There is always a flurry of media excitement at this time of year surrounding the Grammys, the American music business’s peer-recognised music awards delivered by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
But away from the gossip about who deserved to win, the outfits on display and the racial and gender politics surrounding the awards, this year there is one thing that stands out. In 2023, Beyoncé won the Grammy for best dance/electronic album and in the process became the Grammy’s most-awarded artist.
The record had previously rested with Hungarian-British conductor Sir Georg Solti, whose tally of 31 Grammys had stood for more than 20 years.
Beyoncé has been the subject of Grammy controversy in previous years. She was widely perceived to have been twice robbed of the album of the year.
In 2015, her album Beyoncé lost out to electronic musician Beck’s Morning Phase. The award presentation was hijacked by Kanye West in protest who demanded Beck forfeit the award and “respect [Beyoncé’s] artistry”.
In 2017, the critically acclaimed Lemonade failed to top Adele’s 25. The British singer stated on accepting the album of the year: “I can’t possibly accept this award. And I’m very humbled, and I’m very grateful and gracious, but my artist of my life is Beyoncé.”
The resulting outcry brought about a heightened public interest in the racial politics of the awards with the #grammyssowhite hashtag trending and the Academy making the voting system more accessible.
Beyoncé did not win best album again this year, losing out to British singer Harry Style’s Harry House. However, she is now the most recognised artist at the award show with 32 Grammys.
The Grammys are voted on by record companies and Recording Academy members, Beyoncé has been recognised by her peers as an accomplished artist. Whether this record makes her one of the most successful artists of our current age, however, is questionable. Looking at her sales and figures as well as her fandom and the critical response to her work paints a more complicated picture.
Critically but not commercially successful
In 2022, Beyonce’s Renaissance didn’t break the top ten albums in terms of units sold. That list was topped by the Puerto Rican artist Bad Bunny.
Her streaming figures are also not as impressive as you might think. She doesn’t break into the top ten list of all-time streamed artists or even figure in the top 30 of monthly listeners on Spotify. The Canadian rapper Drake topped the list in 2022, followed by Bad Bunny.
So it’s clear that despite her status, in purely commercial terms Beyoncé is not a dominating presence in the music industry, with many artists selling and streaming at considerably higher levels.
If we move beyond the relatively crude tool of sales and streaming figures for assessing Beyoncé’s status, however, she does fare better.
An analysis of critical response to her last four albums shows that her last three albums have struck more of a chord with the critics than previous efforts, as her brand has developed into an almost mythic status.
Renaissance won the Pitchfork Best Album of the Year in 2022. Lemonade from 2016 only reached the third spot in Pitchfork’s Best album of the year list, but still gained the top spot in the Guardian’s list with the paper saying:
With this sumptuously produced visual album, Beyoncé once again pulled the rug out from under the idea of what a pop R&B record could be – it’s hard to think of a pop star who has travelled further from bumping and grinding out Top 40 fodder, to this politicised avenging angel.
The artist’s 2013 self-titled album Beyoncé became Billboard’s Best Album of the Year with Q magazine dubbing it “one of the greatest albums of the past 30 years”.
However, when we look at the album 4 from 2011, it only reached 25 in the Rolling Stone “best of list” and 27 in Pitchfork’s.
Her last three albums have touched on issues from racism and blackness to sexism and religion. These albums have cemented her cultural importance and developed her status as idol.
Her songs have had a powerful cultural impact. She has been described as empowering new generations of young black women and artists and even inspiring a new wave of Christian worship.
This sort of idolisation of the singer has meant she has one of the most active fan bases in pop culture. Known as the BeyHive, they are known for coming out in force anytime even a hint of criticism is levelled at Beyoncé. In particular, when feminist academic bell hooks described Beyoncé as a “terrorist” for how she chooses to appear in her music videos.
On occasion, they have been so fervent, levelling death threats at those they perceive as slighting the singer, that Beyonce’s publicist has issued reminders like the following:
I also want to speak here to the beautiful BeyHiVE. I know your love runs deep but that love has to be given to every human. It will bring no joy to the person you love so much if you spew hate in her name. We love you.
The parasocial relationship – where people become deeply attached to and invest a lot in a media figure who doesn’t return the emotion – that her fanbase has with the artist is intense. This sort of die-hard fandom could explain why so many feel as if she has been “snubbed”, despite becoming the most awarded artist at the Grammys of all time.
So while she might not be the most commercially successful she certainly is culturally important and her record as the artist who has won the most Grammys ever is certainly reflective of that.