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Big Voices, Ballads and Blockbuster Hits: How 1996 Became The Year Of The Pop Diva

(L-R) Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston

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Big Voices, Ballads and Blockbuster Hits: How 1996 Became The Year Of The Pop Diva

Shortly before Spicemania took hold, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion ushered in a more grown-up wave of girl power

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2021 - 10:51 pm

MariahWhitney and Celine—a.k.a. the holy trinity of pop divas with pyrotechnic vocal ranges—had enjoyed triumphant years before. Carey scored the biggest-selling album of 1991 with her self-titled debut, which spawned four consecutive No. 1s. Houston achieved the same feat in 1986 and 1993 with her eponymous first LP and The Bodyguard OST. And the chart-topping success of Celine Dion's "The Power of Love" in 1994 helped push its parent album The Colour of My Love to sales of more than 20 million

In 1996, the stars aligned for all three powerhouse singers to reach the pole position on Billboard’s singles chart. The trio essentially monopolized its first six months. You had to wait until May 18—when the distinctly non-pop-diva-like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s hip-hop eulogy "Tha Crossroads" replaced Carey’s "Always Be My Baby"—to hear someone else at the top of the US Hot 100. 

This remarkable pop diva merry-go-round had actually started back in September 1995 thanks to "Fantasy." Sampling Tom Tom Club and featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard, the sublime Daydream cut pioneered the soon-to-be ubiquitous hip-hop sound. At eight weeks, it also became the longest-running of Carey’s first nine No. 1s before being unseated by her biggest rival’s "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." 

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That, in turn, was knocked off the top spot after just seven days by another Carey collaboration, with the slick vocal harmonies of Boyz II Men replacing the gonzo, growling rhymes of ODB. A tribute to the loved ones who they’d lost to the AIDS epidemic, "One Sweet Day" remarkably remained the nation’s most popular single until March of the following year. The song’s record-breaking 16-week stint wouldn’t be surpassed until another much less likely duet 23 years later, Lil Nas X’s and Billy Ray Cyrus’ hick-hop smash "Old Town Road."

The artist who finally toppled "One Sweet Day" ended up truly dominating 1996. Although Dion had already released a string of albums before Houston and Carey had set foot inside a recording studio, the Canadian only began making waves outside the Francophone market with 1990’s Unison. It would be another four years before she started being mentioned in the same breath. But by the end of her fourth English-language album’s campaign, Dion had become the new queen. 

A true blockbuster of a record, Falling Into You reportedly shifted a colossal 32 million copies, placing it in the same bracket as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Eagles’ Hotel California. It spawned two No.1 hits: the slow-building theme to the Robert Redford/Michelle Pfeiffer romance Up Close and Personal, "Because You Loved Me," and the epic-from-the-get-go "It’s All Coming Back to Me Now." And it saw Dion recognized at every major award ceremony, including the Oscars, Golden Globes, and, most notably, the GRAMMYs. 

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Of course, Houston had previously shared the Album of the Year award for her contributions to The Bodyguard OST. However, Dion was the first of her peers to achieve the accolade entirely independently: despite some rather snooty predictions, Carey’s Daydream had failed to win the category, or indeed any of the five others it was nominated for, in 1996. Falling Into You, which was additionally crowned Best Pop Album at the same 1997 ceremony, even beat another Houston-heavy soundtrack, Waiting to Exhale, to the glittering prize.

Proving her double-threat credentials once again, Houston not only held her own against Angela Bassett in Forest Whitaker’s directorial debut, but she lent her unmistakable voice to three of its songs as well. "Why Does It Hurt So Bad" and CeCe Winans’ duet "Count on Me" later joined "Exhale" on Houston’s tally of Top 30 entries, as did "I Believe in You and Me" from The Preacher’s Wife OST later that same year, too. 

Houston wasn’t the only pop diva to score hits from the 12 million-selling Waiting to Exhale, which placed fourth behind Falling Into YouDaydream and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill on 1996’s year-end album chart. Mary J. Blige’s defiant slow jam, "Not Gon’ Cry," became the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s biggest single to date before the sweetly-sung funk of Brandy’s "Sittin’ Up In My Room" followed in its footsteps by also peaking at No.2. Meanwhile, Toni Braxton’s emotive ballad, "Let It Flow," effectively topped the charts thanks to its memorable double A-side. 

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Braxton had a remarkable 1996 herself, following up the No. 1 success of "You’re Makin' Me High" with the year’s defining power ballad, "Un-Break My Heart" (its parent LP Secrets went eight times platinum, too). Although she wasn’t entirely averse to bombast, Babyface’s musical protégé proved you didn’t have to shatter glasses to be considered a ‘90s pop diva. Alongside Brandy, Monica and another Waiting to Exhale contributor, TLC’s T-Boz, Braxton’s strengths lay in the kind of rich lower register that could melt butter.  

On the other end of the spectrum, the featherlight vocals of Aaliyah had found their perfect foil in the shape of Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s futuristic production on One In a Million. The sparse robotic funk of "If Your Girl Only Knew" was a prime contender for single of the year. Then there was Lauryn Hill, busy sowing the seeds for her frustratingly erratic solo career as the gritty but beautifully melodic voice behind 1996’s biggest hip-hop act, Fugees.

And although the States would have to wait until the following year for Spicemania to take hold, there were still plenty of groups bringing the girl power. SWV scored their final Top 10 hit with "You’re the One," 702 put themselves on the map with the slick street soul of "Steelo" and Total provided the sugary melodic hook for LL Cool J’s bedroom song "Loungin’." The self-ordained funkiest bunch of divas, En Vogue, also launched their comeback single, "Don’t Let Go," which in 1997 saw them come agonizingly close to the top spot for the third time. 

The new guard of pop divas, however, hadn’t completely shut out the old. Barbra Streisand reached the Top 10 for the first time since 1981 with "I Finally Found Someone," the Oscar-nominated Bryan Adams collaboration taken from her self-directed starring vehicle, The Mirror Has Two FacesGloria Estefan’s soaring "Reach" was chosen as the official anthem for the year’s biggest sporting event, the Atlanta Olympics. And Cher ("One By One"), Tina Turner ("Missing You") and Chaka Khan & Gladys Knight ("Missing You") all made deserved returns to the US Hot 100. 

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Perhaps the most interesting pop diva development, though, arrived at the tail end of the year. Madonna had already settled into the demure balladeer phase of her career with the hits compilation Something to Remember. But she made an even more concerted bid for respectability with the leading role in Evita. The First Lady of Pop’s performance as the First Lady of Argentina was deemed the strongest in her filmography. Simultaneously, the accompanying soundtrack—recorded with musical impresarios Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice—silenced those who believed she didn’t possess the range. 

Of course, Madge would soon reinvent herself as the Earth Mother of electronica on 1998’s magnum opus Ray of Light, completely abandoning the showboating love songs that had become Carey, Houston and Dion’s forte. Yet whereas the latter went on to double down on the histrionics with Streisand duets and disaster movie themes, her two vocal counterparts also began to explore much more credible directions.

Carey roped in Q-Tip, Missy and P. Diddy for the urban pop of 1997’s Butterfly, a clear statement of independence following her split with manager husband Tommy Mottola. Houston, meanwhile, surprised everyone with 1999’s My Love Is Your Love, a masterful comeback guided by a who’s who of contemporary R&B including Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean and Soulshock & Karlin.

By this point, VH1 had belatedly recognized that we were in a golden era for female vocalists, launching their own charity concert series simply titled Divas. The annual show celebrated artists both established and emerging during its initial seven-year run, with Houston, Carey and Dion all making regular appearances.

However, thanks to their dominance of the Billboard charts and the emergence of countless names they inspired, 1996 remains the year when the pop divas—or perhaps more aptly, the elusive chanteuses—truly reigned supreme.

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17 Love Songs That Have Won GRAMMYs: "I Will Always Love You," "Drunk In Love" & More
(L-R) Usher and Alicia Keys during the Super Bowl LVIII halftime show.

Photo: L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

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17 Love Songs That Have Won GRAMMYs: "I Will Always Love You," "Drunk In Love" & More

Over the GRAMMYs' 66-year history, artists from Frank Sinatra to Ed Sheeran have taken home golden gramophones for their heartfelt tunes. Take a look at some of the love songs that have won GRAMMYs.

GRAMMYs/Feb 14, 2024 - 09:42 pm

Editor's Note: This is an update to a story from 2017.

Without heart-bursting, world-shifting love songs, music wouldn't be the same. There are countless classic and chart-topping hits dedicated to love, and several of them have won GRAMMYs.

We're not looking at tunes that merely deal with shades of love or dwell in heartbreak. We're talking out-and-out, no-holds-barred musical expressions of affection — the kind of love that leaves you wobbly at the knees.

No matter how you're celebrating Valentine's Day (or not), take a look at 18 odes to that feel-good, mushy-gushy love that have taken home golden gramophones over the years.

Frank Sinatra, "Strangers In The Night"

Record Of The Year / Best Vocal Performance, Male, 1967

Ol' Blue Eyes offers but a glimmer of hope for the single crowd on Valentine's Day, gently ruminating about exchanging glances with a stranger and sharing love before the night is through.

Willie Nelson, "Always On My Mind"

Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, 1983

In this cover, Nelson sings to the woman in his life, lamenting over those small things he should have said and done, but never took the time. Don't find yourself in the same position this Valentine's Day.

Lionel Richie, "Truly"

Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, 1983

"Truly" embodies true dedication to a loved one, and it's delivered with sincerity from the king of '80s romantic pop — who gave life to the timeless love-song classics "Endless Love," "Still" and "Three Times A Lady."

Roy Orbison, "Oh, Pretty Woman"

Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, 1991

Orbison captures the essence of encountering a lovely woman for the first time, and offers helpful one-liners such as "No one could look as good as you" and "I couldn't help but see … you look as lovely as can be." Single men, take notes.

Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You"

Record Of The Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, 1994

Houston passionately delivers a message of love, remembrance and forgiveness on her version of this song, which was written by country sweetheart Dolly Parton and first nominated for a GRAMMY in 1982.

Celine Dion, "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)"  

Record Of The Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, 1999

This omnipresent theme song from the 1997 film Titanic was propelled to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 as the story of Jack and Rose (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and GRAMMY winner Kate Winslet) swept the country.

Shania Twain, "You're Still The One"

Best Female Country Vocal Performance, Best Country Song, 1999

Co-written with producer and then-husband Mutt Lange, Twain speaks of beating the odds with love and perseverance in lyrics such as, "I'm so glad we made it/Look how far we've come my baby," offering a fresh coat of optimism for couples of all ages.

Usher & Alicia Keys, "My Boo"

Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals, 2005

"There's always that one person that will always have your heart," sings Usher in this duet with Keys, taking the listener back to that special first love. The chemistry between the longtime friends makes this ode to “My Boo” even more heartfelt, and the love was still palpable even 20 years later when they performed it on the Super Bowl halftime show stage.

Bruno Mars, "Just The Way You Are"

Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, 2011

Dating advice from Bruno Mars: If you think someone is beautiful, you should tell them every day. Whether or not it got Mars a date for Valentine's Day, it did get him a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

Cee Lo Green & Melanie Fiona, "Fool For You" 

Best Traditional R&B Performance, 2012

It's a far cry from his previous GRAMMY-winning song, "F*** You," but "Fool For You" had us yearning for "that deep, that burning/ That amazing unconditional, inseparable love."

Justin Timberlake, "Pusher Love Girl" 

Best R&B Song, 2014

Timberlake is so high on the love drug he's "on the ceiling, baby." Timberlake co-wrote the track with James Fauntleroy, Jerome Harmon and Timbaland, and it's featured on his 2013 album The 20/20 Experience, which flew high to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Beyoncé & Jay-Z, "Drunk In Love"

Best R&B Performance / Best R&B Song, 2015

While "Drunk In Love" wasn't the first love song that won Beyoncé and Jay-Z a GRAMMY — they won two GRAMMYs for "Crazy In Love" in 2004 — it is certainly the sexiest. This quintessential 2010s bop from one of music's most formidable couples captures why their alliance set the world's hearts aflame (and so did their steamy GRAMMYs performance of it).

Ed Sheeran, "Thinking Out Loud"

Song Of The Year / Best Pop Solo Performance, 2016

Along with his abundant talent, Sheeran's boy-next-door charm is what rocketed him to the top of the pop ranks. And with swooning lyrics and a waltzing melody, "Thinking Out Loud" is proof that he's a modern-day monarch of the love song.

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, "Shallow"

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance / Best Song Written For Visual Media, 2019

A Star is Born's cachet has gone up and down with its various remakes, but the 2018 iteration was a smash hit. Not only is that thanks to moving performances from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but particularly thanks to their impassioned, belt-along duet "Shallow."

H.E.R. & Daniel Caesar, "Best Part"

Best R&B Performance, 2019

"If life is a movie/ Know you're the best part." Who among us besotted hasn't felt their emotions so widescreen, so thunderous? Clearly, H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar have — and they poured that feeling into the GRAMMY-winning ballad "Best Part."

Kacey Musgraves, "Butterflies"

Best Country Solo Performance, 2019

As Musgraves' Album Of The Year-winning LP Golden Hour shows, the country-pop star can zoom in or out at will, capturing numberless truths about the human experience. With its starry-eyed lyrics and swirling production, "Butterflies" perfectly encapsulates the flutter in your stomach that love can often spark.

Dan + Shay & Justin Bieber, "10,000 Hours"

Best Country Duo/Group Performance, 2021

When country hook-meisters Dan + Shay teamed up with pop phenom Justin Bieber, their love song powers were unstoppable. With more than 1 billion Spotify streams alone, "10,000 Hours" has become far more than an ode to just their respective wives; it's an anthem for any lover.

Lovesick Or Sick Of Love: Listen To GRAMMY.com's Valentine's Day Playlist Featuring Taylor Swift, Doja Cat, Playboi Carti, Olivia Rodrigo, FKA Twigs & More

10 Must-See Moments From The 2024 GRAMMYs: Taylor Swift Makes History, Billy Joel & Tracy Chapman Return, Boygenius Manifest Childhood Dreams
(L-R) boygenius, Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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10 Must-See Moments From The 2024 GRAMMYs: Taylor Swift Makes History, Billy Joel & Tracy Chapman Return, Boygenius Manifest Childhood Dreams

The 66th Annual GRAMMY Awards wrote another monumental chapter in music history with returns from legends like Celine Dion and wins by a promising new generation of artists like Victoria Monét.

GRAMMYs/Feb 5, 2024 - 08:35 pm

Just like that, another GRAMMYs has come and gone — but the 2024 telecast brought many moments that will be immortalized in pop culture history.

It was the evening of legends, as Billy Joel and Tracy Chapman returned to the stage for the first time in decades and Joni Mitchell made her debut with a performance of her 1966 classic, "Both Sides, Now." Stevie Wonder and Celine Dion honored greats, both those we've lost and those who are dominating today. And Meryl Streep had two memorable moments at the show, making a fashionably late entrance and getting a hilarious GRAMMY lesson from Mark Ronson.

But it was the younger generation of artists who ultimately dominated the show. Boygenius — the supergroup of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker — won numerous awards in the Rock, Metal & Alternative Music Field. Billie Eilish and SZA scooped up a couple more golden gramophones, respectively, and Best New Artist winner Victoria Monét celebrated three wins in total, also winning Best R&B Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

Taylor Swift built on the momentum of her colossal year with more GRAMMY records and an unexpected announcement of her next studio album.

Check out the full list of winners here, and take a look at our top 10 highlights from another show-stopping installment of the GRAMMYs below.

Boygenius Run To Accept Their First GRAMMY Award

Boygenius won the first trophy of their careers during the Premiere Ceremony, and they were so ecstatic they sprinted through the crowds to get to the stage.

"Oh my God, I want to throw up," Lucy Dacus said as the group accepted their Best Rock Performance trophy for "Not Strong Enough."

Even though the trio was over the moon, they weren't entirely shocked by their win: "We were delusional enough as kids to think this would happen to us one day," she continued. Phoebe Bridgers would sing at a local Guitar Center "in hopes of getting discovered," while Julien Baker dreamed of performing in stadiums as she played in multiple bands, and Dacus has been perfecting her acceptance speech for years.

Their hard work was manifested three times over, as the trio also won Best Rock Song for "Not Strong Enough" and Best Alternative Music Album for the record.

Killer Mike Makes A Clean Sweep

Killer Mike had the largest GRAMMY night of his career, winning all three of the Rap Categories for which he was nominated: Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for "SCIENTISTS & ENGINEERS," and Best Rap Album for MICHAEL.

"I'm from the Southeast, like DJ Paul, and I'm a Black man in America. As a kid, I had a dream to become a part of music, and that 9-year-old is very excited right now," he cheered. "I want to thank everyone who dares to believe art can change the world."

Minutes after his sweep, the LAPD detained the Run the Jewels rapper. However, he was released and still able to celebrate his achievements, Killer Mike's lawyer told Variety.

Miley Cyrus Finally Receives Her "Flowers"

Miley Cyrus entered the GRAMMYs with six nominations for her eighth studio album, Endless Summer Vacation. After she won Best Pop Solo Performance for "Flowers," she delivered a jubilant performance in celebration. "Started to cry, but then remembered, I just won my first GRAMMY!" she exclaimed at the song's bridge, throwing her hands in the air and joyfully jumping around the stage.

Cyrus' excitement brought a tangible energy to the performance, making for one of the night's most dynamic — and apparently one of Oprah Winfrey's favorites, as the camera caught the mogul dancing and singing along.

"Flowers" earned Cyrus a second GRAMMY later in the night, when the No. 1 hit was awarded Record Of The Year. 

Tracy Chapman Makes A Rare Appearance

Luke Combs breathed a second life into Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" when he released a cover of the track in April 2023. He quickly climbed to the top of the Billboard charts and received a nomination for Best Country Solo Performance at this year's show. Of course, it called for a special celebration — one that was meaningful for both Combs and GRAMMYs viewers.

Chapman joined the country star on stage for her first televised performance since 2015, trading off verses with Combs as he adoringly mouthed the words. The duet also marked Chapman's first appearance on the GRAMMY stage in 20 years, as she last performed "Give Me One Reason" at the 2004 GRAMMYs. (It also marked her second time singing "Fast Car" on the GRAMMYs stage; she performed it in 1989, the same year the song won Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female and Chapman took home three awards total, including Best New Artist.)

Naturally, Chapman's return earned a standing ovation from the crowd. As Combs fittingly put it in an Instagram post thanking the Recording Academy for the opportunity, it was a "truly remarkable moment."

Read More: 2024 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Full Winners & Nominees List

Joni Mitchell Takes The GRAMMY Stage For The First Time At 80

In one of the most emotional parts of the night, Joni Mitchell performed on the GRAMMYs stage for the first time in her nearly 60-year career.

Accompanied by Brandi Carlile — who referred to Mitchell as "the matriarch of imagination" before the performance — Lucius, SistaStrings, Allison Russell, Blake Mills, and Jacob Collier, Mitchell sang a touching rendition of "Both Sides Now."

"Joni is one of the most influential and emotionally generous creators in human history," Carlile  added in her introduction. "Joni just turned 80, my friends, but we all know she's timeless!"

Mitchell also won her 10th golden gramophone at the 2024 GRAMMYs, as her live album Joni Mitchell at Newport was awarded Best Folk Album at the Premiere Ceremony.

Stevie Wonder Salutes The Late Tony Bennett, Duetted By His Hologram

Another heartfelt moment came during this year's In Memoriam segment, when Stevie Wonder memorialized his friend, Tony Bennett, who passed away from Alzheimer's disease in 2023.

"Tony, I'm going to miss you forever. I love you always, and God bless that He allowed us to have you in this time and space in our lives," Wonder proclaimed. Thanks to a hologram of Bennett, the two singers could duet "For Once in My Life" one last time.

This year's tribute also saw Annie Lennox covering Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," Jon Batiste's medley of Bill Withers' hits, and Fantasia's reimagining of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary."

Meryl Streep Gets Educated On Album Vs. Record And Single

Meryl Streep joined Mark Ronson — who happens to be her son-in-law — to announce the Record Of The Year winner, which sparked a funny interaction between the two when Streep thought she was announcing Album Of The Year.

"A record is an album!" Streep confidently declared, only for Ronson to give a quick 101 on the difference between Record, Song, and Album Of The Year.

"It's a really important award, and it's an award that recognizes everything that goes into making a great record — the producers, the recording engineer, and the artist, and all their contributions," Ronson explained of Record Of The Year.

"It's the Everything Award! It's the best," Streep smiled.

Celine Dion Surprises The World With A Special Cameo

Before the GRAMMYs commenced, producer Ben Winston told viewers they would be in for a treat because of a surprise presenter for the final award of the night, Album Of The Year. "They are an absolute global icon. I think jaws will drop to the floor. People will be on their feet," he shared.

It was none other than Celine Dion, who has largely been out of the limelight after her stiff person syndrome diagnosis.

"When I say that I'm happy to be here, I really mean it with my heart," Dion said. "It gives me great joy to present a GRAMMY award that two legends, Diana Ross and Sting, presented to me 27 years ago."

Dion is referring to her Album Of The Year win at the 39th GRAMMY Awards in 1997, when her smash LP Falling Into You won the honor. 

Taylor Swift Breaks The Record For Most AOTY Wins

It was a historic night for Taylor Swift in more ways than one.

She began the evening by winning her 13th GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Album for Midnights. To commemorate the milestone (13 is her lucky number), Swift announced her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, arriving on April 19.

She ended the evening with a coveted fourth Album Of The Year win, which made Swift the artist with the most AOTY nods in GRAMMY history.

"I would love to tell you this is the best moment of my life, but I feel this happy when I finish a song or crack the code to a bridge that I love or when I'm shot listing a music video or when I'm rehearsing with my dancers or my band or getting ready to go to Tokyo to play a show," she said. "The award is the work. All I want to do is keep being able to do this."

Billy Joel Serves Double GRAMMY Duty

After Swift's momentous win, Billy Joel ended the ceremony with a feel-good performance of his 1980 single, "You May Be Right." Along with being a rousing show closer, it was also his second performance of the night; Joel performed his newest offering, "Turn the Lights Back On," before Album Of The Year was announced.

Joel's performances included three firsts: It was the debut live rendition of "Turn the Lights Back On," his first release since 2007, and the performances marked his first time playing on the GRAMMYs stage in more than two decades. It was a fitting finale for a history-making show, one that beautifully celebrated icons of the past, present and future.

A Timeline Of Taylor Swift's GRAMMYs History, From Skipping Senior Prom To Setting A Record With 'Midnights'

Here's What Happened At The Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors 2024 GRAMMY Event Celebrating Mariah Carey & Lenny Kravitz
Mariah Carey accepts the Global Impact Award during the Recording Academy Honors presented by the Black Music Collective

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

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Here's What Happened At The Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors 2024 GRAMMY Event Celebrating Mariah Carey & Lenny Kravitz

The power of staying true to yourself was at the center of the 2024 GRAMMY Week event. Honorees Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz were lauded by colleagues and performers, including Stevie Wonder, Quavo, Babyface and Andra Day.

GRAMMYs/Feb 3, 2024 - 08:34 pm

On a wet but buzzing Thursday evening ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs, leading lights in the music industry gathered for the third annual Recording Academy Honors Presented By The Black Music Collective. Along the event's black carpet, stars and industry insiders were showing out — taking photos, reconnecting with friends and collaborators, and chatting with the press. 

The official 2024 GRAMMY Week event was held Feb. 1 — the first day of Black History Month — at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles and was sponsored by Amazon Music and City National Bank. Each year, BMC presents its Global Impact Award to legendary musicians advancing the culture, and 2024’s honorees Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, loomed over the entire evening before they'd even arrived.

Flava Flav, sporting his patented clock necklace, was also hyped about the evening. "It means everything to be at the GRAMMYs tonight. This is big," Flav told GRAMMY.com. The rapper then spoke about the two transcendent stars being honored. "I feel real big about the honorees. Mariah Carey, always been proud of her and I love her songs…Lenny Kravitz is my dude. That’s my man. So congratulations Lenny!" 

The significance of the event was felt from the first foot set on the black carpet. Afrobeats star Fireboy DML weighed in on the importance of the night. "I’m honored. It feels good. It’s always important to be in spaces like this," Fireboy told GRAMMY.com, adding that he's excited about his upcoming fourth album. "It’s important for the culture." 

As attendees inside the jam-packed ballroom room eagerly awaited the main guests of the night, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. spoke about the momentum being built through Black Music Collective. 

"[Last year] I spoke how great it was to be holding the second annual BMC event. To me it meant we established a new tradition. And now the tradition proudly continues," Mason Jr. told the audience, emphasizing how the influence of Black culture can be found in all corners of the world and across musical genres. 

A performance by Nigerian superstar Davido, a first-time GRAMMY nominee, spoke to the power of musical diversity in the Academy and BMC. Although the crowd had sat down with their appetizers, many stood up to vibe out as Davido performed his nominated song, "Unavailable."

By the time Andra Day, adorned in a bright red leather coat, got to the end of her rendition of "Strange Fruit" with support from trumpeter Keyon Harrold, everyone in the ballroom was on their feet. It was a great moment for Day, whose cover of Billie Holiday’s 1939 cry for justice hammered home the connection between Black artists across different genres and across time.

Gabby Samone garnered the second standing ovation of the night for her take on Nina Simone’s "Four Women." Simone has had a number of major cosigns as her star has grown brighter, and her fans include Jennifer Hudson and none other than Mariah Carey. Samone's performance was followed by a powerful song from Erica Campbell, whose I Love You is nominated for Best Gospel Album this year.

A set from DJ Mannie Fresh, Kravitz took the stage to receive the first BMC Global Impact Award of the night. Introduced by mentee H.E.R, she talked about "American Woman’s" genre-bending influence on her own career and Kravitz's own influence from childhood. "The fashion, the confidence, the badass walk, and the killer vocals made me at six years old say to my dad ‘I wanna play guitar.’ ‘I wanna be a rockstar.’ ‘I wanna be like Lenny Kravitz,’" H.E.R. said. 

She then listed off some of Kravitz’s other accomplishments including working on "Rustin," the new Netflix film about critical civil rights architect Bayard Rustin, as well as Kravitz’s work in philanthropy through his Let Love Rule Foundation. 

Once the din died down, Kravitz took a trip back to childhood, too. He shared how, when he went to go see the Jackson 5 with his family, and was so hooked that he dreamed of becoming part of the storied troupe. "I fantasized that I was their long lost brother and turned the Jackson 5 into the Jackson 6," he said.

Kravitz also spoke the various genres of music that helped mold him, drawn from many different corners. From his "grandfather’s block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn," where he "witnessed the birth of hip-hop," to being shaped by legends like Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. He also shouted out his godmother, the late great actress Cicely Tyson. 

In a particularly cool mashup of genre and generation, Quavo provided vocals to "Fly Away," flanked by P-funk all star George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. At the end of the performance, Kravitz went over to each performer and hugged them.

After a brief intermission, record producer and BMC Chair Rico Love shouted out leadership, including the Recording Academy board of trustees and Ryan Butler, Vice President of DEI. Love spoke about Black Music Collective as a space where everyone can feel at home. "The life of a creator is so hard. And lonely. That’s why it’s valuable to build community," he emphasized. 

Black Music Collective’s scholarship program, in collaboration with Amazon Music, Love said, will once again support HBCU students who aspire to be in the next generation of music industry power players. In 2023, scholarships were awarded to students at Florida A&M University, Texas Southern University, Norfolk State University, among others. Love recalls the mentors he had when he was coming up and is glad BMC is also paying it forward. 

Last night’s program found one of the few people on the planet that even Mariah Carey might be star struck by. Before the pop legend received her Global Impact Award, Stevie Wonder appeared and sat down over a keyboard. 

"Very excited to be here to celebrate someone that has been a friend and I’ve been a fan of since the very beginning of hearing her voice," he said, before serenading Carey with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," ending the rendition with "I love you, I love you, you are my hero."

Mariah Carey was seemingly surprised and star-struck herself. Once she overcame the awe, Carey detailed the pressure she faced early in her career to avoid leaning into Black music. "When I first started in the music business, I was often told to ‘conform’ to certain expectations. I was not encouraged to focus on my love for Black music," she told the crowd.

Later, some of Carey’s other friends and collaborators performed, including Babyface, who once sang backing vocals on Carey’s "Melt Away." (Carey then returned the favor by singing on "Every Time I Close My Eyes.") Another Carey collaborator, Busta Rhymes, performed crowd favorite "I Know What You Want" and offered sincere thanks to Carey for her boldness and desire to "run with the wolves." Tori Kelly also sang "Vision of Love" during this segment and earlier in the night, gospel legend Yolanda Adams performed "Make It Happen." The third annual Recording Academy Honors/BMC event certainly did make it happen, as attendees flooded out of the ballroom and into the streets pumped with pride.

2024 GRAMMYs: See The Full Nominees And Winners List

Head to live.GRAMMY.com all year long to watch all the GRAMMY performances, acceptance speeches, the GRAMMY Live From The Red Carpet livestream special, the full Premiere Ceremony livestream, and even more exclusive, never-before-seen content from the 2024 GRAMMYs.

Em Cooper's GRAMMY-Nominated Beatles Video Is A "Protest" Against Time
Em Cooper

Photo: John Ford

interview

Em Cooper's GRAMMY-Nominated Beatles Video Is A "Protest" Against Time

British animator and film director Em Cooper's immersive video for the Beatles' 'Revolver' track "I'm Only Sleeping" is the product of some 1,300 hand-painted frames. Here's how the 2024 GRAMMY nominee for Best Music Video came to be.

GRAMMYs/Feb 1, 2024 - 03:32 pm

The Beatles' discography can be heard as a long conversation between four brothers, and the songs on 1966's Revolver certainly talk to each other.

On "Love You To," George Harrison muses, "Each day just goes so fast/ I turn around, it's passed." On "Got to Get You Into My Life," Paul McCartney tunes in and drops out: "I was alone, I took a ride/ I didn't know what I would find there." And in every line of the somnambulant, gently roiling "I'm Only Sleeping," John Lennon declares war on awakeness itself.

Clearly, a shared energy flowed from each of their pens: an askance look at linear time, and how it pertains to modern society. And while painstakingly painting more than a thousand frames for "I'm Only Sleeping," oil painter and animator Em Cooper picked up exactly what Lennon was transmitting.

"I really love the fact that this is some major call towards rest and sleep and dreaming and allowing your mind to wander," the effervescent Cooper tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. Productivity, efficiency, investment, return: as Lennon seemed to sing, they're for the birds.

As the lore goes, McCartney in 1966 was a man about town, soaking up Stockhausen and Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, while a suburbia-bound Lennon opted to drop acid and, well, lay in bed.

This is reflected in their contributions to Revolver, which got a 2022 remix and expansion: McCartney's tunes, like "Here, There and Everywhere" are borderline classical, while Lennon sometimes couldn't be bothered to add a third chord. But Lennon being Lennon, he made inertia into a transcendent force.

"It feels as though it's a bit of a protest against the calculus view of time and the idea that our time is for sale, we can just slice up our hours and sell it off by the chunk," Cooper says. "I feel like in John's desire for just letting himself sleep and rest, he's saying to the world, 'Let's allow ourselves our own time, our own lives.'"

But the experience of making the "I'm Only Sleeping" clip — which involved painstakingly painting each frame by hand — was anything but tranquil: at times, Cooper even found it painful. This labor of love paid off, though: it's nominated for Best Music Video at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

Cooper details the development of  "I'm Only Sleeping" video, her methodology for mapping the visuals to the music, and, after numberless listens, whether she's sick of this Revolver favorite.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Beatles' story is filled with unforgettable sights, and with the "I'm Only Sleeping" video, you added to their visual language. Was that a daunting responsibility?

Absolutely. It really was. And, I think maybe if I had really stopped to think about it too much, it would've really tightened me up. In a way, weirdly, I was quite lucky it was on a tight schedule. That took precedence. I was just in the flow, trying to just focus on each task ahead of me and get it done.

Sophie Hilton, who's the Creative Studio Director at Universal Music, commissioned the film with Jonathan Clyde from Apple Corps. They were very good at guiding the project in a very natural way, so that it made a very natural fit into where they needed it to fit, as it were, in that big, big legacy. So, the fact that I'm an oil paint animator and I work with archive footage — it's got that timeless quality a little bit to it anyway, as does the song.

I worked with the Beatles' archivist, Adrian Winter, who helped me find footage; managing to place it within the history of the Beatles was really important. I didn't get too worried until finally when it came out. 

And then, literally, that was the first moment it really hit me about the legacy — of what I suddenly realized I'd just done.

Em Cooper

*Photo courtesy of Em Cooper.*

Like the experience of sleep itself, "I'm Only Sleeping" is flowing, undulating. It looks like you picked up on that, with this impressionistic continuum of visuals.

Yeah, absolutely. I was inspired by the song itself, because the song has just that continuous rocking motion to the melody. It was as though it was a synesthetic reaction to the song. It felt almost like it just drew itself out in my mind — the movement all kind of choreographed itself around those moments where it's like [sings lyric in dramatic swoop]  "Yawning," and then it felt like it goes over the top.

But, I don't know whether everybody else hears that when they hear that lyric, but that's certainly what I heard, and I could just produce that movement to match. All I really felt I had to do was just stay incredibly true to the song and the movement that was already there, and it just flowed.

How did you do this under such a tight schedule? One thousand, three hundred oil paintings?!

Yeah, I'm not going to lie. It was painful. It was a very tight schedule to produce an entirely hand-painted oil paint animation in. I literally painted every frame on a cel; sometimes, I painted and wiped and repainted.

It's hard work, but I just love oil painting. Now that I've had enough projects that it flows out of me, I find I'm reasonably quick. Some parts were easier than others; doing the faces was particularly difficult. Trying to get John Lennon's likeness over and over again was a real challenge, but other parts of it were much easier.

Obviously, lots of people these days are working digitally to do drawings and things, but I just work in actual oil painting. I find that I'm definitely not quicker at doing something digitally than I am just manually.

I suppose I want to promote the real artforms, because actually there isn't anything that much quicker or different about dipping a brush in some red paint and doing a stroke than doing a digital stroke. If you just gain confidence, it's fine.

How did you collaborate with Apple Corps on this, whether they offered artistic direction or just moral support?

Jonathan Clyde really helped direct all of that. I put all my ideas together into a document, and there was lots of consultations with them and honing those ideas and making sure that they fit with everybody's vision and what everybody was thinking.

And then, carrying on honing and honing, so that by the time I got to actually going, Yeah. We're going for it. We're going to start making this, it was all very clear.

I did a pencil-drawn animatic, which was about, I think two frames a second, which is quite a lot for an animatic, so as to really show the flow of imagery, so that there were no questions. I think there were a couple of changes after that, but very, very few.

So, it was quite clear, and everybody agreed on all the imagery and everything. But, I came up with most of it andwould maybe put some suggestions.

And, we came up collectively with this idea of  the backwards guitar sequence going backwards through Beatles' history from that moment, from 1966 backwards as it were, so as to the feeling from Revolver back to the beginning of the Beatles.

And, I was trying to meld that all together with the magnetic tape in the magnetic tape recorders going in and out of that. It was group calls, so I would take one and spark off and think, Oh, yeah. I remember Adrian Winter, the archivist, mentioning how John Lennon often had a notebook with him because he was always just thinking of ideas; he suggested that. And so, I put the notebook next to his pillow and things like that.

Em Cooper

*Photo courtesy of Em Cooper.*

When Giles Martin's remix of Revolver came out, it was striking how modern it sounded. How did this project enhance your appreciation for this song, album and band?

I watched it again just before jumping on this call with you, and I love the song. I was listening to little individual parts of it over and over again, whilst I was working on it, getting really into the detail of tiny bits of each line. And, it holds up, it's so good. I do not get bored of it. I love it.

I just could carry on listening to it over and over, which really, to be honest, says a lot, because when you work very hard on something, you do tend to find yourself a little bit bored by it by the end. But, absolutely not the case with this.

And, actually, after it was all finished, we went to Abbey Road together as a treat to listen to the [remixed and] remastered version of Revolver that was being re-released, and wow! To listen in Abbey Road Studios with the surround sound, it was just mind-blowing.

I already had an incredible respect for the Beatles, and that has only grown.

2024 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Full Nominees List