The category of Best Pop Vocal Album has always been the most fascinating Grammy category to me. Best Pop Vocal Album was introduced to the Grammys in 1968 (winner Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, natch), but subsequently discontinued until 1995, when the Grammys decided that pop albums were worth awarding again. In the short time since the category’s reinstatement, it’s fascinating to look at the Grammys’ evolving definitions of “pop.” It took the Recording Academy a couple years to settle on what they wanted the category to look like — Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature beat NSYNC‘s No Strings Attached and Britney Spears‘ Oops!… I Did It Again back in 2001 — but today, Best Pop Vocal Album is a standard mix of legacy artists with decades-long careers and impressive newcomers.
And while the icons always catch nominations, they rarely win, at least in this in this category. The last time an artist who has been releasing studio records for more than 10 years has won Best Pop Vocal Album was Ray Charles, who won the award posthumously in 2005. Since the days Steely Dan beat out Britney and Justin, the Best Pop Vocal Album nominees have been steadily growing younger, hotter, and trendier. More often than not, these are the artists that win.
Three out of six of the nominees for Best Pop Vocal Album are either Taylor Swift, or have toured with Taylor Swift. The young singer, whose sixth studio album Reputation is nominated in the category, played an integral role in launching two of her fellow nominees’ careers. Camila Cabello, who recorded three albums with girl group Fifth Harmony, is nominated for her debut solo album, Camila, just after supporting Swift on her Reputation World Tour. Shawn Mendes, who opened for Swift on tour in 2016, received a nomination for his third album, Shawn Mendes. Cabello is 21 and Shawn a year younger — barely old enough to remember Justin and Britney’s albums when they came out, and young enough to have looked up to Swift as kids.
Filling out the rest of the nominees are Kelly Clarkson (Meaning Of Life), Pink (Beautiful Trauma), and Ariana Grande‘s Sweetener). Clarkson won Best Pop Vocal Album in 2006 for her second studio album Breakaway — and while Pink did not win the Grammy for Missundaztood (2003 was Norah Jones’ year), Missundaztood spawned a whole generation of punky, rebellious pop princesses.
I count myself among them. Pink and Clarkson were some of the first pop stars I truly admired as a kid. I know for a fact there’s a beloved, scratched-up copy of Breakaway in my childhood bedroom, and I looked up to Pink’s I-don’t-give-a-f*ck, butchy, b*tchy attitude in ways I couldn’t really articulate until I grew up. But until I was researching this piece, I didn’t even realize either of these artists had put out a record last year — and I’m a pop journalist.
And Beautiful Trauma and Meaning Of Life are pretty good. Clarkson still has one of the most powerful voices in all of pop, and I’d forgotten how many of the Pink songs I’d actually heard on the radio. She’s might not be as omnipresent in pop culture as she was a decade ago, but these songs still get plenty of radio play. The more I listened to the records, the more I became disappointed with myself for not paying enough attention to them, and disappointed that somewhere along the line, most music publications decided these artists weren’t worth listening to anymore.
Because, while race, gender, and sexuality obviously remain massively important issues in the music industry, age should also be examined with more scrutiny. Unless her name is Beyonce, when a female pop star turns 35, she is paid absolute dust. Mariah Carey‘s Caution was one of the best albums of 2018, but barely any publications put it on their year-end wrap-up lists (meaning they obviously didn’t listen to it). Female artists over 30 are too often banished from the radio, and the great pop they make is ignored for hyping up hotter, younger artists. The new kids have promising careers and the world at their feet now, but pop culture will turn their attention to the next hottest thing.
The relentless regeneration of pop is one of the things I love most about it. The constant exchange of the old for new makes it difficult to build a canon and valorize some artists over others, resulting in a more even playing field for artists and more inclusive community for non-straight/white/male/cis fans. Anything that people dig at the time can be a radio hit, and anything can win an award. The constant flow of new music is thrilling, but the pop machine’s lack of concern for anything that isn’t “fresh” is ruthless.
And nominees Cabello’s and Mendes’ music is fresh, and certainly worthy of recognition. Of all the pop stars to break out in 2018, Cabello and Mendes had two of the most exciting years artistically. Cabello rode the wave of her massive radio hit “Havana” with a fantastic debut solo album that introduced her to the world as a solo artist. Her intensely felt and emotional lyrics make her a kind of disciple of Swift’s — Cabello sings about heartbreak and falling in love in the nostalgic, hearts-in-your-eyes way that Swift has since her first album. She sings about a love so intense it’s like “nicotine, heroin, morphine,” capturing what it’s like to be young and in love, and speaking to the passion that her young listeners are experiencing right now while sending older ones back to the days of when every crush felt like an earthquake.
Mendes’ self-titled record is his third studio release, but Shawn Mendes saw him playing to a bigger audience than ever before. Where many of the male pop stars and teen heartthrobs that preceded him coasted by on bad-boy images and overdetermined masculinity, Mendes represents a softer, kinder version of what it means to be young today. Songs like “In My Blood” and “Youth” demonstrate his empathetic, politically conscious songwriting and incredible voice. In the four years since his first record, Mendes has shaped his voice into a buttery tenor and gorgeous falsetto. In a time when male pop stars too often have to fight to be taken seriously, Mendes’ Grammy nomination, and recognition for his talent as a lyricist and performer, is a huge win. Cabello and Mendes are the future of pop, and the Grammys are listening.
The nominees for Best Pop Vocal Album are a pretty good list. Like many of the categories this year, the nominees could certainly be a more diverse lineup — queer folks and people of color are the ones creating the most exciting pop music, and their innovation needs to be celebrated more widely. But the albums that were nominated for the award this year are a fascinating piece of history, and a pretty representative snapshot of what pop music looked like in 2018. We’ve got our fresh faces who broke out, our queens at the top of the pop throne, and our legends we honor for their decades-long bop-making careers. Best Pop Vocal Album is a remarkably democratic category — radio hitmakers are nominated, and the biggest one takes the award home. The Grammys are a mirror to what we prioritize, a reflection of the past, present, and future of pop music.