Grammys Set Beyonce-Adele Showdown as Voters Embrace Pop Over Rock in Top Categories

Adele Beyonce Grammys H 2016
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The true heavyweight showdowns will come between perhaps the two most unanimously venerated figures in contemporary music, Beyonce and Adele.

The nominations for the 59 Annual Grammy Awards were announced Tuesday, and as the experts predicted (and as the show's producers no doubt prayed for), it's a battle of the biggest. The list of the most nominated artists doubles as the list of the artists who have dominated conversation for the last 12 months: Beyonce, Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West, and even Chance the Rapper. Despite Taylor Swift essentially taking the year off — nope, no nominations for Nils Sjoberg, either — and Frank Ocean declining the pleasure of being nominated, the star power on display in this year's Grammy crop is blinding.

Of course, the true heavyweight showdowns on Feb. 12 will come between perhaps the two most unanimously venerated figures in contemporary music, Beyonce and Adele. Long thought to be the evening's likely frontrunners, the two planetary pop talents will indeed be squaring off in four separate categories, including the marquee three: album of the year, record of the year and song of the year. Though smart money will never go against an artist who laps a depressed sales landscape by going diamond in a single year, early indicators seem positive for Beyonce, not just in the number of her nominations (nine to Adele's five), but in their variety — The Queen is recognized not only in pop and R&B, but in rock as well, suggesting her support is well-balanced among the voter pool's many factions. (Of course, no matter who wins between the two superstars, CBS triumphs for the ensuing drama — as does Columbia Records, home to both artists.) 

Speaking of rock, though, Beyonce's Jack White-assisted undercover deployment into best rock performance underlines the music's own relative absence in the major categories. Excepting the presence of Twenty One Pilots as song of the year nominees — double agents to some degree themselves, with their "Stressed Out" also nominated for best pop/duo group performance — rock is shut out of the big four categories this year, with potential Grammy favorites like Radiohead, Coldplay and the late David Bowie either consigned to their home genre or not recognized at all.

Instead, the Grammys have recognized with this year's nominees what the rest of the music-listening world has long accepted: that both its commercial and critical center lies with pop, hip-hop and R&B. Tellingly, the four albums with the four biggest first-week sales of the voting period are all up for album of the year: Adele's 25, Beyonce's Lemonade, Drake's Views and Justin Bieber's Purpose. That last artist would have seemed about as unimaginable an album of the year hopeful as Cannibal Corpse just a couple of years ago, but Purpose being acknowledged for the evening's most prestigious honor serves as validation not only for Bieber — the final disavowing of his supposed bubble-gum disposability — but for Top 40 entire. It's proof that pop no longer needs to dress up as rock to be invited to the party; having Skrillex and Diplo as your plus-two is good enough.

Whatever room remains for guitar-based music at the Grammys, this year's nominations would indicate that future real estate may be occupied less by rock than by country. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Maren Morris was an expected contender for best new artist, but she's also joined in that category by fellow CMA Awards performer Kelsea Ballerini. And if there is a Beck-type artist poised to play spoiler this year, it's veteran Kentucky song-slinger Sturgill Simpson, whose acclaimed major-label debut A Sailor's Guide to Earth is the outlier fifth nominee in album of the year and who may end up rallying what's left of the "How can they be real artists if they don't write all their own songs?" crowd.

Even with Sturgill's presence, this year's nominees show that the Grammys appear to be moving in the right direction toward relevance, by acknowledging the music that actually moves the cultural needle in 2016, and mostly avoiding the kind of head-smacking nominees that bring Kanye's sense of righteousness to a boil. (Though with The Life of Pablo predictably snubbed for album of the year and "Ultralight Beam" shut out of song and record of the year contention, he may end up with cause for complaint this year just the same.) The pop-leaning proceedings may not save the Grammys' plummeting numbers among millennials, but at least they'll demonstrate that the Academy indeed recognizes that young people are out there, and that their perspective isn't being totally dismissed. And with an Adele-Beyonce showdown at the awards night's core, their parents might still get sucked in, too.

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