A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Taylor Swift has won album of the year at the Grammys twice. She has won that award three times. The article has been corrected.
The phenomena of their unrelenting ubiquity is hard to quantify, but we can try. Since 2010, every solo studio album Drake has issued has gone No. 1. Same for Swift since 2008. Same for Beyoncé since 2003. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it’s definitely a weird thing, especially if you squint back at that transformative early-’90s moment when their superstar forebears — Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen — were each semi-obsolesced by the rise of N.W.A. and Nirvana, gangsta rap and grunge. Of those four, only Jackson took a new album to No. 1 in the ’90s. As for today’s permanent A-list, its blessed few remain impervious to insurrection, the riddle of their invincibility consecrated by massive sales, endless streams and heaps of trophies.
Now, with another Grammy night nearly upon us — the one square on the calendar when the splintered world of popular music tries to gather itself into something coherent — it feels like a fine time to ponder the permanent A-list: how it came to be, and what we stand to gain (or lose) from living in a soundworld where cultural relevance and commercial dominance feel so tightly intertwined.
Beyoncé is scheduled to glide into the 65th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night leading the field with nine nods, which also places her in a tie for the most Grammy nominations ever, 88, with her spouse, Jay-Z. Her consistency is hard to dispute. But she ultimately stands apart from Swift and Drake on the permanent A-list in that her music continues to dramatically change shape from album to album, generating a big-tent frisson we’ve grown to depend on.
Her latest, “Renaissance,” is up for album of the year, and it finds the 41-year-old making a hard push onto the dance floor, stylistically, thematically and politically. And while the rhythms on “Renaissance” skew forthright and four-on-the-floor, Beyoncé’s singing has never sounded more scrupulous and rococo, giving the entire recording a shimmering aura of better-than-everness.
As listeners, we’re particularly attuned to that progress, considering we’ve been fluent in the timbre of her voice since before the turn of the century. From her high-spirited teenage debut in Destiny’s Child circa 1997, through her auteur statements in the studio (2016’s “Lemonade”) and onstage (a 2018 Coachella performance that has since become known as “Beychella”), the grand contour of Beyoncé’s career arc continues to make good on the idea of pop-music-as-model-for-human-progress — a utopian notion previously forged by Prince, Janet Jackson, David Bowie and other heroes of popular song. In that sense, Beyoncé’s spot on the permanent A-list feels more earned than achieved. She isn’t predictable. She’s reliable. And her longevity feels like a quest in the direction of excellence, as well as a pursuit of her own quintessence.
Swift reached her place with a different kind of ambition. Her quest hasn’t been to discover so much as to please, to delight, to deliver the goods. Since her earliest days as a teenage country songwriting prodigy, the 33-year-old has been acutely aware of her audience’s desires, and she’s fulfilled them relentlessly, resulting in a deliberate, barely changing songwriting aesthetic that continues to tangle time like a pair of cosmic shoelaces. At first, she was a teenager who sang about life with the wisdom of an adult. Then, she became an adult who sang about life with the zest of a teenager. Somewhere along the way — after losing the rights to her master recordings — she started rerecording her old albums. Over, under, around and through.
She’s twisting time at this year’s Grammys, too. Swift has won album of the year thrice in her career, and she’ll probably be going for a fourth with her latest, “Midnights.” But that’ll have to wait another 12 months — Swift shrewdly released “Midnights” a few weeks after the eligibility window had closed, hoping to spread out the prestige. For now, she’s hoping to win song of the year for a rerecorded and expanded 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” a midtempo falling-in-and-out-of-love song that originally appeared on her 2012 album “Red,” then reappeared on her 2021 redo, “Red (Taylor’s Version).” Hyper-fame begets superpowers: the ability to travel back in time and expand the past.
And speaking of expansion, is Taylor Swift bigger than ever right now? As mind-cramping as it feels, it’s difficult to imagine a near-future where the answer won’t be yes. Her songs continue to cater to the young and the innocent, but nobody wants to outgrow them. It gets a little weird on “Midnights” whenever Swift indulges in that vaguely infantilizing (adolescent-ilizing?) thing where she invites us to hunt for symbolism in the colors and nature imagery woven into her lyrics as if we’re doing a ninth-grade book report, but her massive sense of melody can make her missteps easy to ignore. Time gets flexible in that capacious bigness. You’ll forget your age, nobody will ask you to leave, and you’ll never be alone, because tomorrow’s Swifties are being born right this minute.
Drake’s inescapability feels even more tactical than Swift’s. Better than any of his peers, the 36-year-old has figured out how to capitalize on a troika of mainstream cultural trends, regional rap styles and memes of the very online with a facility that allows him to funnel his music directly into everyone’s phones and/or brains. He also knows which spaces to avoid. Drake declined to submit his June album, “Honestly, Nevermind,” for Grammy consideration this year as a means of protesting the Recording Academy’s perennial failure to honor the most relevant artists in popular music, and hey, right on. (He’s still nominated for two collaborations, though.)
And while the music industry’s awards system clearly wasn’t made for Drake, its current distribution system fits him just fine. He’s been unyieldingly prolific over the past decade, his creative metabolism going hand-in-glove with the rise of mainstream streaming services, those corpo-platforms that favor the smooth and the sedative — that is, music that sounds like Drake’s. So it’s important not to reduce Drake to his tenacious savvy. He’s a sound. The intimacy and ease of his rhyming singsong seems as magnetic and conversational to his generation’s ears as Frank Sinatra’s did once upon a time. Drake’s music might be omnipresent, but it doesn’t sound intrusive. His coup is having turned rap into an ambiance.
Fame can become a sort of psychic ambiance, too, but one reason pop music’s permanent A-list feels so distinct at this particular moment is because not everyone can hang. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and Rihanna all boast unbroken streaks of No. 1 albums, but they each seem to be fading by their own volition. Gaga got serious about Hollywood. Ye chased his need for attention into the internet’s most trollish and hateful corners. Bieber just seemed to lose interest. Rihanna — who surprised many by agreeing to perform at this month’s Super Bowl — has spent the past few years making underwear instead of music.
But even if the permanent A-list remains inaccessible to everyone else, it doesn’t block bold new music from appearing on our horizons. There are still agitators in our current popscape, but unlike the hip-hop and alt-rock insurgents of the ’90s, today’s envelope-pushers don’t need to evict the stars on top in order to thrive. A lot of this has to do with the evaporation of the monoculture — that pre-digital state of being where airtime and magazine pages were finite resources. A rapper like YoungBoy Never Broke Again doesn’t need to steal Beyoncé’s spot in MTV’s after-school rotation to go No. 1. That’s all ancient history.
Which makes today feel strange. With so many diffuse paths to stardom — via streaming and social media in their countless iterations — how did we end up with the most-famous famous people pop music has ever known? And even if there’s still room for visionaries to shake things up in the strata below, why all the dank fealty? Why are today’s indie singer-songwriters so eager to praise Swift? Why do rappers in every American city say their prayers at night, hoping that Drake will swipe their flow? Why all the power worship?
Here’s an idea. The power being worshiped here — by musicians, by listeners, by everyone — is the power to create some kind of stability. We’re living in a totally berserk era, a digital age defined by political hostility and endless anxiety, all of it smothered by a lethal pandemic that refuses to lift. The devices we use to listen to music? They shoot bad news into our eyeballs around the clock. So maybe we’re seeking a fundamental steadiness in our pop songs. Maybe we’re drawn to singers for whom the clock isn’t coming. Maybe we’re investing ourselves in their power in hope of protecting it, of keeping it in place. We used to need pop stars to shake up our boring lives. Now we need them for something else entirely. They cannot come down.