When I was younger, (much younger) I remember my sister excitedly telling me about this great new “girl band” she had seen on TV. She went on and on about how cool and tough they looked. It turns out she was talking about the Spice Girls. Though I ended up liking the Spice Girls quite a bit, (hey, I was young) I distinctly remember the disappointment I felt at seeing that they weren’t quite the serious musicians I had pictured in my mind. I had pictured a band, with each member playing an instrument like the guitar, bass, drums, maybe a keyboard or something like that. I imagined at least one of them wrote music. You know, the sorts of things one imagines a ‘band’ to do, except this time they would all happen to be girls.
I had that same feeling of disappointment earlier this week when I followed a link to this list. To summarize, it is a list comparing musical heavyweights (so to speak) with musical lightweights- bemoaning the fact that the lightweights have achieved greater commercial success than the heavyweights. The thing that immediately struck me was that every last one of the heavyweights were male, while the majority of the lightweights were female (6) or mixed sex (2). Only 4 of the lightweights were male.
Now I’m not about to argue that Ke$ha is a better musician than the Beatles, nor am I going to quibble with any one of the comparisons. But I find it telling that when looking for an example of serious, deserving musicians the result is, without fail, male. And when looking for an example of cheap, shallow, undeserving, popular musicians the results are majority female- disproportionate to the percentage of female musicians that make the top 40.
The same way I felt disappointment to find that the Spice Girls weren’t really a band, I often find myself disappointed with the scarcity of Serious Female Musicians. In part it is simply a problem of advertising. There are lots of female musicians out there and they quite often find it hard to get the publicity needed to gain real notoriety. Too often their music isn’t judged on it’s own merits but is instead judged by the appearance of the musician. (Something many male musicians never have to face.)
Even in the world of classical music female musicians face many obstacles to being taken seriously and receiving the credit they deserve. For example:
Using data from the audition records, the researchers found that blind auditions [where the performer is not seen by the judges] increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.
At the same time, it doesn’t feel quite right to be telling female musicians that, if they want to be taken seriously and be respected then they need to write the same sort of music men do, and they need to perform it the same ways men do. In other words, we shouldn’t be telling women that if they want to be successful then they must act like men. Instead we should be expanding the definition of respectable, serious music to include the sorts of music women make and the sorts of music women like.
Earlier I said that I wasn’t going to quibble with any of the comparisons, but I changed my mind. #7 says that Shania Twain’s Come on Over sold more copies than any Queen, Nirvana or Bruce Springsteen record. While Queen and Nirvana aren’t really very apt comparisons, Twain and Springsteen aren’t all that different. Both are singer-songwriters, both play guitar and other instruments, both gained some popularity through sex appeal. Yet the only major difference is that Springsteen is a man, and wrote the sorts of music men tend to like, while Twain is a woman whose music appeals primarily to women. Yet, for some reason we’re meant to be disappointed that Springsteen didn’t sell as many copies as Twain.
So why do I care so much about this random list from the internet? I care about this list insofar as it is emblematic of the feelings of a wide segment of the population. No, this list isn’t the cause of the sexism in music, but it is a handy summary of the problem and serves as a good lightning rod for criticism.
Anyways, who are your favorite female musicians?