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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Who will have the biggest Grammy night?

Taylor Swift performs on the opening night of The Eras Tour at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., March 17, 2023. Taylor Swift and SZA could make history at the 66th annual Grammy Awards, where young women dominate the nominations, and revered older artists will take the stage. (Cassidy Araiza/The New York Times)

By Ben Sisario

The 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday are poised to be a celebration of a dominant year for women in pop music, with female stars such as SZA, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish facing off in the major categories.

SZA, whose “SOS” was a critical and chart smash, leads with nine nominations; pop and R&B singer and songwriter Victoria Monét has seven; and Swift, Rodrigo, Eilish, Miley Cyrus and indie-rock trio boygenius have six apiece. Swift and SZA each have the potential for landmark wins.

For an award show that in the past has been criticized for its treatment of female stars, its lineup alone is being interpreted as a sign of progress. But the show this year is taking place in the shadow of lawsuits against two former Grammy leaders, accusing each of sexual assault. Neil Portnow, a former Recording Academy president, has denied the allegations against him; Michael Greene, his predecessor, has not commented.

Never bet on the Grammys’ being too predictable. Industry politics, vote-splitting and a shifting membership have the potential, as always, to scramble outcomes, despite expectations about who may win or lose.

Whoever wins, the night will have a roster of performers that mixes young and old, fresh faces and classics, including SZA, Eilish, Rodrigo, Joni Mitchell, Luke Combs, Dua Lipa, Travis Scott, Burna Boy, Billy Joel and U2. The host, for a fourth straight year, is comedian Trevor Noah.

Here is a look at some of the night’s major story lines.

Will Taylor Swift make history?

Swift was a gale-force power in pop culture last year, and she has the potential to make a major mark at the Grammys.

She is already a three-time album of the year winner, having taken home the prize for “Fearless” (2010), “1989” (2016) and “Folklore” (2020). That ties her with three of pop music’s most beloved (male) giants: Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. If Swift’s “Midnights” wins Sunday, she will become the first four-time champ for the Grammys’ top album award.

But how likely is that? The music world loves a success story, and nobody had a bigger one in 2023; Swift is also admired among Grammy voters for her music as well as her outspoken advocacy for creators’ rights (especially her own). Yet, as many Grammy insiders have told me over the years, voters can also rebel at the perceived pressure that they have to anoint a star, or the idea that sales and fame alone should determine excellence in music. (Just look at 2015, when Beck’s “Morning Phase” topped Beyoncé, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran.)

Even if Swift loses album of the year, she could still walk away with important victories: Her single “Anti-Hero” is up for both record and song of the year, two categories that Swift — despite oodles of nominations over the years — has never won.

Clash of the (female) titans

Women dominate the major Grammy nominations so thoroughly this year that in the ceremony’s three most prestigious categories — album, record and song of the year — the winners are, mathematically, almost certain to be female.

Swift, Rodrigo and SZA, three of the most popular and influential pop artists working today, will face off against one another for each of the top awards, with projects that had big sales and plenty of critical respect. Their major competition includes yet more young women: Cyrus, Lana Del Rey, Monét, Eilish and Lipa (both for tracks on the blockbuster “Barbie” soundtrack), Janelle Monáe and the arena-filling indie trio boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus).

In fact, the only male performer on the ballot in the top categories is Jon Batiste, the eclectic former bandleader of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Adored by musicians and a household name from his years on TV, Batiste nevertheless has had very little chart success, which makes him a long-shot contender on Grammy night — though far from an impossibility.

In optics, at least, the predominance of female artists helps the Grammys. Not so long ago, women were far less visible on the show, which became a major talking point for critics of the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys. At the 2018 awards, for example, while the #MeToo movement was roiling the entertainment industry, only one woman won a solo award during the all-important televised portion of the show (Alessia Cara, for best new artist).

Though the nominations honored young women, there are still gripes in the industry about the lack of recognition in the top categories for country or Latin music, two genres that had extraordinary success last year.

A split decision?

One scenario is that the top awards could wind up divided among two or three female stars, an outcome that would serve both the artists and the Grammys: Multiple performers get triumphant moments at the mic, while the Grammys recognize a diverse crop of female stars without favoring any one.

This could go any number of ways. SZA’s “SOS,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard album chart for 10 weeks and topped many critics’ year-end lists as an ambitious, emotionally rich sonic tapestry, is widely seen as a strong contender for album of the year. If it wins, SZA would be the first Black woman to take that award in 25 years, since Lauryn Hill (for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”). A Grammy voting body that has been steadily growing more female, and more racially diverse, may view “SOS” as an opportunity to make a statement.

Swift could still have a big moment with “Anti-Hero,” which is up for both record and song of the year; in the latter category, Swift — indisputably a giant of 21st century songwriting — has been passed over an astonishing six times before.

Olivia, Miley … and ‘Barbie’

But “Anti-Hero” faces tough competition. The toughest may be “What Was I Made For?,” Eilish’s spare and mournful “Barbie” meditation, which has already won a Golden Globe and last week was also nominated for an Oscar.

As a piece of songwriting, it is classic Grammy material: a gorgeous, traditional piano ballad, sung with emotional depth and a clear point of view. “What Was I Made For?” is also up for record of the year, a category that Eilish has won twice already: in 2020, for “Bad Guy” (which also took song of the year), and 2021, for “Everything I Wanted.”

In both record and song of the year, Swift and Eilish also face challenges from Rodrigo’s epic-scale kiss-off “Vampire,” and from Cyrus’ “Flowers,” a mellow, disco-infused vamp that was a giant radio and streaming hit and — like “What Was I Made For?” — has a retro vibe that can be catnip to Grammy voters. (Record of the year recognizes the performance and production on a single track, while song of the year goes to songwriters.)

It’s also possible that no woman will succeed as much as Barbie. Songs from Greta Gerwig’s hit film have a total of 11 nominations. In one category, best song written for visual media, “Barbie” tracks make up four of the five slots.

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