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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.


An Eagle takes flight

eagle-57227_1920 Barely a week after David Bowie’s passing, we hear of the death of Glenn Frey, the leader/founder of The Eagles, whose catalog of hits included “Hotel California,” “New Kid in Town,” "Desperado," and “The Best of My Love.”

The Eagles, thanks to Frey, were a band that featured exceptional songwriting—which was unusual for a band that also showcased guitar virtuosity, including the talents of Bernie Leadon, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh at various times. But even more unusual—especially for a 70s country-rock band—was their steel-eyed focus on being commercially successful.

Glenn wanted a band that had everything going for it. “Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good, and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM & FM success. No 1 singles and albums, great music, and a lot of money.” This was a band with a mission—and a business attitude. (See the post I wrote on that, after I caught their Hartford concert last July, on what would be their final tour.) As band mate—and co-writer on many of their hits—Don Henley said this week, “Rest in peace, my brother. You did what you set out to do, and then some."



David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, has passed on.

An artistic giant who was always willing to "turn and face the strange," Bowie knew how to bend the boundaries of rock with radical personal make-overs—becoming the androgynous space traveler, the "white soul" singer, the electronica adventurer, and much more.

But the core identity of this shift-shaping alien was, in my opinion (reflecting my own bias), Bowie the simple rock rebel (if simple could ever be applied to Bowie). Rock & roll doesn't get much better than this...


The Prefab Four

concert-819149_1920Rolling Stone’s cover story last week featured Five Seconds of Summer, the Australian pop-punk-band-that-insists-it’s-not-a-boy-band, whose first two albums of catchy pop tracks have become international #1 hits.

For a band this new and young to hit the top of the charts and get this much media hoopla is quite a success story. But I find other aspects of the story to be more interesting.

For instance, I was surprised to discover the business calculation behind this teen success tale. According to Rolling Stone the band started out in Sydney with a one-year business plan, hatched by their first manager, that clearly delineated the marketing territory the band was aiming for: “Musically, 5SOS can occupy the space between One Direction and McFly.” (One Direction is a megastar UK boy band and McFly is a UK pop band.)

The band also carved out in advance an individual persona for each of the four band members (one would be the mystery man, another the creative one, etc.) Then they fully exploited social media to build up a fanatical teen fan base. (That part was not a surprise.)

But what floored me was finding out that One Direction acquired a 50% stake in 5 Seconds of Summer Limited Liability Partnership. No wonder One Direction tweeted up 5SOS from the start and had the band open for them on their 2014 tour! They had a share in 5SOS's profits.


The forgotten man

pete-seeger-81869_1920It wasn’t a deliberate strategy to make Bob Dylan the centerpiece of this blog over the last six months.

But as 2015 unwound and the world began to take notice of the 50th anniversary of key milestones in rock history, we couldn’t ignore the creative destruction that Dylan unleashed in the summer of 1965 that is still being heard and felt today.

For starters, his mind-bending surrealistic song poem, “Mr. Tambourine Man” became #1 for The Byrds in June of that year, followed by his own sneering six-minute put-town of a socialite, “Like a Rolling Stone,” which hit #1 a month later. The boundaries of pop music were suddenly eviscerated, as reflected by the blockbuster hit records that followed—"Get Off My Cloud,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “The Sound of Silence,” and Rubber Soul. This was no longer your father’s Hit Parade.

But before we put a wrap on the Dylan chat for the year, let’s revisit Dylan Goes Electric by Elijah Wald one more time and note the subtitle of that book: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties. This refers to the July evening in 1965 when Dylan, dressed like a British rock star, mounted the Newport stage with Fender Stratocaster in hand and belted out three songs with a loud electric band to a chorus of boos. This was considered the death blow for acoustic folk music—especially as championed by Pete Seeger—which had finally earned some popular acceptance (and even Top 40 radio play). From then on, rock ruled and many erstwhile folk singers performed with electric instruments and rock arrangements.


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