Women’s History Month Part 1: Moving Beyond Tokenism.

Women’s History Month has ended with over 100 hours of female musicians logged through my daily live streams for the month. I played almost 800 different female artists not including women who were in bands that then went solo. Also some 10 or more languages were heard throughout the month. And close to 75 albums by female artists were featured. And all said and done I have some thoughts and things learned.

But first some context about why I did this to begin with.

I am not a feminist in that stereotyped way bandied about in the news, by celebrities, and on social media. In fact I don’t even use the word anymore because I loathe groups and group think in general. But since I was a teenager I’ve always been very “feminist” about women in the arts in history (especially music) who did exactly what the boys did despite whatever they were told or shown. I once created a list of 1,000 women in all fields working before the 1960s doing the same things as men; race car drivers, medical professionals, botanists, mountain climbers, sculptors…

So whenever I had to defend women and show people that in fact many women were doing exactly what they wanted despite what history leads us to believe and despite whatever narrative is currently being pushed to keep women in the victim lane. But that is a rabbit hole I have filled in and rarely do I dig it out to go back to. It’s just too much shouting, finger pointing, and hyperbolic absolutes. Not to mention a whole lot “shut up” simply because I was born male. The point of this is to say I am very vocal about female representation is music. I have written before about coming upon a blues anthology at a record shop that had only one token female artist out of some 15 + songs. To say nothing of these “best of lists” trades like Rolling Stone trot out where they leave off Sharon Isbisn on the “100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time”. Like in what universe are the people Rolling Stone living in…

When it comes to females in the music world I have noticed, over my lifetime, a hierarchy in what is discussed within the mainstream cultural realm in the west and specifically the U.S.. I emphasize mainstream because because that is where the broadest discussions (and often shallowest and weakest) are had about music and women’s roles in it. Also music nerds, niche genre aficionados, and historians are a different breed and obviously not who I am talking about.

But before we even get to the hierarchy as it related to women specifically it must first be stated unless the women is attractive by the modern standards of the day in which they were recording there is no discussion had no matter the talent present. Unless it is like, Susan Boyle done more out of pity, than actual talent.  That has always been true but is even more so since the MTV era that looks come first before anything else in mainstream music. So after looks, the tier of mainstream discussion in regards to female musicians as I have seen it often goes like this:

1. Vocalists

But really only in the pop, rock, and soul genres and only the big belters. So this excludes world genre icons (Ii.e. Celia Cruz, Miriam Makeba, Lata Mangeshkar). And genres like musicals and operas with folks like Julie Andrews, Patti Lupone, Joan Sutherland etc. And again there is no discussion unless said vocalist is attractive by modern standards. This holds true for both sexes in this day and age but still way more so for women than men. Exhibit A: Ed Sheeran

2. Entertainers/Brand Artists
This means music acts that are more than just their music be it dancing, comedy, stage spectacle, merch, media drama, fashion, eras. And sometimes the brand comes before the music depending on the artist.

Then MUCH farther down…

3. Female Guitarists
But only rock guitarists and MAYBE Bonnie Raitt, sorry Sharon Isbin and Rory Block and Memphis Minnie…  And you will only hear about them in the conversation on guitarists if you direct the conversation or question about women specifically.  Otherwise it is dudes all the way down…

Everything else in my experience is so much father down as to not even register on the radar most of the time in average conversations. Notably, bands with all female members in my experience get discussed only as a single entity not individuals with their own skill sets. For example people will say L7 kicks ass but nobody every really singles out Donita Sparks as great on her own. Wheres as people will talk about Robert Plant, John Bonham, & Jimmy Page separately as musical wizards.

Female members who are not on vocals practically disappear in the discussions even when they are integral to the sound of a band such as Tina Weymouth or Meg White. And it’s really egregious in the case of Meg White because she is one half of a duo. Yet Jack White is the name dropped in the conversation.  The same for The Carpenters where Karen is only remembered for her vocals (and maybe her anorexia) not her drumming let alone the fact she also played bass.

So often it is the default that female artists who sing but also do a myriad of other skills still get whittled down to vocalist and how good they are at it as their main selling point no matter how good they are at everything else. One of the best examples of this I can think of is Teena Marie who played guitar, percussion, wrote her own lyrics, and produced her own albums from the early 80s onward. But people seem to only recognize she can sing and sing like that for a “white girl”. If she is discussed at all.

And remember we are WAY down at the bottom here. Conversely somebody like Swift has her vocals derided but is given a pass because she known as a songwriter more than a singer.  Her skills on piano or guitar are barely mentioned. Similar to Swift in this regard is Carole King. But I find even with somebody as big as Swift or as legendary as King the dialogue is still centered on if the women can sing/belt and can she hit high notes and if not well she can’t be that great musically. Carole King is of a different era where the folk & singer-songwriter scene was HUGE so at the time in the early 70s she was respected as a songwriter, the other skills sets came second or 4th or 8th. This is similar to Joni Mitchell also a respected songwriter whose talents as a guitarist, producer, and arranger get left out of most conversations.  Meaning, these woman are not seen as a whole package but various parts and if one of those parts is lacking it brings down the whole artist.

Meanwhile folks like Prince and Jacob Collier are praised to the rafters for doing multiple things as ONE SINGLE ENTITY even if certain skill sets are lacking it does not impact the overall image. And yet both of those men only sing in English meanwhile Nana Mouskouri whose, sole instrument is her voice sings, in 12+ languages. And yet she NEVER makes any lists in Rolling Stone or any other music publication that I can find. And that is not even counting the fact she is the biggest selling female act of all time worldwide. In part because should sing in so many languages with three octaves no less.

Aside from the women who produce their own albums and music I can’t name any female producers who are just producers. And aside from women who write their own lyrics I can name very few female songwriters currently working who just write songs for a living. *Waves at Diane Warren* I also cannot name any famous female DJs who do remixes or headline EDM festivals.  I can see one in my head but I can’t think of her name, so what good is that.  Also I’ve noticed that for the most part people like Swift and others, for all their feminist posturing seem to only ever seek out male producers and often male songwriters to collaborate with.  Where is the sisterhood here?

But again this is just what I personally have noticed and the trends I’ve seen in my little music bubble. It would take far more rigorous research and studies to really get a better sense of how women are viewed in music and how they themselves interact and participate.

In terms of how I represent or present women on my shows… I have a rule that every stream or podcast I do must contain at least 40% or more female representation. Sometimes that representation is harder to notice because it is a songwriter or producer or even inventor and not upfront lead vocal. Or in the case of Carol Kaye a studio musician who played on hundreds of records but was never in a formal band. And on top of that every March I would often play only female artists around the house and only women on my streams or shows… but over the last few years I’ve drifted away from that because isn’t that just MORE tokenism. One month. And I am acknowledging women in music all year long FAR more than most major music outlets I will add, especially in fields of jazz, country, blues, rock and non western genres. So for me the whole WHM thing feels kind of like MLK day, something we mention to remind ourselves to feel like we care, when we have bills to pay that occupy our minds. To quote the huge 80s club smash by Gwen Guthrie song, “Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but the rent”. Side Note: She wrote the song herself not too commons for club music/dance acts.

But for all my championing of the female trailblazers- like Peggy Jones, Lil’ Hardin, Blanche Calloway, Wanda Jackson (all overshadowed by the men in their lives)- it should be said at this point most of the men that dominated all the dialogues back when I was younger are quickly being lost to history as well and so many others I’ve been playing and raising the roof about over these decades. Bo Diddley, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Cole Porter, even the classic rockers of Led Zeppelin… The music history like history in general gets lost as it does. I try to keep it alive with my work and granted it is mostly western music but I do get in A LOT of non English language material. It just shows how much I have traveled musically and how much my curiosity has led to the legends and trailblazers of other countries like Teresa Teng from China and Violetta Parra from Chile, Brenda Fassie from South Africa, Warda from Algeria and others…

So this March I decided maybe this will be one last WHM hurrah because I can’t go doing this tokenism anymore unless I do it equally for all. So I decided to challenge myself to do a live stream everyday in March. Playing music only by female acts for at least two hours from one randomly selected year.

The other caveat was I could not prepare. I set up the stream and pick a random year from an on-line year generator and go. More on that in a moment. I wanted to go in more or less blind and see how well I knew my own music library. But also I wanted to get a sense of how easy it was to fill two hours with female acts from a given year. Stations like I Heart Radio seem to play the same 40 songs from and entire decade. Not mention radio still seems to have the rule that you cannot play two female artists back to back. So how does it sound playing ONLY female acts for three hours?  Is there a different tone and energy? It would be interesting to do this not in March but out in public on a random day and see if anyone notices I am only playing female acts. Or have a radio station only play female acts for a whole week or month in say October just to see if anyone complains about the lack of men.

Now, while I never picked the year until minutes before going live I did prepare for the possible chosen years by selecting albums to feature for each year that might come up. My parameters were 1953-2013 I feel like music needs to marinate at least ten years before one can properly asses it’s impact. That is why I stopped at 2013. Also 1953 was about the year proper albums really started to take hold and it wasn’t too many years later the Hot 100 was brought into the culture. Now, while I felt those parameters were fine overall there was half a century of women in music not being showcased.  So I did allow myself to deliberately pick a one off from the 30s/40s.

Along with album features to center the episode around for the bonus beat at the end of each show I selected a debut, be it an album, single or possibly even a film or live performance. All the debuts were from acts who would ultimately have wider influence on the music culture and in some cases culture at large. But it was also important that the debut albums be at least decent albums because every icon has their first album but it may not be iconic or in some cases, even good. And trust me there were PLENTY of great debuts to select from so it was a non issue.

The idea of having album features was a way to showcase more than just a bunch of singles/hit songs by women in a given year. It was a way to get a little deeper dive into an iconic album an artist and see how that work sat alongside other work of the chosen year. It can often times feel like I am giving artists short shrift with one song. Also outside album features I did not want to repeat any artists in a single episode as that felt to me like a cop out. Besides I KNEW there had to be enough women to fill out the shows, especially if we took a Pan Am flight anywhere outside the English speaking world and included non-english acts. The one other preparation I did was having the Billboard and UK charts on hand to reference and to make sure I did play some out and out classics and bangers. This also helped me get some context on females in music over the years and their presence or sadly lack thereof. I will have more to say on the charts in Part 2.

I began recording the daily streams starting March 1st. Streams were held at either 11AM or 7PM depending on my schedule that day. It was chaotic and messy. I could search by year, which helped tremendously but also I didn’t just want a bunch of whiplash lane changes the whole stream. So trying to connect often very dispirate genres meant I would think of a song last minute or put on the wrong song entirely. So that also meant editing the show in post, which was fine but it was more a little more work. And when dealing with anything before about 1965 finding enough women would get really dicey (especially when you are trying not to just drown an episode in vocalists). So I’d have to research on the fly and see if maybe there was something from say Brasil or Argentina or elsewhere I overlooked. This is also where all of the music compilations and anthologies I’ve been collecting over the years came in handy. Multiple artist bang for the buck.  Theone major musical arena I was not able to showcase was female classical composers or soundtrack composers.  Though some classical soloists got played and Maria Callas showed up for one of t he debuts.  I just did not have the right stuff researched to do it proper so I may have to do a Bonus Beat(s) episode dedicated solely to that.

My intentions with each set was not some cohesive genre show but more of a showcase of a wide variety of sounds. A snapshot of a time period. Like I’ve said I play songs not so much as comfort or background action but as an active, “Hey, check this out”. And then you the listener can go where that journey takes you. There are many many many artists (especially icons from other countries) I did not feature on these shows that I would have liked to but again it was live and in some cases we just never hit the right era like 1923. Also, I must confess that while it may often seem like it, I do not have every song ever. There were extended club mixes and remixes and foreign covers of English songs and vice versa that would help me fill out the time allotment, and my “hit from hell” slot is always amusing and popular and done with love. I never play a song I hate.

And now that I am done I can say the experience was amazing, amusing, enlightening, and surprising. I came to appreciate some artists and albums more than before and learned of a few women new to me to add to the icon list. But in terms of the feminism of it all I felt nothing… because as I said I’m playing female artists constantly all year long from such a wide variety of genres and sectors in music that really the only thing that felt special was that I completed my task of 31 days of streaming women in music for at least two hours. 31 shows PLUS a couple bonus episodes.

Me keeping these great names in the trades is totally a passion for me but I am under no illusions that this is not making any headway in the “real world” and that it IN NO WAY changes the systemic issues women face. It is, for however long these streams remain on-line and in the world, now part of history and part of women’s history. And so should somebody stumble upon these streams who knows nothing of the legacies of women in music I dare say this is great anthology of females to start with. Even if the foreign acts and deep cuts don’t resonate with listeners I concede the most straight ahead pop sugar has something to offer and some place for further discovery. And so to do the charts for all their flaws and that leads me neatly into Part 2.

2 Comments

  1. Thankyou for insight into my latest obsession … I can’t get over the extra Irish episode.

    • Thanks I am glad you enjoy it. If you would like to contribute your own set of ten songs on a theme feel free to contact me and we discuss it further. I love to have contributors.

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