2020 was undoubtedly the year of the pop woman. Dua Lipa took us to the future, the past and the club with badass back-to-back electric dance bops. Selena Gomez bore her heart and soul in “Rare,” blossoming into a fully matured woman and singer/songwriter in the aftermath of a decade-long abusive relationship. Taylor Swift pulled not one, but two Beyoncés and served us dreamy, escapist folk and complex teenage love triangles. Megan Thee Stallion reminded us to love our bodies after the quarantine 15 and that there’s always some “Good News” to be had. Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Halsey, Kehlani, Blackpink, Lady Gaga, Rina Sawayama, Lennon Stella, BENEE and Alicia Keys are just a few other artists that blessed us with killer albums last year.
That list almost makes it seem like women are dominating the music industry. Unfortunately, not quite. If you pay attention, you’ll find that the majority of these albums have a few things in common. One: At least one track directly or indirectly responds to sexism. Two: The majority of the songwriters and producers are men. Three: Their audience is almost exclusively women and queer people because most men do not take pop seriously as a genre. Although we live in an exciting time full of fresh and smart female talent, misogyny remains the dark underbelly of pop music and culture, and women in pop are continually forced to emphasize that.
In the feminist banger “Golden G String,” (that one track) on her album “Plastic Hearts,” Miley Cyrus grapples with being a woman in the music industry: “There are layers to this body/ Primal sex and primal shame/ They told me I should cover it so I went the other way/ I was trying to own my power/ Still I’m trying to work it out…” In that raspy verse, she implores us to understand that she is not a sex object, but a person dealing with sexism who’s been pushed around by men in the industry. For Taylor Swift, “Mad Woman” is the dedicated track on “Folklore”: “No one likes a mad woman/ You made her like that/ …You poke that bear till her claws come out/ And you find something to wrap your noose around.” If a woman is “mad,” she sings, it’s because of some man using the gender power dynamic to his advantage. Gaga takes another unique approach in “Plastic Woman,” off her latest album “Chromatica,” describing herself as a plastic doll through vivid imagery: “I’ve got blonde hair and cherry lips/ I’m state of art, I’m microchipped/…Am I your type?” Oof. Other notable examples of women directly calling out men in their albums include Halsey’s “killing boys” and Dua Lipa’s “Boys Will Be Boys.” However, “that one track” combating patriarchy also often manifests in a celebration of the artists themselves, their womanhood and their genre. Ariana Grande’s “Just Like Magic,” Rina Sawayama’s “Comme des Garcons” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body” are all explicit celebrations of femininity and anthems about body image, confidence and independence.
Female artists are always spreading these messages about misogyny loud and clear, but no matter how much fame and status they achieve, it’s not reaching men’s ears. As one popdust.com article notes: “According to data from Spotify, based on a sample of five million subscribers, male users listened to 94.2 percent male artists.” 94.2 percent male artists! In addition, a study from Amplify Her Voice reveals that only 22 percent of popular artists are women, 13 percent of pop songwriters are women and 3 percent of pop producers are women. These numbers should tell us that the music industry is not even close to gender equality and we need to do better. The statistics generally aren’t pretty on the business end either; I’ve honestly never heard of a single female or nonbinary manager. Women and nonbinary people are excluded from the room where the music is written and created, excluded from the room where strategizing promotion happens and ignored once it’s released. That’s unacceptable.
You may notice that women and nonbinary artists are most plentiful in the pop and indie pop scene. Many other genres like rap, rock and country remain fairly male-dominated. You might also recall from aforementioned data that straight men don’t really listen to pop or any women or nonbinary artists. So why don’t men listen to pop? Why is the genre not respected? It’s a complex question. I suspect the answer is thanks to deep rooted misogyny thinly veiled as “an aversion to pop” (and coincidentally, to all female rappers and rockers). The story goes like this: From a very young age, boys are encouraged to master instruments, and girls are not. However, women are notoriously more attuned to their emotions than men due to a culture of toxic masculinity. That skill generally lends itself to a strength in songwriting and expressive vocal performance. Ultimately, the gender binary translated into music equates complicated instrumentation with male identity, and strong lyricism and songwriting with female identity.
It’s the classic sexist logic and reason versus emotion and passion dichotomy, just in music. Thus, pop is deemed feminine, rock is deemed masculine, etc. Of course, the complexity of your instrumentation doesn’t measure the greatness of a song. If it did, pop wouldn’t be one of the most popular and influential genres of all time. People don’t always want to hear 12 chords and random riffs; sometimes they want to hear simple melodies that get stuck in their heads, melodies that are relatable, that they can sing along to. Melodies and lyrics that make you feel something. In pop, melody has priority over instrumentation. That’s not “inferior.” It’s just a different type of musical expression. Because of this sexist framework, artists like Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles don’t have many male fans even though they’re men; their music is considered feminine and therefore inferior because of its pop structure. This binary doesn’t tell the whole story of course. Straight men don’t take female rappers or rockers seriously a lot of the time simply because they are women.
Misogyny is everywhere and defines everything about the music industry. At the meta-level, pop music is not respected as a genre because of its perceived femininity. At the industry level, women are denied a seat at the tables where music and decisions about it are made. At the media level, female artists are transformed into ridiculous caricatures who are always feuding with each other, serial dating, going crazy, etc. And at the personal level, all women experience sexism everyday. Female artists are shouting this from the rooftops in almost every album, and a lot of men still won’t listen. Although it’s an extremely exciting time for gender minorities in music (just think about that list of albums from 2020), there’s a long way to go for more representation. If you’re a straight guy reading this, ask yourself why you may be neglecting to listen to artists who aren’t men. If you’re a straight guy in the music industry, please consider uplifting the female and queer artists, songwriters and producers around you. It’s no wonder that for every brilliant album released by a female artist, there’s a track that has to address sexism, and although I love a feminist jam as much as the next girl, I genuinely wish there was no need for a “Golden G String” or a “Plastic Doll.”