 1978 Grammy-winner "I Will Survive" or Destiny's Child's Grammy-nominated 2000 album Survivor.

Whatever the explanation, more so than in other genres, R&B seems to only have room for one reigning queen at a time. Don't expect 2010 to be much different, as Beyonce's well-kept coif has surely already been measured for this year's Grammy crown.

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