It’s probably unsurprising that the topic of gender in popular music is something that’s an obsession of mine, which is why I was thrilled to read Katie Hasty’s terrific piece in Billboard on the lack of women in the music industry, and how that demographic makeup affects the gender makeup of music that gets signed, marketed, and sold to people. The piece is smart, and it doesn’t pretend to have any answers–her wrestling with the idea of the celebration of “women in rock” and how that can turn into ghettoization of the same is something that I personally struggle with every day, and yes, I am seeing the irony of posting about this today, given where most of our traffic has come from in the past few hours–but there were a few statistics about the state of radio that actually made me raise an eyebrow:
Radio is another key arena worth a look. Adult Contemporary, Adult Top 40 and Top 40 formats are generally considered to be angled toward women. In the Sept. 22 issue of Billboard, six of the top 25 slots on the Adult Top 40 chart are occupied by women; 11 of the top 50 on Hot 100 Airplay; and 9 of the top 25 on Adult Contemporary. Keep in mind, there’s a lot of crossover on these charts. But take a gander at rock airplay, which is typically centered on a more male demo. Four of the 25 slots on the Modern Rock tally have ladies in them (only one with a leading lady: Flyleaf), and out of the 40 on Mainstream Rock, you’re only talking three (Flyleaf, Smashing Pumpkins and the White Stripes).
Obviously, these aren’t scientific indicators, but these numbers raise some interesting questions. Do male critics and radio audiences skew toward music that is typically crafted by males? Do females listen based on gender? Do acts with females in them need to work harder to be heard? Does it matter if the musical act is lead by a female singer or not?
It’s funny that Hasty brought these questions up, because they’re certainly ones that I think about a lot; in putting together my top albums of the year list for 2007, I’ve realized that the four albums that are definitely among my favorites* all have a strong female presence, if not complete domination by women as far as vocals, at the very least. (A perhaps-related anecdote: During my first set on my college radio station, I got chewed out for having a four-song set that had three women-fronted acts; the critique a) wasn’t because all the bands were indiepop and b) wouldn’t have stood had the ratio been reversed at all.) But is that because of who the artists are, or the quality of the music? I’d argue that the quality of the music comes first, but I do know that I’ve had a long-standing affinity toward listening to bands that have women in them, whether it’s because I can sing along with them more easily (well, most of the time) or because of a deeper impulse.
On the flip side, though, I had a long-standing problem with Lilith Fair (and its heiress, the now-canceled Girlfrenzy festival) because their idea of “women in music” seemed to focus solely on frontwomen in music, thus ignoring all of the contributions by the few women out there who were instrumentalists (and yes, even the cliched ’90s “chick bass player” counted on that front), and that was a little too tied up in the ideal of the male gaze (looking at the woman because she was a woman, even if she was backed up by a band that was 100% made up of men) for me to be too comfortable with it. And I think that it’s complicating factors like these–what makes an artist a “woman in rock,” is there really a biological impulse that makes women and men gravitate toward different musics, does this mean that the phrase “tampon rock” will never really go away–that make Hasty’s final question, “Will the industry ever employ and promote enough females to eradicate the Women In Music issue,” one that will probably not be answered to anyone’s satisfaction (especially my own!) for a while.
* Tracey Thorn, PJ Harvey (apparently Pitchfork‘s Joshua Klein misplaced his ears recently), Siobhan Donaghy, Monarch. Subject to change, of course! But I figured full disclosure was important.