The best new artist contest at January’s Grammy Awards is shaping up to be one of the most competitive races we’ve seen in years. At one point, it seemed like 17-year-old Billie Eilish, the biggest teen to rock the charts since Lorde’s 2013 Grammy-winning debut — if not since the advent of Taylor Swift — pretty much had a lock on the gong.
Then along came Lizzo, the singing and rapping flautist, with “Truth Hurts,” a song that topped the pop singles chart two weeks after Eilish’s “Bad Guy” ended the No. 1 reign of yet another high-profile newcomer, rapper Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” had spent a record-breaking 19 weeks at the summit. With that ascension, best new artist feels like a two-woman showdown.
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But it won’t be just best new artist they’re mutually vying for. Eilish and Lizzo may dominate the 2020 ceremony like no female newcomer has since Adele, 2009’s best new artist, burst onto the Grammy scene a decade ago, scoring four major nominations for “19,” her debut album. It actually would be the continuation of a Grammy trend. The Academy has a long tradition of anointing new female talent with a formidable nomination count: six for Tracy Chapman in 1988, five for Sheryl Crow in 1994, six for Alanis Morissette in 1996, seven for Paula Cole in 1998, 10 for Lauryn Hill in 1999, seven for India Arie in 2002, five for Norah Jones in 2003 and four for Adele in 2009.
Next year, for the first time, we might have two newly minted Grammy queens instead of just one. Eilish and Lizzo made it big in 2019 with curious similarities and significant differences. Both are the kind of female superstars-in-the-making that music needs right now, challenging conventional thinking of what hot women in music should look like. Also, they’re more than just mouthpieces for other people’s musical ideas. Lizzo co-wrote every song on her breakthrough album, “Cuz I Love You,” while Eilish co-wrote all but two on her chart-topping debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”
And then, there are their considerable distinguishing characteristics. At 17, Eilish became the first artist born in this millennium to score a number-one single. (She’ll turn 18 on December 18.) Lizzo, meanwhile, at 31, is a far more seasoned performer finally getting her shot to shine in the spotlight. Never before has the world seen an R&B star that could break out in a rap or a flute solo mid-song.
They also record music in completely different genres, which means they’d overlap only in the four major Grammy categories: album of the year, record of the year and song of the year, on top of best new artist. Eilish, an edgy, emo-soulful, electro-pop diva in a sensible tracksuit, also might be a contender in best pop solo performance and best pop vocal album. That would leave her with at least six nominations. Her producer and co-writer, Finneas O’Connell, who also happens to be her brother, is a pretty good bet for a producer of the year (non-classical) nod.
In the Lizzo column, her joyful “You go, girl!” soul may make her a leading contender for best R&B album, best R&B performance, best rap/sung Performance, best R&B song and various other minor categories. If things go her way, she could score at least eight nominations, putting her slightly ahead of Eilish.
But they’d both be winners. Each lady has a compelling narrative that would make for an exciting Grammy triumph. Eilish’s is accentuated by her youth and preternatural talent, and Lizzo has unconventional beauty and brains on her side. For that matter, Nas X gives them both some competition by having his own intriguing backstory, too. He came out as gay midway through the reign of his debut single. If he ends up taking best new artist, he’d be the second openly gay artist in five years to do so. (Sam Smith won the award in 2015.)
But is it possible we could see a disqualification in the best new artist race? Sure things have been excluded before. Whitney Houston and Richard Marx were nixed in the ’80s because of minor tracks released the year before their solo breakthroughs. (Their losses were Sade’s and Jody Watley’s respective gains.) The rules were made stricter after Shelby Lynne won on her sixth album in 2001. Now, any act that’s released 30 tracks or more before the eligibility period is supposed to be out.
That might end up being detrimental to Lizzo’s best new artist chances. Her 2019 album “Cuz I Love You” is her third full-length effort and also follows two EPs and a pair of mixtapes, which puts her well over the 30 limit. Its big single, “Truth Hurts,” was first released in 2017 but didn’t become a viral hit until this year. Since it was initially released before the October 1, 2018-to-August 31, 2019 eligibility period, it might be disqualified from getting 2020 Grammy love. Eilish seems safer, with two previous EPs and an assortment of one-off singles that came in under the 30-track cutoff mark.
But NARAS occasionally has employed caveats that allowed certain artists into the best new artist race. In 2017, the Academy allowed Maren Morris to compete on her fourth album because she released her first three on small independent labels. The adjustment to Grammy rules didn’t lead to a win for Morris that year, but it did for Chance the Rapper, who was four self-released mixtapes into his recording run. (He didn’t put out his official full-length debut studio album until “The Big Day” dropped on July 26 of this year.)
Other acts that have been invited to compete for best new artist with multiple previous releases include Fountains of Wayne, the Jonas Brothers, 2010 winner Esperanza Spalding and 2015 champ Megan Trainor.
According to NARAS board chairman Harvey Mason Jr., no changes have been made to the category’s qualifications … yet. However, he said in a statement, “We always want as many artists as possible to be eligible for a nomination. We are committed to listening and putting in the work to get this right.”
If Lizzo does get the okay, the big winner will be the Academy and possibly CBS, which stand to benefit Jan. 26 from the attention paid to one of the biggest nail-biters the new artist race has ever seen. But with so many other trophies at stake, the real contest may be to see who makes it to the finish line of the after-show press conference with the biggest armful.