Women’s History Month Part 3: The Jagged Little Pill

One of the realities of doing such a live stream marathon and looking at the charts is that in my opinion you come to see that 70-80% of the hits are on a spectrum of decent, average, well rounded material made for mass consumption. The remaining 20% is split between 10% absolute dreck 5%-8% above average material and the rest stuff that makes die hard music fans and music nerds, musics NERDS. It also brought about the stupid notion that once something got popular it was no longer good as if the masses just always have bad taste.

Maybe something IS that good AND has that broad of an appeal. I hate hype more than anyone I know but when you’ve been doing this as a long as I have you learn some music IS just better than other music… objectively. We make those kinds of decisions all the time when we listen to music. And so sometimes the mainstream pop thing is actually pretty good or even really good. I changed my views on Katy Perry’s, “Teenage Dream”, which I loathed at it’s zeitgeist simply because people were losing there minds. But over 10 years on I think it is one of the great pop records of all time. And certainly the best from that period. Yes better than Beyoncé or Lady Gaga because it has no filler and it doesn’t posture as anything more than the party music it wanted to be. It was factually filled with all bangers and no mash.

But much like comedy films at the Oscars, music award shows dismiss pop…. And it isn’t easy to create pop that has mass appeal, isn’t completely grating, and holds up over time against it’s peers and even more lauded work.

Conversely, I have been trying to teach people that you can NOT enjoy listening to an album while still appreciating it’s impact and greatness and say so.

You may think this to be a no-brainer and easy to do but one visit to any music sub on Reddit or even music comments on twitter… The quote, “Shhh… Let people enjoy things”… Yeah well, “Shhh… let people not enjoy things too.”  In my opinion if you don’t like an opinion on something you love either start a meaningful debate or move on.

Also people, especially genre snobs and music theory types seem to equate complexity with better.

*Blues and country music wave, “Hello”*.

It is not necessarily better because it is more complex. I find personally if an artist makes something complex you can still tell if it has no lived experience like heartbreak or addiction or racism or growing up in war zones. And if it doesn’t have that lived experience I find it just sits there saying, “Look at me I’m a good boy, right?” Or comes off as merely precocious.  Not offering anything beyond some novelty or spectacle for the sake of novelty and spectacle.  This is why Jacob Collier for all his music theory wizardry does nothing for me, it feels more like a parlor trick, personally.  Come back to me after he’s had a year long cocaine bender and and gone bankrupt.

When it comes to best of lists be it year end or decade roundups and genre lists it is no surprise to me that male acts always come out on top and often clogging the top twenty of the entire list. There are many factors here but one is definitely, as we saw with the charts, more men were making music overall over the last 60+ years albums have been a thing. So the odds are in their favor. So, from The Beatles, to Nirvana, to Radiohead, Marvin Gaye, Kendrick Lamar, to Pink Floyd the same male names show up over and over. Off the top of my head Joni Mitchell is the one female name I can think of that gets into the top 10 and MAYBE Beyonce or Björk or Kate Bush in more modern times.

And while I have no evidence here, sometimes on lists it feels like women are present only to say, “Look we didn’t exclude women”. Not that they have any knowledge of the music women have been producing for the last 100+ years let alone listened to most of it. For example, I’ve met plenty of folks who listen to John Coltrane over my life and yet have only known ONE person who has said they know of and listen to Alice Coltrane.  Thankfully Betty Davis fares a smidge bit better when talking about Miles Davis.  But Lil Hardin have never been spoken by anyone but me in my circle even if her husband Louis Armstrong comes up, despite performing in his band and composing some his biggest earliest hits.

When I think back over the larger culture, there is no better example of this kind of female exclusion than in the blues sphere where is it Robert Johnson all day all night… but in his day Robert Johnson in the mid 1930s was not known like he is now. The legend and mythology was not there yet. In the early 1900s, it was acts like; Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Maimie Smith, Sippie Wallace and others… all black female blues singers and songwriters who were the icons and superstars that controlled the narrative around popular music. As an aside despite what the history says as written by men the 1920s compared to previous decades and even those that followed was GREAT for women creators, inventors, scientists and artists.  It was called the “roaring twenties”  and many of those roars came from females.  I strongly recommend you should check it out.

You had black female artists dominating the popular music world at the birth of the recording industry! Before Duke Ellington, before Louis Armstrong, before Glenn Miller and WAY before Elvis or The Beatles and of course Robert Johnson himself. I am not sure why, when, or how the shift came where women got more and more sidelined and excluded in the mainstream music dialogue and it’s history but I’m sure it involved Wall Street because in my lifetime I’ve learned it always involves Wall Street, which then much like now is controlled by men.  “Follow the money” as they say.  And apparently the men who have all the money.

So alas, the sausage fest continues as it has. In fact there were so many sausages at one point that music trades and other media outlets had to start creating best of lists just for women! I remember in 1999 when VH1 created it’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll list because their original list had two women on it. And they used the term “rock ‘n’ roll” so loosely to the point it held no meaning and they should’ve just said 100 Greatest Women In Music. This was likey because nobody on staff could come up with 100 female rockers by the narrow definitions rock has accrued over the years. Also they were doing their VH1! Diva’s Live series, which was mostly pop ladies. And that was peak Lilith Fair so I think it was branding tied to that era.

VH1 updated their original list in 2010 added I think 8 more women. The did a second list of just hit making females in 2012 and still managed to find practically no women besides vocalists.  I swear sometimes it’s like these people don’t even try.  And I know one could still pander and find plenty of women beyond just vocals.

Now, I don’t have time to examine critics lists over all these years to see how women fared in that sphere.  however with all the lists I’ve seen just trust me if you remove obvious pandering and tokenism it’s better but still mostly a nice assortment of sausages.  That said, I can look at sales numbers. So let’s go have a peak at that. And keep in mind these are world wide sales numbers.

Out of the 10 albums that have sold over 40 Million albums, Thriller is on top having sold an estimated 70 million. That is an anomaly of time and place. And honestly, between you and me… it is a perfectly great pop record. But that’s about it. Next is AC/DC with Back in Black, think of it as the Thriller of rock records. There is Pink Floyd with Dark Side Of The Moon and The Eagles with their Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack (with one female on it) and Meatloaf. In terms of women in this category, we have The Bodyguard Soundtrack, Shania Twain’s Come On Over, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.

Only one of those is a solo female. Though, most of the hits from The Bodyguard Soundtrack were by Whitney and Rumors is one of the greatest albums of all time. An album where the lion’s share of the songwriting was done by Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks (both of whom wrote all the hits on this album). Come on Over was the Teenage Dream of the 90s and unstoppable monster. And while it did not log as many hits as the latter (only 4 of the TWELVE singles went top 10) it sold those numbers because Twain released both a pop and “country” version of the album to appeal to more markets. And the “country” version logged 8 top ten singles on the country charts. Personally, the “country” version earned those quotes.

Further down, selling over 30 million we start to see The Beatles, more Michael Jackson and a number of Greatest hits compilations from folks like; Bob Marley, ABBA, & Madonna. Celine Dion logs two pop records in this category and Adele shows up with her debut 21 (from an era when physical sales were trending way down). But of these albums selling over 25 million. There is only one female artist to sell over 30 million and she is sitting quite nicely just below Led Zeppelin IV with Jagged Little Pill. So the juggernaut albums from male rockers definitely are the kind of albums that show up on greatest albums of all time lists. The women… not as much. Madonna’s best selling non greatest hits package is her least talked about 80s record True Blue. A solid pop effort and far superior to Like A Virgin in my opinion, which failed to make the 20 million category.

Also in that category is plenty of pop from Phil Collins, to Whitney, to The Spice Girls, Mariah Carey, and Backstreet Boys. Plus Eminem and Nirvana. And while most of the females are straight sugar confections we do have a few very respected albums. Three of which I featured during my live streams, Tapestry by Carole King, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, and Tracy Champman’s self-titled debut.

In fact fact females have a higher percentage in sales of over 10 million for debut records then male acts with Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me leading the pack, selling over 20 million copies more than Guns ‘n’ Roses or Linkin Park. Side Note: I first heard that album on a listening station at Rasputin’s records in Concord and NEW it was going to be a smash.

Other debuts by female acts on this list include:
Ace Of Base – The Sign
Cyndi Lauper – She’s’ So Unusual
Avril Lavigne – Let Go
Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey
Dido – No Angel
Lady Gaga – The Fame
Christina Aguilera – Christina Aguilera
Paula Abdul – Forever Your Girl
Jewel – Pieces Of You
Alicia Keys – Song In A Minor
Fergie – The Duchess
Beyoncé – Dangerously In Love

At the end of it all though most of females are here with pop records. Fleetwood Mac, Tracy Chapman, and Alanis are the only acts people would really consider rock and the gate-keeping types would say Alanis is “alternative” and Fleetwood Mac is “soft rock” and Tracy Chapman is “folk”. LOL!

Another interesting angle to take is following the time line of best selling overall albums because the first million/multi-million selling LPS were all musical soundtracks.

And all of these had prominent female roles/leads.  The first non musical soundtrack to do so by a female or male act was… Carole King in 1971 with Tapestry selling 10 million plus. More so than the any record by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones at the time. And it was dethroned by Saturday Night Fever, which was dethroned by Thriller both disco albums at peak disco saturation.

In the U.S. Madonna has 7 albums (plus three greatest hits and one soundtrack, Evita) to sell over 10 millions copies. Mariah Carey has 6 albums (plus one greatest hits) selling over 10 Million copies. In fact every single album Madonna released in the 80s and 90s including soundtrack albums sold over a million copies in the US alone (without excessive variants and special editions like so many pop stars have today). And every studio record Mariah released in the 90s and 2000s sold well over 5 million.

This shows how well their albums consistently sold despite whatever critics said about them. Both Madonna and Mariah beat out the The Beatles and other male acts in terms of album representation in U.S. sales.  Oh- and The Beatles biggest selling record in the U.S. is also a greatest hits package.

Fun Fact: In the U.S., Whitney Houston’s self titled debut has sold more than The Bodyguard Soundtrack. And Rumors is the biggest selling album in the US by an act to have any female members. Rounding out the top 5 albums from female acts in U.S. sales are Shania Twain mentioned above, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis, and Tapestry by Carole King.

Outside of Michael Jackson’s albums, Faith by George Michael, the Backstreet Boys albums and a couple other pop things here and there most of the biggest selling albums by male acts in the U.S. are greatest hits albums by a wide margin. The only other outlier here in U.S. sales is Garth Brooks. That man is an unstoppable force of country I have to say.

Of the top 50 best selling albums in the U.S. 11 are by women alone (one of those is Patsy Cline’s greatest hits). It’s 12 when you add Fleetwood Mac. If we want bump the number and include soundtracks (i.e. The Boyguard and Titanic with that one song) we get 14 out 50. But out of those 14 it is 10 different acts! Of the remaining 36 albums by males acts 16 of those are greatest hits. With 6 artists showing up more than once, such as The Eagles who appear three times with two of those slots being greatest hits compilations. Now while men show up more in numbers, that stats look better over all for women in this way… 44% of albums by male acts are greatest hits packages. Where as only %8 of female acts are represented by a greatest hits package (see Pasty Cline above, who to be fare was releasing music in a time before albums as we know them took off). Although we know total sales by The Beatles outshines everyone ever both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Looking at best selling albums by year, 1976 is the first time a female act hits the top spot and it is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. Carole King’s Tapestry numbers occur over the course of multiple years. Taylor Swift holds the record for most #1 selling albums by year male or female. Largely this is due to her career occurring during the streaming era and the age of Stans. So record sales are down overall outside of the most devoted of fans, and she has the most devoted fans. Plus Swift is known for really marketing each album as an era and that helps push sales.

Also, how actual “sales” were tabulated has been a confusing mess as best in this era.  Still, she has sold TONS of physical copies more so than any other artist of her era and that is rather impressive and I do think some that is because she just has no worthy competition. The only one coming even close is Adele, whose output has been more sparse. You would think Rihanna with all those hits would show up but she has always been more a singles artist than an album artist.

Before the streaming era Mariah Carey held the record male or female with 2 records at #1 in sales for the year, her self-titled debut and her comeback The Emancipation Of Mimi in 2005.

Of the 10 best selling albums each year from 1960 to 2019 (excluding soundtracks and greatest hits packages) women account for 23% of the albums.  Between 1960 and 1985 only one woman had the #1 selling album in a given year yup… Tapestry in 1971.  In that time there were four years where no female act landed in the top 10 for best selling album of the year.  That would happen only one other time in 1991.  Women had the #1 best selling album in a given year 17 times with 8 of those years being after 2000.  The 90s saw women selling the most albums with five albums reaching #1 in sales in a given year.

And in 1998 they held the top 5 spots for end of the year album sales (this excludes the Titanic soundtrack) with a total of 7 over all for the year.  Men have only held the top 5 spots in years where no women made the top 10.

Of the top ten selling artists of all time only three are women. Most places only list two, Madonna and Rihanna but that is because Nana Mouskouri’s numbers are so hard to tabulate since she sold so much worldwide in many non-english speaking countries with less meticulous records. But the estimates show she is the biggest selling female artist world wide all time (remember she sang in AT LEAST 12 languages). And this is mostly physical sales mind you.  Now this could just drastically is Taylor Swift’s dominance holds in album/concert sales holds.  But again keep in mind the women above it was a healthy mix of album/single sales and touring.  People don’t buy physical copies much anymore and streaming pays paltry sums to all but the biggest acts.

Make of all this information what you will. What I end up coming away with is that despite how much music women have released, the tsunami of male acts is just ginormous throughout history and continues to be as such. And that is a jagged little pill to swallow as a fan of women in music. It’s hard enough to break through that wave with connections and the right nurturing environment for anyone but yeah… how many AMAZING female artists have I missed or passed by. How many female artists just up and quit because they were not getting bought, played, or heard because radio has some -excuse me- fucking quota and you can’t play two women back to back. Or when classic rock gets so narrowly defined it excludes much of classic rock.  Or when country radio just blatantly REFUSES to play women at all.

Sarah Mclachlan proved people want to hear and see female voices in the late 90s and yet I look at festival lines up today and it still mostly males with some pop ladies. And this is why I have my 40% or more rule for my streams and shows. Because it looks like from the outside most spaces still aren’t even trying to include females unconsciously or, more likely, otherwise.  And if the culture at large is just not supporting women in music the damn it I will force it on people just to get it out there.  And even more dour if they aren’t supporting female making music you can sure a shit bet, they are short changing them in all other areas creative areas too.  *Side-eyes best director category.*

This is also why for WHM I was committed to album features each episode to showcase women’s work has been done for quite some time beyond the usual pop tarts and hit singles. And often times the biggest selling albums are not “the best” or most well respected. Just look at any list of greatest albums of all time and compare that to the biggest selling albums of all time.  I mean everyone hate’s The Eagles except for all those millions of people who don’t.

I tried to pick albums that had impact and for many of the years I tried to pick a great mainstream pop album then something more widely respected or critically acclaimed. For the bonus beats I tried to pick debut albums/artists that had impact over the long term be it mainstream impact, larger worldwide impact, or even impact in a niche genre. It could not just be any debut the album. It had to be one I would recommend. So something more than just decent. And sometimes the bonus beat was a debut single and not an album at all. Overall the episodes I featured a total of 70 albums.  Two of which were soundtracks, one musiclal and one opera. Plus I featured two iconic debut singles.

Of all the albums featured in March here are my 10 choice rabbit holes to start with. I feel these are all amazing well rounded albums that are great listen in a variety of contexts. And if you can take a peep at the liner notes they will offer even more rabbits to chase.  And hopefully will add more of these women to your playlists and collections and maybe we can break this cycle of men having most of the say in all genres of music.

Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different
Grace Jones – Nightclubbing
Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Katy Perry – Teenage Dream
Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like A Wheel
Peggy Lee – Black Coffee
Florence and the Machine – Lungs
Teena Marie – Robbery

Here is the complete list of all the features over the 31 episodes.

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