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Why Now Is Actually a Great Time for Women in Music

Women have always had a voice in music, and it has been getting louder and louder. Now, it’s almost deafening.

by Emma Garland
08 March 2016, 10:08am

You can read all of our International Women's Day content right here.

If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that the music industry has a lot to answer for in terms of its continued treatment of women, and we are all complicit. More stories have washed up on the shores of social media this decade than any other. In the last 12 months alone we've seen global conversations about sexual abuse, as was the case with Kesha’s legal battle against her now former producer Dr. Luke. And also sexual assault, as was the case when Amber Coffman (Dirty Projectors), Bethany Cosentino (Best Coast), Roxy Lange, and others accused publicist Heathcliff Berru of misconduct.

From an institutional perspective, we’ve witnessed increasingly aggressive opposition to the constant failure on behalf of many festival organizers to book diverse line-ups. We also seen cold hard facts about how the upper echelons of the business is still dominated by an overwhelming majority of old white dudes, which can’t be doing anything to ease the circumstances in which women are routinely exploited, belittled, and silenced. If that all sounds like a bleak picture, that’s because it is, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. From the mainstream to the underground, music worlds are rife with subconscious and overt sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, and not much has changed in that regard except for one major difference: we know about it now, and we’re not having it.

“Girl Power” is a loaded phrase. It being to be used in the late 80s/early 90s, became popularised by Bikini Kill after they used the phrase in fanzines, and was later utilised by a whole bunch of indie bands including Helen Love and Shampoo. Most people, of course, recognize it as a Spice Girls’ catchphrase—something that, for a time, was spelled out in glitter on a tank top and sold in Tammy Girl. This sparked a whole conversation around whether the concept of “girl power” could actually be a revolutionary social movement if it was also a marketing tool, especially considering Spice Girls were put together and managed by men.

The same conversations happen today every time Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, or any other global female pop star releases a track or video that appears to be celebrating women. Whenever feminism “trends,” commercial pop is never far behind. But regardless of where you stand on that, you can't deny that discourse about fundamentally feminist issues has taken on a whole other level that didn’t exist before—partly thanks to social media, partly thanks to the passing of time. Current discussions of feminism have evolved, and “girl power” can feel a little simplistic in an era of intersectional feminism and more nuanced ideas about what womanhood actually means. When former republican-friendly Disney princess Miley Cyrus launches a charity to help LGBT youths disproportionately affected by homelessness, Charli XCX has a BBC documentary addressing sexism in the industry at large, and Beyonce samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, performs in front of the word “feminist” in all caps, and lowkey donates millions to Black Lives Matter, the political expectation on the pop world has never been higher.

The outcry over the judge’s decision to deny Kesha an injunction against Dr. Luke was overwhelming from all sides: fans protested outside the court, celebrities made public shows of support (the first award at the Brits this year was given to Adele, and one of the first things out of her mouth was, “I stand with Kesha”), the media paid attention, and the hashtag #FreeKesha has been trending since. Those who spoke up for Kesha—Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Sam Smith, Best Coast, Halsey, Lily Allen, and countless more—really didn’t have to, but they did anyway. In fact, they probably did so at their own risk. In an internet-free world, they would have had to run it by management first, or make a point of going on TV or radio to make a statement—all of which are options likely to end in roadblocks. With that barricade removed, women’s (and men’s) voices are now at their own fingertips, at least in theory, and that can be a very powerful and meaningful thing.

Naturally, advances in mainstream conversation are often watered down versions of the more radical ones happening on an underground level. G.L.O.S.S. released one of the most important demos of 2015 in the form of five brutal and forceful transgender anthems; labels like Tuff Enuff Records and venues like DIY Space for London have been working to elevate the voices of queer, non-binary, and otherwise marginalised voices in the UK; rap has been utilised as an outlet by women around the world from Zimbabwe to Guatemala to Reykjavik to speak out against oppression and be heard; MIA continues to be one of the biggest political forces to reckon with; Peaches has been pushing the envelope on sexuality and womanhood for almost two decades... I could go on, but the list is quite literally endless.

But the conversation is important at all levels, and now that we're beginning to see pop bringing something more authentic to the table, there is a definite shift in tone across the board. Two years ago, Against Me!’s masterpiece Transgender Dysphoria Blues—released after vocalist Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as transgender in 2012—was met with unanimous critical acclaim. Tackling issues of gender dysphoria, transition, and identity, it debuted at number 23 on the Billboard 200, the band’s highest debut to date. If that's not an example of revolutionary change, I don't know what is.

Things may not have evolved too much in the industry so far as the business side is concerned, but the politics of the artists, their music, and the conversation around them is radically different now. You can’t book 97 percent male bands for your festival and escape criticism anymore, you can’t tweet transphobic bullshit and expect nothing to come of it, and, recently, the increased willingness of people to speak out against sexual assault has created a culture in which abusers are finally being held accountable too. Following allegations beginning with Amber Coffman, Heathcliff Berru stepped down as the CEO of Life or Death PR. Why? Because so many people believed the women who came forward, stood with them, and published in-depth reports investigating the issue.

The music industry can be an isolating place for women, but we’re finally starting to get to a place where people are sharing, listening, and discussing the issues that have been there all along, and that’s a good start. This year, we should celebrate that and keep pushing forward, whilst also being mindful of the fact that progress has slowed in many places across the world, and there will always be problems in need of dismantling. The more noise we make in dismantling them, the better. Women have always had a voice in music, and it has been getting louder and louder. Now, it’s almost deafening. Happy International Women's Day!

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You can read all of our International Women's Day content right here.

women in music