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Grammy nominees Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, Kelsea Ballerini redefine the divorce album

Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, and Kelsea Ballerini are among the many women up for Grammy awards. These three singers' albums grappling with divorce push pop music to deeper places.

When the 2024 Grammy nominations were announced, one thing was immediately apparent: Women outpaced men in the major categories.

The leading artists — superstars like SZA, Taylor Swift, and Olivia Rodrigo — reflect an incredible diversity of skill with acclaimed albums that mine all corners of the human experience.

One such corner: divorce.

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An influx of new releases from Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus and Kelsea Ballerini reimagine the divorce album in all its complexity. While the music industry has long been youth-obsessed, there may be something to the fact that these musicians are all women in their 30s and 40s and consequently possess a kind of self-assuredness and rich, emotional maturity. In a culture where relatability is currency, relationship stories with the weight and wisdom of age register as fresh. If all popstars are teenaged, where does that leave the rest of us? Perhaps the depth of a breakup ballad is felt more acutely when a public split plays out in tabloid headlines — and there’s a lot more to lose.

Cyrus’ malleable pop "Flowers," one of AP’s picks for best songs of 2023, is a pep talk-turned-empowerment banger — the sound of a woman learning about herself again after a decadelong relationship ended in divorce. She's raked in five nominations, including album of the year for "Endless Summer Vacation."

Then there's Clarkson’s "Chemistry" — a big-belter release she’s described as a "relationship album" that's up for best pop vocal album.

And in the world of country, which has a long tradition of women performing songs about divorce and domesticity, Ballerini’s "Rolling Up the Welcome Mat" is up for the genre's best album.

These records vary greatly but share a similar emotional core: They were written while grappling with marriages falling apart.

In 2020, Cyrus split from actor Liam Hemsworth and Kelly Clarkson ended her marriage to Brandon Blackstock. Two years later, Ballerini and her husband Morgan Evans divorced.

Musically, those endings opened up new realities. Clarkson pursued courageous ballads that stretched her elastic vocal range, Ballerini experimented with pop production and Cyrus wielded her weather-worn voice like a weapon. Their albums came out of painful periods in which each performer was redefining herself.

Ballerini is part of a long lineage of women in country making music about divorce and heartbreak — running the gamut in tone from vengeful to celebratory. Marissa R. Moss, author of "Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be," points to Loretta Lynn’s groundbreaking 1973 hit "Rated X" as setting the precedent for future musicians.

What’s interesting, now, is the modern ways in which divorce is articulated on these records.

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Ballerini's album — particularly the song "Penthouse" — challenges stereotypical domestic roles and "demonstrates financial power," Moss said.

"I bought the house with the fence, enough room for some kids," Ballerini sings. Later, her home becomes claustrophobic, an allegory for her marriage: "And I thought that would make it all better, and maybe forever wouldn’t feel like the walls closing in."

The record gets at the idea that even when women attain financial autonomy and remake traditional marriages roles, they’re still not necessarily able to find freedom within its confines.

"I don’t think a quote-unquote divorce album is the first time that I have felt like it’s different being a woman in country music, that’s for sure," Ballerini told The Associated Press, about gender expectations in the genre.

Men, too, have long written about marriages ended, but in the current moment, women lead the charge. Other artists writing in and around divorce include Adele, Kacey Musgraves, and Carly Pearce, another 2024 Grammy nominee.

Ballerini, for her part, understands why people relate deeply to the songs on her album that deal with divorce.

"It's something that was taboo to talk about, especially from a woman’s perspective, for a really long time," she said. It goes "back to like giving a voice to myself and validating my own feelings and my own life and my own journey and hoping that other women feel that too and feel validated."

People often expect divorce records to contain exclusively sad songs. While Ballerini, Clarkson and Cyrus exorcise grief on their albums, they express gratitude as well. These records are sad and empowering, often both at once.

"The feeling people seem to have is that sad music is expressing their own sadness, not the sadness of the artist — but you feel like the artist is trying to express your sadness," Joshua Knobe, a Yale professor and researcher, said. He led a team of academics whose 2023 study found that listeners are drawn to melancholic music for similar reasons as they're compelled by sad conversations — because they are seeking connection.

Or, as Ballerini said, listeners want to feel validated.

"People like success. They like talking with people who succeed," Knobe continued. "But that’s not the thing that makes people feel a profound connection to another human being."

If negative emotions register as more complex than positive ones, perhaps that makes for more opportunities to connect. Divorce records often traverse a spectrum of feelings, with Cyrus, Ballerini and Clarkson's songs allowing the listener to experience the full breadth of the artists' love and pain. That is no doubt noteworthy.

Or perhaps award-worthy.

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