One thing I have learned from doing the live streams daily and having the Billboard charts right in front of me is that up until even the early 00s women were the minority on the Hot 100 by WIDE margin. Same was true for the UK charts. The best showing females had were on the dance charts but that was almost always as a vocalist or member of a band not as a producer or DJ or instrumentalist. New wave had a few years of bucking that trend when it came to instrumentalists in the early 80s but it didn’t last long. The coming freestyle and house music gave female vocalists all real estate. The adult contemporary chart world is probably second best but it was a lot of ballads and again not too much beyond vocalists, though ladies with the black and whites certainly made their appearances tickling away. And for a brief spans from about 1988 to 2007 on the country charts women really showed up. Though it must be noted it was usually the same 5-6 women but at least some played guitar or banjo and wrote songs. Also the R ‘n’ B charts had decent female presence well into the early 90s but again largely on vocals. In the 90s and 00s the domination of hip-hop and males in hip-hop meant females (especially female rappers) were often reduced to features on hit songs as opposed to their own hits or albums. Also few women were having instrumental hits like Herbie Hancock or George Benson or Kenny G over all this time. Even so the charts show men definitely dominated overall outside some powerhouses like Whitney and Aretha and Beyoncé despite women having some the highest numbers for #1 hit singles.If fact of out the top eleven acts with the most number 1 singles… female acts hold SIX of those spots and 3 of the top 5, with Mariah Carey at #2. Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson are tied with Drake and Stevie Wonder, respectively. This sadly is one of the very few spaces where women will outshine men in the numbers game. All the more impressive considering how many hundreds of more male acts have been making music all this time. And Madonna has the most #1s on any single chart with 50 on the dance chart. She also has logged the most top 10 singles after Drake (who to be fair to Madonna and everyone else, he logged most of his hits in the age of streaming, Madonna earned her hits in physical sales meaning people actually paid for her music). And keep in mind too that the artist with the most #1 hits are mostly from and era before streaming. Including Madonna 5 of the ten artists with the most top ten singles are women. All of them are also in the aforementioned #1 club except one, Taylor Swift (who also earned many of her hits in the age of streaming, but who also has a dedicated fan base that buys the physical copies).
The worst was the rock chart, more on that in a moment, and the Latin charts. Looking at the Latin charts was almost always slim pickings. It is only because of my own musical curiosity over all my life that I have acquired the knowledge of many female musicians in “Latin” music beyond Gloria Estefan, Shakira, and Selena. Still to be fair, Latin music is not my main area of expertise so I can only say what I saw on the charts in the top ten and year end accounts and I am pretty sure there too it is mostly vocalists.
But Bear, you have to look outside the mainstream! Yes, yes- I know this and YOU know this. But we BOTH know the charts are used as the barometer for what is quality music to the average main street music consumer. And by in large unless you were in the industry somehow you only ever saw the top 40 charts or heard about it from people like Casey Kasum. You never saw, say the alternative or dance charts or rock charts. Now they are on-line but they are behind a pay wall. Meanwhile the Hot 100 chart history is free to browse.
The Hot 100 as we know started in the late 1958. And at that time there were four major charts as I see it, the Adult Contemporary, Country Singles, Black Singles (Now R & B), and the Hot 100. And if I may be so bold- with all the name changes over the years of the “black singles chart” I am convinced the Hot 100 by any other name is the “white singles chart”. But that is a whole other forest of kudzu for somebody more informed to machete through.
In 1976 with disco being the all dominating genre the dance/club play chart was created to showcase to industry types what people were dancing to out at the clubs. Now all these charts had cross over with the Hot 100 but often time the biggest hit on the Hot 100 like say, “Dancing Queen” may not have even charted on the dance charts despite being a bonafide dance classic. Or a country song would be HUGE on the Hot 100 but only a minor hit on the country chart.
After the birth of MTV (which was for quite some time dominated by white male rock acts), Billboard created the mainstream rock chart, again a chart nobody outside the industry would ever really see. But it helped rock radio DJs know what to play I guess. And showed what was popular in the rock realm and gave some face time to the new breeds of rock types coming up. I secretly call it the MTV chart considering the variety of acts showing up on the chart in the beginning was MUCH too similar to what was played on early MTV to be coincidence.
At that time you had the usual arena rock like Foreigner and Styx but also there was new wave, post punk, and power pop all vying for spots on the chart. Women of course were almost non existent on this chart. But they did show up every so often with acts like Heart, Pretenders, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar and even Missing Persons, Talking Heads, Quaterflash and other more alternative type acts.
But the rise of glam metal and 80s cock rock helped push out the more “alternative” type acts and anything deemed “too soft” off the rock charts. And mainly female acts were pushed off the chart to the Hot 100 (AKA The pop chart). Men could be soft and still be “rock”. And that basically left you with Heart, Pat Benatar, and Joan Jett having regular hits on the rock chart. Benatar had 8 top 5 hits on the chart. Heart had 7. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts had 1 top 5 on that chart. Oh also, while I am here… Lita Ford had ZERO top ten hits on the rock chart. OK fine. The 80s definitely had some heavy hitters like Van Halen, Journey, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Mellencamp and others who were kicking ass so competition was tough and there just were not that many women rocking it out hard back then in the major label world. That said… The Cars logged six top 5 singles on that chart in the 80s and between you and me MANY of those singles are not really rock songs but -ahem- pop songs with guitar or straight up synth-pop (i.e. Tonight She Comes). But this just shows you what industry types felt constituted rock back then… for male acts. Meaning most industry people didn’t think women constituted rock at all outside of maybe being a gimmick… and certainly they were not rock if they if there was no guitar. But I’ll give some slack here since the chart was new in the early 80s and the music landscape was changing fast and drastically.
But in 1988 things get really odd, and for me really egregious, when Billboard introduces the Alternative Airplay Chart. One would hope this was done to mitigate the dominance of glam metal over all the R.E.M. and Siouxsie Sioux type material that wasn’t the more traditional rock type sound. And to give the more alternative/new wave type acts who’d been pushed to the Hot 100 a space to shine. Speaking of R.E.M. they had a total of of 10 songs in the top 5 on the rock charts starting in 1988. In the same time frame they logged 11 top 5 hits on the Alternative Airplay charts. Meanwhile Tori Amos… logged ZERO hits on the rock chart ever, PJ Harvey ZERO, L7 ZERO, Doro ZIP… and those women and many others like Hole, 10,000 Maniacs, Tracy Chapman, Sinead O’Connor, The Indigo Girls were largely if not completely ignored by rock radio. R.E.M. by the later 80s had been around but not Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins… who logged major hits on both the rock and alternative charts during this time and were DEFINITELY played on rock radio.
I belabor this point because it shows how Billboard and by extension mainstream radio and the music loving world at large see men in rock vs women. The variety of male acts that were allowed and are allowed to make the rock charts and be played on rock radio and alternative at the time and to this day is much wider and more varied than the paltry amount of women showing up on either chart. But especially rock airplay at that time in the 90s. How is it that R.E.M. is deemed rock enough but not Tori Amos? Is not piano more rock (i.e. Elton John) than mandolin. There are no doubt many factors that go into these chart showings but Tori Amos was told nobody wants to hear a women screeching and playing piano when she was shopping around her debut, “Little Earthquakes”. So Extreme’s saccharine “More Than Words” becomes a huge rock hit but “Crucify” is too… what Angry? Raw? Female? Also, “Hazy Shade of Winter” by The Bangles is more middle road rock than anything I’ve heard from R.E.M. so there is that too. And there are many acts from Green Day to Spin Doctors to Hootie and the Blowfish who showed up plenty on both charts and yet and yet… No Doubt anyone? Anyone?
Fun side story: Sometime in the early-mid nineties Sarah Malachlan (another woman screeching at the piano who never had rock chart hits) had an idea for a music festival.
Side note to my side story: In researching this just now I found a recent mainstream article written by a women that listed Sheryl Crow as alternative rock. Like in what alternative universe is she alternative? And alternative to what, cock rock? Grunge sludge? Pop punk??? Why are people so afraid to just label women as rockers?
Anyway, Sarah was told by industry executives that nobody would pay to see a line up of women back to back to back. It would not sell, period. These are the same knuckleheads who say you can’t play two female artists back to back on radio. To quoth Sarah herself.
“Like, I’d walk in and do an interview and they said, ‘Well, we’d love to add this song but we can’t add you this week because we had a Tori Amos or because we added Tracy Chapman or because we added Sinéad O’Connor,'” she recalls. “And it was extremely frustrating. So the beginning of this was just born out of a desire to come together as a community. And it became this — we’re going to break down some barriers. We’re going to prove these guys wrong.”
And this is the same history women in rock bands were telling in the 80s when they went shop their music to radio stations and saw a poster of Lita Ford on the wall and knew they would not be added to the playlist.
The origin story of Lilith Fair I had been told goes like this: Sarah made a bet with executives that if she could sell out the Greek Theater in Berkeley they would let her do what would become Lilith Fair. So for this one off show (and subsequent tour) she had on the bill besides herself, Paula Cole (who was basically unknown at the time outside of backing vocal work on Peter Gabriel’s “US” tour) and Suzanne Vega. Vega was the most well known at the time mostly thanks to a remix of “Tom’s Diner” that was big in the clubs and on the Hot 100. The show sold out in mere hours. For the younger folks, this was 1996 back when you had to go to an actual store to get tickets. And there was NO social media to spread the word. The fact that there was no app for that is kind of astounding. And so the festival was given the green light and the first Lilith Fair outsold Lolapalooza.
So CLEARLY there were lots of people who wanted to hear female voices -AHEM- back to back to back to back to back to back. But it’s been a while since Lilith Fair and music festival’s are still a huge draw… so I apologize… but… I got curious. I looked at the 2023 lineups for the 10 biggest music festivals in the US; Bonnaroo, Bottle Rocket, Coachella, Governor’s Ball, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Rolling Loud, Stagecoach, Summerfest, & Ultra. Taking the top 30 billed acts for each festival (that is 300 acts), out of those 300 only 16% were female acts. As solo artists or in bands. 5 out of the ten festivals listed NO female headliners (acts in the BIG letters).
So Lilith Fair outsold Lolapalooza back in the late 90s and here we have just 10 festivals and women aren’t even 25% of the top 30 billed acts and barely 10% of the headliners. You would’ve thought Lilith Fair was the kind of reckoning statement that would last but clearly it did not. Now in fairness to people who organize the line-ups if women don’t draw crowds well you get acts that will. You can add women all day but if the fanbase is not there the event doesn’t make money. So is it oversight or are female acts just not enough of a draw? And if not, why not? I’ve been to some shows recently like The Surfrajettes and Nikki Lane with crowds of mostly males in the audience. Where my ladies at?
But even back in the later 90s Lilith Fair didn’t make things better for women on the charts. In fact it got WORSE.
The sausage fest of the rock charts continued as it always had. But the alternative charts by the mid nineties with arrival of Blink-182, Korn, and others became another charcuterie shop as the women were pushed out of alternative to straight up pop or the AC chart. Sorry, but “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette is one of the greatest power ballads of all time. And if Aerosmith can make the rock charts with that typical Diane Warren schmaltz, “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”…
OK. I have calmed down somewhat. But let us return to the Hot 100 because as I said that is the chart most people know, follow, and use as a metric in music battlegrounds. In doing my live streams the one year that stuck out most for me is 1960 because that year I had a REALLY hard time finding females to play without repeating an act. It was also the first full year of the Hot 100. In facts I had to actually add some songs in post to fill out my two hour requirement because I couldn’t find enough music in the moment. And on the year end charts, showcasing the biggest hits of 1960, there were only 3 different female acts present and they made up a total of 7 songs out of the top 100 hits for the year. That was staggering to me because it was peak girl group era! But that got me curious about how well women did on the year end charts throughout the history of the Hot 100. Also with many acts, just on name alone you cannot tell if they have female members unless you knew of the band. So one wouldn’t know Sly and the Family Stone had Cynthia Robinson on Trumpet of The Honeycombs had a female drummer or that say Atlantic Starr or The 5th Dimension or The Platters was comprised of male and female vocalists sharing lead and back up duties. To say nothing of Carol Kaye or Candy Dulfer doing work as session players. So just keep that in mind.
Female showings in the 1960s on the year end charts were 99.9% vocalists Aretha brought her lone piano and Bobbie Gentry had a guitar once. The 1960’s numbers were held up mainly by 4 acts; The Supremes and Petula Clark, with Brenda Lee & Connie Stevens doing the lions share of the hit making for the late 50s and early 60s. Keep in mind none of these were all female bands or bands with prominent female members. Lots of girl groups showing up but also some groups with male members like Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Mamas and the Papas, The 5th Dimension, The Cowsills ect. Plus several duets and duos like Sonny & Cher. Here are all the #1 songs on the year end charts by a female artist for the 60s
1967: Lulu – To Sir With Love (This is also the top ten with Bobbie Gentry the only entry by a female that wasn’t merely a vocalist.)
The heavy lifters in the 1970s were Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Olivia Newton-John and disco. In fact disco and AOR in 78 and 79 account for some of the higher showings of females as those were the two genres most represented by women in those years with plenty of one hit wonder dance songs. 1971 the #1 song was, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack which was actually a song from 1968 so no current single by a female act made the top 10 on that year end chart. And again this includes multi-gender acts and duets and acts whose female members may not be the front or lead. And again almost 100% vocalists except for Carly, Carole, & Aretha on piano and Karen Carpenter on drums (though almost nobody I talk to remembers her playing drums). Unfortunately the song that has stood the test of time out of the four below… is arguably what I loving call a, “Hit From Hell”. Though really 3 of the 4 I might lovingly label that way.
1972: Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
1973: Tony Orlando & Dawn – Tie A Yellow Ribbon
1974: Barbra Streisand – The Way We Were
1975: Captain & Tennille – Love Will Keep Us Together
1981 was the first year a women occupied the #1 #2 Spots. #1 being, “Call Me” by Blondie and #2 being Diana Ross & Lionel Richie with, “Endless Love”. It happened again in 1987 when #1 song was “Walk Like An Egyptian” (the first and only #1 by an all female band) and the #2 song was, “Alone” by Heart. And again in the 80s it was largely vocalists but some guitar and singer songwriter crowd. The lions share of the lifting was done in the early 80s by Sheena Easton in the mid to later 80s, Madonna. But HUGE portions of the hits came by the way of duets (there were 34 major hit duets in the 80s). Out all the top ten hits for Madonna in the 80s she only had 1 year end top ten with, “Holiday”. In 1986 Klymaxx became the first all female band to have a year end top 10 single with, “I Miss You” beating out The Go-Go’s and The Bangles. The Bangles were the first and so far only all female band to have a #1 single with “Walk Like An Egyptian” on either the year end charts OR the Hot 100. They would repeat their success in 1989 with, “Eternal Flame”. Of all the year end number one songs listed below, I think we know which one is the most iconic and has stood the test of time.
1980: Call Me – Blondie
1981: Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes
1982: Olivia Newton-John – Physical
1986: Dionne Warwick and Frineds – That’s What Friends Are For
1987: The Bangles – Walk Like An Egyptian
1990 is the first year women held the top 3 spots; Wilson Phillips with “Hold On”, Roxette at #2 with “It Must Have Been Love” (thanks to the film Pretty Woman), and Sinéad O’Connor with “Nothing Compares To You” at #3. In 1994 three of the top ten singles were held by Ace Of Base; #1, #9, #10 making them the only act male or female to do so in the Hot 100’s entire history, though they were a mixed sex act. Los Del Rio is listed as a male duo but the hit song features prominent female vocals on the verses and beat out the Mariah Carey and Boyz II men juggernaut, “One Sweet Day” for the #1 spot in 1996. Celine Dion came in at #3 that year with, “Because You Loved Me”, another ballad. In 1999 Female acts occupied the top 7 songs of the year. In order; Cher – Believe, TLC – No Scrubs, Monica – Angel Of Mine, Whitney Houston, Faith Evans & Kelly Price – Heartbreak Hotel, Britney Speares – …Baby One More Time, Sixpence None The Richer – Kiss Me, Christina Aguilera, Genie In A Bottle. Deborah Cox held the 9th spot that year with, “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here”. Among the many surprises here is how many of the songs are not ballads. The 90s were held up less by specific artists and more by Eurodance and house acts that had female vocalists and female features on rap songs, which will become more prominent as the years go forward. But Madonna and Mariah did the lions share of the work as a solo artists in the 90s on the year end charts, followed by Monica. Though none of them had a #1 on the year chart. The 90s overall had the highest number of female acts on the year end charts. Here are the #1 year ends hits of the 90s and I’d say two of these have stood the test of time.
1990: Wilson Phillips – Hold On
1993: Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You
1994: Ace Of Base – The Sign
1996: Los Del Rio – Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)
1999: Cher – Believe
After the late 90s three major things happened to women in music that I think shifted the public’s perception in music in a VERY negative way.
1. Lilith Fair ran out of steam, accused of being too white and ironically too rock (for what was billed as a folk rock festival) and so broadens it’s reach, which turned the rock/folk crowd off that was the fair’s main audience.
2. Janet Jackson had her Superbowl incident, which launched Justin Timberlake’s career but pretty much stalled hers on the charts.
3. The Chicks spoke their mind in concert in the UK.
Three female acts at the top of their game and height of popularity, all basically shut down by various forces. And shortly there after it was back to basics in the 2000s where pop girls began to reign supreme. But so did hip-hop, which was overwhelmingly male dominated. Hip-hop also led to features becoming ever more prominent for both males and females. Though we do not see much from female rappers at all during this time outside of Missy for the first half and Nicki for the latter. The Enya “feature” listed on 2004 hit “I Don’t Wanna Know” by Mario Winans was not a feature but a sample they did not clear. Also in 2000s all female bands and female fronted bands by in large are non existent on the year end charts (and charts in general) outside a couple country acts, Paramore, and Evanesence (this tracks with ethe 70s, 80s, and 90s). In the first half of the 2000s there isn’t really any one dominating female act but by the later half it was all about Rihanna, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas/Fergie, Beyoncé and to a lesser extent P!nk. Again no rock acts or even girl groups making much of a showing (unless we rightly so consider P!nk a rock act at this point) but as always there were a few country cross-overs. Here are all the #1 year end singles for the 2000s and, I think maybe one or two have stood the test of time in the long haul… maybe…
2000: Faith Hill – Breathe
2005: Mariah Carey – We Belong Together
2007: Beyoncé – Irreplaceable
2009: Black Eyed Peas – Boom Boom Pow
In the 2010s it was the rise of DJs, or rather producers featuring female vocalists, almost always the features were major pop stars. In the beginning of the 2010s Nicki Minaj makes a lot of appearances as a feature, which is largely just one rap verse. And most of the features in the 2000s and beyond feel like a paycheck (i.e. Nicki Minaj featuring on then teenage Justin Bieber song) and don’t really add much to the song nor do many of them even make much sense in the context of the song. Take for example one, “We Found Love” by Rihanna & Calvin Harris one of the decades biggest hits. First, Harris wrote a produced it so really, should it not be Calvin Harris featuring Rihanna? I say this because the song itself sounds more like a Calvin Harris song than a Rihanna song. Second, You could’ve replaced Rihanna with any of the big pop acts of the time; Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and I am sure it would have been a smash. But Rihanna was THE biggest pop act at the time so obviously you go with that. As to all the features going around I dare say not too many remain particularly memorable.
Admittedly, this is also the time I started to tune out on mainstream music. It really started somewhere in the mid 00s but by the 2000s I was REALLY disinterested in the sounds being put out. It all started to sound too over produced and cold or harsh in the production because most of the big hits lacked actual instruments. This was also when the onset of the loudening war began in full. And voice processing/compression became omnipresent making much of the music feel like it lacked any real soul. Also there was a strong lack of diversity in sound compared to previous decades. I did come to like some of the pop and dance material but overall it just did not and does not appeal to me. This was also the time I started to get deep into country music, which, outside the mainstream bro-country BS, was filled with females who are more than just vocalists but played instruments and many were songwriters and producers as well. I should mention that I did not factor songwriters in when checking the charts as that is not something an average music fan would see or know without research. After 2011 no female artists would hold the top spot on the year end chart until 2021 with, “Levitating” by Dua Lipa. Here are the year end chart #1 singles by female acts for the 2010s and I do think one song will be in it for the long haul while the other will be a staple at nostalgia party nights.
2010: Ke$ha – Tik Tok
2011: Adele – Rolling In The Deep
By the 2010s streaming and stanning started to affect the charts in ways that I felt made the charts moot as any kind of barometer of what the overall culture was listening to. But also the overall culture was spread so thin due to streaming allowing the masses to skip anything they didn’t like, and get stuck in echo chambers or go down endless rabbit holes. The overall taste of the masses got wider so the mainstream music fandom became that much more of a minority in the overall music fandom. And sometimes one didn’t even hear some major hit songs at all when they exploded. For example, I didn’t hear the song, “Blinding Lights” until almost two years after it was a hit. And I think I have heard “Old Town Road” once. So I feel like there is no one unified pop culture anymore like when MTV dominated the narrative.
Looking at the charts overall you will see that males definitely out number the females on the charts and the lack of female representation in bands or anything other than vocals is staggering but not surprising. It is not until 1987 that women would log more #1 singles than men for a given year taking 17 out of the 29 spots with only two being duets. But since the inception of the charts there has been no year where only female acts were listed on more #1 singles than males acts, be it a solo act or band, in a given year. In 1959 there were ZERO #1 singles by a female act out of 16 #1 singles. And this brings me to the amount of #1 singles over each decade.
The 1960s had the worst ratio of female #1 singles per year 21% (47 out of 214) coming from female acts. That’s bad but in some ways it actually gets worse in the coming decades!
In the 70s and 80s females acts accounted for 28% and 30% of the #1 singles, which seems slightly higher than the sixties but not by much. However in both those decades there were overall WAY more #1 singles. In the 70s there were 260 #1 charts hits and in the 80s, 235. So this means there were more acts on the scene and a wider variety to pick from with all the various sub-genres that were not present in the 1960s. BUT the percentage of females acts and representation on the charts did not increase in proportion to those numbers. So numbers for female acts stayed pretty consistent while male acts logged WAY More hits.
We see the variety of acts on the charts start to dwindle in the 90s but by the mid 00s and the streaming era the monogenre has arisen and we go from having 20 + number one singles in a year an average of 13. Where as in 1974 & 1975 there were 35 #1 singles in each year and yet only 9 in each year was by a female act and several of those were duets. In ‘88 & ‘89 there were 32 #1 one songs each year and yet in ‘88 we only saw 7 by a female act go to #1 and in ‘89 only 12. So in the 1970s females accounted for paltry 28% of the #1 songs and in the 80s it was not much better amassing only 30% of the #1 songs.
In the 1990s there was a total of 141 #1 singles the lowest of all the decades and that is because so many songs of the era were monster hits that would not let go of the #1 spot like the aforementioned, “One Sweet Day”. But of those 141 only 76 were by females acts and that includes duets and features. In the 2000s out 151 #1 singles women took home 74. So this is 53% for the 90s and 48% for 2000s. Again keep in mind some of these are duets and MANY more are features and not purely a female act or front woman. But it is better than the 70s and 80s thankfully. Also keep in mind these are 99% vocalists.
When we look at the year end percentages overall of biggest hits by decade it paints a grim picture. Remember these percentages are for the year end charts for the entire decade, so that is 1,000 songs for each decade.
The 2000s really stepping up with all those pop powerhouses. The 1960s doesn’t surprise me as the prevailing attitudes of the time was rock ‘n’ roll WAS NOT for girls to play (or really even listen to). The 80s is really depressing because I thought there were so many female juggernauts. But while were here let’s paint and even grimmer picture by excluding any hit that lists a male musician alongside the female act on chart.
Ooof! The 1980s… but as I said above there were a TON of hit duets that decade. But every decade except the 1960s dropped by about 10%. What did I say about all those features in hip-hop during the 90s and 00s. So we have half the population- actually more than half the population since the latest population numbers show females outnumber males- being represented on the charts at least, way less than 50% of the time. I’ll be honest, I knew it was bad. But this bad… nope. To me this looks appalling. But I’d need more context as to why this is. Were females just not going into music as much? Are female acts just not as popular for some reason so there isn’t incentive to sign more such acts? Or is it that male dominated industry sees no value in female acts beyond the paltry quota. Or is it that male dominated industry fear adding more women will lessen their overall power and control. It is probably a combination of these and other things.
But where are the 2010s?, you may be asking, which had even more female pop powerhouses. Well I have them in there own section because streaming definitely was a major impact on the charts and Stans sent songs to the top but many did not stay long. And so we see a chart that is showing less what the mainstream culture likes and more the power of devoted fanbases. Plus by 2014 features on songs dominated just about every major hit. Here are the states for the year ends charts of the 2010s. Again almost always as a vocalist. TBF by this time most acts male and female are just vocalists/rappers and very few bands are logging regular big charting hits out side of bands like Imagine Dragons and some random country acts.
Without features or duets:
Out of the 191 #1 singles of the decade 58% were by women though after 2013 none of them landed at #1 on the year end charts. This is their highest showing but again, vocalists and lots of features. When features are taken into account that number drops to 36%. It should be noted that males acts also were littered with features in this decade.
Now one might well ask, “Why single out features… isn’t collaboration a good thing?” Yes. But as I said earlier much of this feels like a cash grab with the same names showing up on all the songs and not adding much that is memorable. Whereas prior to about 2005 it felt like a musical kinship in most cases… there was some reason for Faith Evans and Kelly to join Whitney on the smash, “Heartbreak Hotel”. Even the most cheesy and treacly duets of the 80s and 90s felt at least somewhat sincere, like there was an admiration and respect among fellow artists, even with the grabbing of cash. But that argument aside I was curious about what percent were just women at the front of the show without co-billing from men or even other women. Especially, since most male acts have been lone wolfing it from the beginning when it comes to chart billing.
When counting females who were not just vocalists I wanted to make sure the other instrument was something they were known for, like Alicia Keys on Piano or Joan Jett on guitar. But even being generous with some artists who might “play” guitar, when it comes to females the charts are mainly vocalists all the way down. And even when you have an artist who does play an instrument like Taylor Swift, often it is not a main feature of the hit single (i.e. most of the 1989 album).
So for me that makes Heart and The Bangles and Carole King and Bonnie Raitt all the more impressive that they logged any hits at all. Now you might be asking, well how many men are not just vocalists on the charts. Heh- let’s just say PLENTY… I could name easily 300 right now. And I’d bet most average music listeners could name at least 20. This is less so in the 2000s and beyond with hip-hop dominating but they still outnumber females in a tsunami. And I already ranted about the rock charts. And again this is important in the larger realm because the average music consumer doesn’t really look beyond what is pushed in their faces by advertisers or in more recent times algorithms and the echo chambers. And with charts coming from places like Spotify is Billboard even that important?
Side Note: While I have not done a deep dive on Spotify charts… what little I have seen myself and heard from other journalists and podcasters I respect is that the landscape hasn’t changed much on the charts in the streaming era, other than the same acts showing up over and over because of Stans.
But this is important because if you don’t see Tori Amos on the charts singing while also going to town on a piano, as a female you might not think to play piano and rock out. Same with PJ Harvey and on Saxophone. This why Taylor Swift, even with her simple guitar playing, was so important because it got more females interested in playing guitar. I’m not sure why her piano pounding didn’t get more girls interested in piano though. Maybe it is because guitars are cheaper and easier to lug about. I also don’t know why Joan Jett or The Go-Go’s or Heart or Suzi Quatro in the 70s & 80s didn’t also didn’t inspire more girls to rock out on guitar but as least it happened when Swift came on the scene. So much so it was and still is a news item.
I don’t really know what to make of the numbers because the charts have always been wonky even before streaming… and I can name easily over 100 females who are not just vocalists that were making and playing music before the 1980s. And I think we all agree that just because something is a hit doesn’t make it good *cough Barbie Girl cough* But seeing the numbers it is sobering just how little representation women have gotten in music. Now, it would be so easy to just say, “misogyny” here. And I certainly can think of a myriad of reasons that this word applies but I don’t feel like I have the adequate scope and context to just throw that out there as tempting as it is. But I am sure somebody more academic than me has studied this and has written or is writing on it. I am only speaking form what I have seen in over 30 plus years as a devout music fan. I will say, one last time, the rock alternative chart/radio business… yeah that reeks of the “misogyny”, especially since in the 90s more women were rocking out more than ever before. But when I did my live streams I specifically made a point to not just pull from the Billboard Hot 100 but to pull from all the little nooks and crannies I knew where women were kicking ass from Brasil to Japan so there were plenty of rocking females who were not just vocalists. And also it was why I did the album features. And speaking of albums, when you look at those numbers… If I may, that is a jagged little pill to swallow too. And we will get to that in Part 3.