Pop music's woman problem

audio-15936_1280We’ve talked before about the diminished role of women performers in early rock and pop—a problem which finally began to improve, beginning in the 1970s.

Given where we started, I’ve argued, it’s no small accomplishment to have so many talented women among the ranks of today’s pop stars, including Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Hayley Williams (of Paramore), Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Adele, to name a few.

I’ve even made the point that pop music has been doing better than mainstream business in making stars out of women. It’s still an embarrassment that in 2016 only 4.2% of S&P 500 companies have women executives and 19.2% have women on boards!

But I confess I wasn’t looking hard at the record chart data. After doing a little digging I could see that in the last two decades women singers (or bands featuring women vocalists) rarely accounted for more than a quarter of the hits. (In 2015 Taylor Swift and Adele were the only women with #1 hits!)

Articles such as “Why Are There So Few Women on the Top 40 Chart?” in Fusion and “Same As It Ever Was: Women on the Hot 100” in Slate tell the same story: women performers, despite some progress (and a brief spike in 2014), have been consistently crowded off the charts by men.

Country Music has long been castigated for its own "woman problem"—as reported here and here. One Country Radio consultant made the now-famous comment:

Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.

But despite the brouhaha in Nashville, the problem is not limited to Country Muisc.

Makes me wonder if the under-representation of women in positions of power in mainstream business (and society in general) is even MORE deeply rooted than we want to admit.

To be continued, of course.

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  1. The source of the problem in business seems obvious.

    In music, though, perhaps what sells is due to who's buying.

    As a mystery writer, if I ignored the fact that 73% of books are bought by women, I'd be in deep trouble. So, my protagonists are male (until late this year when Jade Monaghan makes her debut.)

    I don't know if the music charts are as subjective as the nonsense which is the New York Times Bestseller List, but if sales determine music charts, aren't we blaming music lovers for the gender inequity in the charts?

    I posit all this from a position of near total ignorance, so please, educate me. I'm here to learn.

    1. A majority of music buyers by most measures are women, usually by a 5% margin, according to the numbers I see. One might assume therefore that women consumers are creating a demand for more male performers. But the top female artists (like Adele and Taylor Swift) have more women buying their product than men. So it's more complicated than it looks.

      Should we blame music lovers for the gender equality on the charts? Only if they're offered a fair choice. In the case of Country Radio, consultants and programmers say they're so certain that listeners don't want more women artists on the airwaves that they actively limit their number. (For instance, you don't hear many female country artists played back to back on radio.) Maybe it's a similar mindset in the other genres.

      I have to admit that I totally missed this and am just now starting to get up to speed on it.

      1. Appreciate your points; thanks.

        Back to back female artists: understood. I created a Tish Hinojosa channel on Pandora, and it still catches me offguard when the next artist is another woman.

        Watching old jazz performances, I'm also struck by the dearth of women playing instruments. Singing, all kinds. But a female clarinet player or drummer?

        I had a chance to chat briefly with Carol Kaye. She had, by then, moved beyond bitter about Joe Osborne and others nabbing her album credits, and sound more wryly amused. But when she discovered that her work with Simon & Garfunkel was why I wanted to be a bass player that was a plus.

        Tell you what, around our house, the female half of the team gets boatloads of respect.

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