What’s Up With This? Wednesday: Women in Music

Where are the female Beatles? The female Elvis Presley? Or the female Bob Dylan? Why have so few women made an impact on our popular music culture? There have been many biopics made of male singers and musicians, but hardly any of women. Is it because women aren’t as talented? Or as determined to get ahead in the business? Or because they haven’t been given the chances and the promotion that men have been given? Or are we just more interested in men than in women?

It’s not that women are totally ignored. They have always sold plenty of records. It’s just that they seem to fade from the public’s consciousness as soon as their heydays are over. In my day there was Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Carol King—who even knows those names today? Even the better-known names like Janis Joplin and Joan Jett have never been given the accolades that their male counterparts were given.

Women have always fared better in country music for some reason. There have been movies made about Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, for instance. I have a theory about that. The bulk of country music is about topics that are popular with women: love won and lost, getting over (and getting rid of) a love gone wrong, family values, etc. So female country singers are competing on the same playing field as the males are.

The same is somewhat true in blues and R&B—at least when you’re just thinking about singers. There’s Billy Holliday, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Etta James, for instance. But as soon as you start naming famous blues musicians (specifically guitarists), women seem to drop off the radar. Who is there to compare with Stevie Ray Vaughn or Buddy Guy? Is that just because women aren’t as capable of or as drawn to playing the guitar? Or because they can’t get the support—and record deals—that men can?

The situation is even worse for female composers (dead and alive). Can you think of any?

Music isn’t the only field where women are under-represented. But when you think about how music permeates and shapes our culture, it is a little unsettling that women have (seemingly) contributed so little to this process. The strange thing is, topics that women relate to are very popular (even the Beatles started out with “She Loves Me, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”), but they are co-opted by male singers and musicians. Just like white singers used to co-opt the music of black singers.

Let’s face it: sexism and racism are a lot alike. Both are fueled by the white male’s feeling of superiority. Music producers (who are usually white males, at least until recently) control who gets recorded, and they seem to believe that men will sell better than women. If you doubt that men and women are treated differently, look at the music scene.