Opinion: Women In Music – What’s In A Role Model?

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Women In Music

When it was suggested to me that I write something about ‘women in music’, the first thought I had was that this topic was probably suggested to me because I am a woman and I like music. I know a little bit about music – what I like, why I like it – but I do know a fair bit about being a woman, having been tipping away at it for almost 28 years with some modest success.

I know that there are times and places in life where being a woman is easy, enjoyable and conducive to being successful and happy. There are certain people and environments that make you feel like you can do anything you want. There are other times, places and people in life that make you feel incredibly aware of your womanliness in ways that are not so supportive. There are times in life where women feel pressure to act differently, dress up or down, wear less or more, be soft, be tough, say more, say less. All of this can require a lot of thought and planning, and in most cases less comfort than one would desire.

In my mind, the music industry seems to sometimes represent both these positive and negative scenarios. Almost like being in a relationship or an  intense friendship, it can be a place where you can flourish as the most comfortable, successful and creative version of yourself. However, it can also be somewhere where you feel you’re constantly being judged on your words, appearance, opinions and voice – to the point  where all the things that make up your character seem to float away from you as you are trapped in a whirlpool of self doubt. Therefore, it makes sense that in music, as in life, we should look to those who have done it before, and done it well, to inspire us and act as role models.

There have been times in the recent history of music where being in the music industry and at the top of your game– talented, iconic, adored and successful – meant being individual, creative and strong. It allowed for moods, personal disasters and flaws, regardless of your sex. In the late 70s, the glamorous rock and pop music scene was personified through people who still make music and adorn t shirts today –Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Debbie Harry. Charismatic, attractive, glamorous, interesting and extremely talented, they fitted into a scene so cool and so aware of its coolness that they remain icons in today’s music scene. The fact that Debbie Harry is a woman didn’t mean she had to soften up her image and be less controversial, just as it didn’t mean she had to tone down the eye shadow and blonde hair to be taken seriously. She was piercingly good and unashamedly unique, and that worked.

In folk music, where the sadness of the story and the ability of the music to press down on the sore bits of the psyche reigns supreme, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin created some of the most meaningful and beautiful songs of the last century. In soul music, some of the most powerful and influential voices have been women, and Aretha Franklin stands proud as one of the few female singers regularly listed in the top 100 recording artists of all time.  With influences like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, it’s unsurprising that the last 10 years have seen a resurgence in incredibly soulful female jazz singers such as Amy Winehouse, Esperenza Spalding and Paloma Faith.

These are just a few examples of women finding success and iconic status based on the strength of their talent and without compromising their personal integrity. There are other music scenes throughout the last few decades – grunge, britpop and electronica – that have given women opportunities to be centre stage and lead based on their talent and strength of their performance rather than by compromising and conforming to a particular expectation. None of these women were perfect and many, as we know, had extremely sad personal stories. However, their talent was undeniable and incredibly influential.

These days, when one mentions women in music, a lot of the conversation comes back to feminism. Is Beyonce a feminist? Does it matter if Lana Del Rey doesn’t identify as a feminist? Why is being a feminist in the music industry a dirty word? In reality, women in pop music today are often judged for things like allowing themselves to be air brushed, their willingness to pose in underwear for men’s magazines, and shying away from speaking up for women’s rights in case they come across as too serious or ‘man hating’.  Then again, these are often women who are immensely successful due to their own song writing and performance abilities, promote independence and strength in other women and want to live in a world where women have the same rights and opportunities as men. So are they role models? Do they have to be?

This is an industry where male artists make millions and become immensely successful by releasing songs and music videos which depict women in a way that is demeaning and sexist. Record companies and marketing executives see how this works, know there is money to be made from female nudity in music videos and will unsurprisingly go with the old fashioned, but reliable, ‘sex sells’ approach when signing their next act.

Given the strength of industry, tabloid press and the internet scrutiny of celebrities’ lives in modern pop music, it’s unsurprising that there are more examples today of women feeling under pressure to conform, to change their appearance and to control their behaviour. Would our heroes of the past have survived the Daily Mail side bar or Hello magazine? Even music journalism is more ubiquitous and personal than ever before. Twitter and Google are the devil’s playground for famous people with big egos and insecurity to burn.

Some of the most talented and remarkable musicians and singers of the last century have been women, and these women have helped to inspire generations of female artists that have come after them. When thinking about the big questions about opportunities for women in music, the successes, the failures, the triumphs, the embarrassments, I think we should remember that the times we live in make every slip magnified.  Where possible, we should focus on the music being made by women and take the weight of role model off their shoulders. By putting pressure on women to mask their flaws – physical and emotional – we risk dulling the edges of what makes them great, or worse – breaking them down altogether and losing their future brilliance.

  • Thank you for this article Emer. I like the dots that you connected in that record companies are making money from male acts whose art is disrespectful to women. So if a female act speaks up about this issue, they are speaking against their own record label.