Can music really empower women?
Tess Davidson explores whether women can really take ownership of music in today's world. Providing us with a track of empowerment, she also interrogates the statistics and stereotypes, searching for artists who are dismantling the patriarchal structures, one chord at a time...
Music has always been the secret ally of women all over the world. Strength, independence, confidence in who you are; it’s the ultimate source of empowerment. In a society that is constantly poking and prodding our bodies, demanding that we fit with a different trend every season, music is a way to rebuild the shattered pieces left in the wake of unrelenting beauty standards. It’s a celebration of skin colour, of cultural heritage, of varying body types and an opportunity to reclaim ownership in how you want to define yourself. Dodgy music videos out of the equation, the minute you put those earphones in, there is only you and the music; the lyrics are there for you to reimagine and reinterpret according to your own needs.
And it is these needs that are increasingly being recognised by the artists themselves. Sexuality, complex relationships and mental health are just a few of the themes artists are making accessible to their listeners. There’s Halsey’s 100 Letters which explores the difficulties of walking away from an abusive relationship; Possum Plows, the singer of Auckland pop-punk band Openside, who celebrates their trans identity; and then there’s Kesha, living testament to the abuse experienced at the hands of the industry, whose recent album Rainbow reveals how she turned this emotional turmoil into a source of strength.
Yet the difficulty is that the industry refuses to change. As producers of music, women are few and far between. While there are efforts to encourage greater diversity - the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) is a not-for-profit that trains women in sound careers - men still hold the vast majority of technical jobs. It’s hard not to be demoralised by the fact that as an industry, it is predominantly male and white. Only 5 per cent of people involved in the production of music, film and television are women. And it’s reflected in the statistics for the artists as well. Only three solo female performers have won The Mercury Prize throughout its entire 22 year history.
As Joy Lanzendorfer’s article for The Atlantic explains, this means that virtually of the music we listen to has, at some point or another, been shaped by a man. In a recent interview Claire Boucher, who performs under the stage name Grimes and is known for her open feminism, described her own experience of this masculine world. Writing, producing and engineering all of her own songs was not without its difficulties: “I’d like to be able to go to work and not be asked on a date. I’d like to go to work and be allowed to touch the computer.”
Even for those few women who do establish a reputation for themselves as producers, it is often only in the wake of an already established and successful music career. Ms Dynamite, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill are just a few examples of such women and even then their attempts weren’t without opposition. In Lauryn Hill’s debut album The Miseducation of Ms Lauryn Hill - largely viewed as not only a classic but one of the greatest albums of the 1990s - Columbia Records had been looking to bringing in an outside, male producer. They soon conceded to her writing, arranging and producing her own album but as she later explained: “It would have been more difficult to articulate to other people. Hey, it’s my album. Who can tell my story better than me?”
It’s not as though there isn’t the demand. The guitar-maker of Fender revealed that in 2016, 50% of their sales were to women. Even the world of academia can’t have enough of female musicians. In 2014, Rugters University in New Jersey started the class ‘Politicising Beyonce’ in its department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Meanwhile, Copenhagen University has just announced its new course on Beyonce, Gender and Race. Such courses further reveal how empowering female identity through music also carries the ability to encourage discussion surrounding further aspects of our identities such as race. Solange’s Seat at the Table is perhaps one of the most definitive recent examples of this.
So what does it actually mean to be empowered through music if the industry is so set in its ways? It’s clear that sexualised and gendered tropes still sell incredibly well in popular culture. Yet it’s also evident that to be confident in your womanhood is about more than just a male-female hierarchy, with femininity trumping masculinity. You don’t need to emphasise overt femininity to somehow maintain confidence as a woman. Nor can we avoid the gendering of music or the inevitable stereotypes that pervade music videos. After all, as sexualised as Rihanna’s music is (S&M was banned in 11 countries) it’s clear that it’s on her own terms. Rihanna liberates women from the stereotype that they can only be sexy if they are working in a car-wash with skimpy shorts. In doing so, she reclaims sexual dominance as a female strength.
In acknowledging this strength however, it’s also important not to have musical ability overshadowed by the title of ‘female’. A few years ago, the rapper Little Simz bristled in an interview at the description of female MC, retorting: “I’m an artist. I’m a musician. I’m not someone you can put in a box.” It’s clear that first and foremost, musicians are artists. But their ability to provide a framework for self-care and in particular alleviate women of societal expectations and pressures, is something that can never be underestimated nor forgotten.
There’s still a long way to go in terms of gender equality and it would be naive to ignore the fact that music can also have a negative effect on young girls. Music videos and lyrics are often overly sexualised and misogynistic, while men are inevitably portrayed as dominant. In this context it might seem ironic to see female empowerment. But in terms of an individual relationship with music, especially when you are listening to it without the distraction of a video, you have the power to determine how you want to receive the lyrics. I’m under no illusion that it’s a flawed industry but there is a lot to be said about the female artists silently dedicating themselves to their art and in the process, representing young women and challenging cultural stereotypes. Calling out institutionalised biases doesn’t deprive you of an opportunity to also seek confidence in the musicians who are dismantling those very structures, one chord at a time. After all, as my all-time favourite Erykah Badu sings, “who gave you permission to rearrange me, certainly not me.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tess Davidson is a freelance writer and journalist currently working at the TLS.
You can follow her @tess_davidson.