Music is a constant in our day-to-day. It’s a means of communication, expression, and harnesses an environment where we can reach into each pocket of a person’s experiences. Each industry has its disparities, and the payoff for subscribing to what is expected of you in the music industry are seemingly huge. Despite the past few years seeing a rise of women embracing the use of outwardly explicit lyrics in their music - and dominating charts whilst doing so - it has been met with equal amounts of criticism, bringing forth a vital discussion: why are women reprimanded for exploring the same topics through music that men explored for decades?
From the get-go, the playing field onto which women enter the music industry is imbalanced. The USC Annenberg Inclusions Initiative reported in 2022 that the past decade has been one of ‘insignificant change in the recording studio’. Both charts and award recognitions demonstrate significant gaps in terms of who is creating, and who is being rewarded.
Award season cannot always be equated with success, although as a checkpoint for a number of industries, it does have substantial meaning. The same USC report detailed that only 14.2 percent of all nominees (over the five categories of Record the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist, and Producer of the Year) were women, decreasing by 4.1 percent from the previous year. The study also found that overall, only 10 percent of women in the charts over the past decade were women of colour, which begs the question: is the increasing openness in the music being architected by women from underrepresented ethnic groups really worth the outrage being directed towards it? The answer is, and has always been, no.
The women pioneering the music industry as we know it in 2022 aren't doing so with an easy route to the top. It’s a snakes and ladders game of conflicting success and criticism, where the criticism erupts from places of deep disdain and discrimination. Returning to the question of what the ‘correct’ way of navigating such topics in music is, the undeniable answer is that there isn't one. If anything, the ‘correct way’ expected as per the reactions to artists such as Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, and Cardi B is to not do so at all. The openness of women in music is seen as a largely political act. Following the release of ‘WAP’ in 2020, its popularity drew a number of high profile individuals - news representatives, politicians, and popular media outlets - rushing to share their distaste. Male artists have long filled these roles, but the women finally met them in their penmanship they are being branded as threats to feminism and women’s rights, and seen as encouraging the objectification of women.
What does this emotional outburst tell us about the standards that Black women are held to in the music industry? The reality is that these standards don’t stop at the borders of music, music just provides borders for which societal disparities can be ‘appropriately’ framed as artistic criticism.
So, are women destined to speak through metaphors to have their voices heard clearly? To have their art taken seriously? Sex is not the only topic newly being discussed explicitly by women in music. With progressions in the 21st century, we as listeners have become increasingly privy to the inner workings of the music industry and its power dynamics. There have been two instances for me personally in the past couple of years where the prospect of authority over women in music has been displayed as inextricably linked with success. Hayley Gene Penner’s debut memoir titled ‘People You Follow’ details her relationships with different men throughout her life thus far, but the standout in this case are her chapters titled ‘tal’. The first of which opened one question; “where are all the women?”. Perhaps naively, these chapters were one of the first times I’d read such an honest account of the intimate settings involved with mastering the art we listen to. Penner details her experience of having to find ‘musical husbands’, creating a ‘polygamous community’ of a musical network. This was amplified for me when watching artist Jessie Reyez live, where she performed an unreleased song titled ‘Gatekeepers’ with lyrics recounting times where she was told to ‘spread [her] legs open so [she] could be famous’. These are by no means the only instances where women have spoken up regarding untoward experiences with men in the music space, but hidden under the guise of equal experiences, these same women continue to be encouraged to rely on intimate relationships in their professional spaces in order to provide a through line to success.
Women create beautiful music regardless of what they choose to explore within it, that is a fact not to be overlooked. But is their capacity to create explicitly true music being diminished for the sake of an unpredictable audience, and imbalance in the spaces which they create? Is the explicit power in this music being sacrificed in order to create chart-toppers that are digestible, that won’t harness harsh critique?
Credit image: Forbes.com
Written by Amelia Defeo