In the last two years, female artists have achieved extraordinary feats within the music industry: Ariana Grande was the first solo artist to occupy the top three positions on the Bilboard Hot 100 simultaneously, as well as having the most singles debut at No.1 on the US singles charts. Cardi B became the first woman to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album and Little Mix became the first girl group to win Best British Group at the BRIT Awards. All of these are remarkable achievements, however, women are still woefully underestimated and underrepresented within this industry.
A study conducted by USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute in 2019, analysed the gender and ethnicity of artists, songwriters and producers from the top 700 most popular songs from 2012-2018. They found that the music industry was male-dominated across all three categories. 21.7% of artists were women – which is a statistic that might surprise many, as some of the most popular artists currently are female – but female artists do not even make up a quarter of the sample. Only 12.3% of songwriters and 2.1% of producers are women.
They also analysed Grammy nominations: 10.4% of nominations across all categories from 2013-2019 were women, “a gender ratio of 8.6 males to every one female”. When it comes to women of colour, the gap in representation is even wider; 37% of female Grammy nominees in the past seven years and only 4 out of 871 producers are women of colour or of ethnic background.
In having such a lack of representation, it is harder for women to break into the industry and make changes that are needed to prevent other women suffering from exploitation (sexual and financial) and self-esteem issues. Women will continue to be portrayed in a sexualised manner in order to sell records, and their true messages can lay hidden beneath the large record labels that are not paying attention to their craft, but rather how attractive they appear.
In her new re-release of Red, Taylor Swift duets with Phoebe Bridgers in a song called Nothing New, where Swift questions whether if she will remain desirable as she ages, until the final bridge, where Swift is confronted with a vision of another young woman whose light shines much brighter than hers. In her first verse, she says:
“Girls, go out and have your fun.
Then they hunt and slay the ones who actually do it
Criticizing the way you fly when you’re soaring through the sky.
Shoot you down and then they sigh and say,
‘She looks like she’s been through it’”
Within these lyrics she explores how, when she was young, she was labelled as prudish and encouraged her to loosen up; she avoided using profanity and sexual references within her music to maintain a family-friendly image and reflect her maturity level. As she aged, Swift’s personal growth was reflected within her music by the discussion of more adult themes.
While this seems like a natural transition into adulthood for many, this was met with controversy due to Swift’s debut as America’s Southern Sweetheart: the perfect example of a pure performer and ‘the closest thing music had to a Disney princess’ – positioning her as a stark contradiction to some of her fellow pop contemporaries. Take Lady Gaga, who was accused of being a Satan worshipper for making an ‘offensive mockery of Jesus Christ’ in releases like ‘Judas’, or Katy Perry, who kissed a girl and liked it – these other artists opposed the conservative values of deep, Southern America while Swift fit a much more wholesome ideal.
Ageism is a prevalent issue within the music industry worldwide, especially for women. The older an artist becomes, the less sex appeal they are believed to have. Consequentially, it’s harder to sell albums if they are attracting less of the population and this brings a new level of pressure to younger artists.
“Even their personal lives must be a perfect mirror image of their onstage personas because they are never able to stop being a popstar.”
Within the K-Pop industry, female artists are subjected to weekly weigh ins to make sure they maintain a certain weight and are closely monitored within their personal lives as well to ensure they maintain an idealised image, all to fit in within South Korea’s societal ideal of how a young woman should conduct themselves. In addition, Little Mix, the UK’s most successful girl group who recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary and has suffered severe criticism about their image over their decade in the spotlight.
All members have talked about the pressures that being in a girl group at such a young age has had on their mental health in trying to maintain an ideal girl-group image, but they have shed that pressure to become more unapologetically themselves in recent years, which has not always been well received. This theme of pressure to look a certain way has been documented by many female artists over the year – even their personal lives must be a perfect mirror image of their onstage personas because they are never able to stop being a popstar.
A lot of stigma comes attached to being a young female artist: it is often expected that they do not write their own music, that they are forced fed lyrics that they do not understand or mean, like their music has no significant value or message behind it – when, often, I think women have the deepest stories to share. We feel a particular pressure to fit an archaic, patriarchal ideal of what a women should be or we live in fear of sexual harassment, all while there is public discourse over what we should be doing with our bodies.
Whether that be abortion, clothing choices, forcing bridal magazines and baby names upon us, or not accepting our way to express our own femininity (especially for trans women) – we all share a struggle that musicians are able to capture and highlight in a beautifully creative way, bringing these issues into the spotlight for the whole population in a digestible format.
We need to strive for better representation within the music industry. While the powerhouses like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish – who talk about issues like sexuality, depression and heartbreak from a refreshing point of view – continue to break the mould, there is much more work to do to allow women within this harsh industry to flourish. Like with every aspect of life where women have suffered repression: it’s getting better, but we can still do more.
Sophie is a first-year student studying BA Media, Society and Culture from Birmingham. Her biggest areas of interest in media and journalism are breaking down stigmas surrounding feminism, mental health issues and sex positivity. She also enjoys writing and painting. Find her on Instagram: @soph_mouzakitis and on her blog, The Periodical: https://www.theperiodical.uk/