The glass ceilings, Me, Too, radio’s edict “you can’t play two females back-to-back.” Never mind critics’ lists that randomly wander into tokenism (or “who’s hot”-ism), or the way a couple ladies always seem to dominate madly to the exclusion of so many others. Even those institutionalized handicaps can’t stop women’s creative torque.
In some ways, that resistance may’ve even catalyzed the double X chromosome set to be even fiercer, more determined, more willing to color outside the lines. Create your own manifest destiny; playing the game doesn’t matter because the deck is already stacked against you.
Except women aren’t buying it. Right now, all things considered, seems a golden age for women making, creating, being music.
Billie. Lizzo. Rosalia. Tegan & Sara. Maren. I’m With Her. SZA. Maggie Rogers. Soccer Mommy. Brandi. Skating Polly. Doja Cat. Aubrie Sellers. Megan Thee Stallion. Della Mae. Ariana. Carrie. Miranda. H.E.R. Halsey. Yola. Normani. Ella Mae. Cardi B. Ingrid Andress. Lauren Daigle. P!nk. Kacey. Jhené Aiko. Camila. Gaga. Solange. Molly Tuttle. Dua Lipa. First Aid Kit. Alicia. Kelsea. Margo. Kehlani. Hayley. Dixie Chicks...
And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Veterans and newcomers alike, female artists are ripe and bringing music freed from the bondage of expectation and interference to the party.
Billie Eilish became the open armed refuge for an anxiety-age where dysthymia and cynicism obscure the notion of being kind through making music in her brother’s bedroom. A billion-streamer on Spotify with just “Bad Guy,” but there is “Bury A Friend,” “When The Party’s Over” and the breakthrough “Oceans Eyes.” The chords struck go straight through her fans. As comfortable dueting with Khalid as providing the song for a James Bond film, she sells a half million tickets in minutes for good reason.
Lizzo, equally passion-inducing, is the jump-start counterbalance. Beyond the soul stirrer’s body-positive, Madison Ave trope-smashing dominance, everything the woman sings lifts you up, makes you feel good. Aggressively, wildly, impossibly euphoric. That’s the trick of “Good As Hell,” “Juice,” the staggering, staccato bluesy vamp “Cause I Love You”: preach on, but pull us in libido throbbing, head high and lines drawn instead of buckling, berating or castrating. Take it on the road, Lizzo brings a full-on positivity revival.
“In the beginning, the biggest obstacle was people didn’t get her,” Alana Balden, Lizzo’s co-manager, explains. “She couldn’t be defined by just one genre or one thing. She is a singer, rapper, flautist, inspirational speaker, dancer... a multihyphenate artist that cannot be fit in a box.”
“People are craving authenticity now more than ever,” Balden continues. “As an artist, it’s important to carve your own path and not cave to pressures or chase what’s happening. Lizzo has been leading the way by breaking norms and stereotypes. She’s successful because she’s been undeniably herself.
“This ended up ultimately being the key to her success because once you got people in a room with her, she would win you over.”
The same thing can be said for any number of today’s breakout females. Dua Lipa, whose lush multi-cultural and genre-mixing dance music, took charge of her self-described “mosh-pop” when global anticipation for Future Nostalgia created a leak.
Taking to Instagram visibly distraught, but determined in spite of the breach and a world unraveling from COVID-19’s impact, she announced through tears her decision to release Nostalgia a week early, because “the thing we need the most at the moment is joy.”
Once upon a time, women in music were variations on perky girl groups, glamorous vocalists and tormented chanteuses. Self-determination meant more variations on the singer/songwriter craft defined by Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, expanded by AOR doyennes Grace Slick, Heart’s Wilson Sisters, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks, as well as punk sirens Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, the Go-Go’s, Debbie Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Poison Ivy, Exene Cervenka and Tina Weymouth as well as country tinged artists from Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.
Now every genre has diversity and self-dominion within its reach. Pollstar cover girl Beach Bunny TikTok’ed her way to total teen dominance with buoyancy and punk pluck. Earthy emerging country songstress Ashley McBryde did it the old-fashioned way: grinding out dates, writing songs about women being counted out for not fitting the mold.
Yola, Our Native Daughters, Valerie June, Ruthie Foster and Rhiannon Giddens found essence in Americana’s acoustic roots approach, just as Brittany Howard swung low into her soul and released music that built on Alabama Shakes’ groove rock, yet was decidedly personal. Wherever you turned, women were turning on to themselves – and reaping greater rewards for eschewing conventional wisdom.
Whether Daft Punk-meets-Willie Nelson country/alt/pop songwriter Kacey Musgraves who shapeshifted her kind of small-town/open-hearted music from Harry Styles’ to Willie Nelson’s to Katy Perry’s tour to taking Maggie Rogers, Natalie Prass, Soccer Mommy and Yola out as openers, or Cardi B tearing the back-to-center inseam out of her spangled catsuit at Bonnaroo 2019, gamely continuing her Manchester, Tenn., throwdown until the tear necessitated leaving the stage – returning to finish her set in a fluffy white bath robe, they don’t surrender. Going places they’d never be expected, they slay doing it.
Maybe because they love what they’re doing, they can’t stop/won’t stop. On the country side, 2019 saw both Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood stage all-female tours; whether or not radio played their support acts for that extra bit of promo-push via back-announcing and call-in interviews, they were bringing the girls! Underwood featured Runaway June and Maddie & Tae, while Lambert rotated Ashley McBryde, Elle King, Caylee Hammack and Tenille Townes with her girl gang Pistol Annies.
The ubiquitous Brandi Carlile not only one-woman resuscitated iconic Tanya Tucker with good friend Shooter Jennings and “the Twins,” she created her own girl group the Highwomen. Co-founding the roots supergroup with Texas fiddler/altcountry artist Amanda Shires, they enlisted songwriter extraordinaire Natalie Hemby and mainstream country superstar-rising Maren Morris for the open door group that also hosts Sheryl Crow, Shires’ husband Jason Isbell and Yola.
As if that’s not enough, Carlile curated a first-ever “ladies night” close to the Newport Folk Festival that culminated with no less than Dolly Parton. The response was seismic: “CBS Sunday Morning,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Variety.
“Who runs the world?” posited Queen Bey(once). “GIRLS DO!”
And the biggest names brought it as uniquely, as personally as ever. Beyonce’s Netflix “Homecoming” special, derived from her relentlessly empowering Coachella performances showed a woman on fire with message, context and music. So many cultural references intertwined with fashion thirst – and, of course, the music.
Netflix also offered “Miss Americana,” the deeply humanizing look inside the juggernaut that is Taylor Swift. Reaching beyond the pop gloss, the goody-girl persona that’s made her a heroine to tweens, there was the doubt, the vulnerability, the frustrations beneath the stadium supernova.
There’s so much quickening around women, She Shreds – “The Magazine Dedicated to Women Guitarists and Bassists” – celebrated 18 print issues, before going online, covering everyone from Courtney Barnett to Lucinda Williams, Shonen Knife to St. Vincent, Esperanza Spalding to Tina Weymouth, Sleater-Kinney to Charo.
Throwing events in Portland, Brooklyn, Chicago, South By, Belfast, London, and Brighton, SheShredsMag.com sought to change how women “are depicted and presented in the music industry and pop culture by creating a platform where people can listen, see and experience what it means to be a woman who shreds. Our goal is to transcend boundaries like gender and genre – supporting radicalism, respect and revolution.”
Talking about a revolution: Madonna went back to clubs for Madame X, creating a dancehall bete noir, while Cher took a metal light/disco/70s pop victory lap – and Patti Smith hit the road behind her third and final volume of memoir Year of the Monkey, perhaps coming home to the poet the iconoclastic critical darling always wanted to be.
Like picking one’s cuticle, there is always that pushing back, that revealing what’s beneath. Good-bye surface presentation, forget the easy boxes: women are being their true, complicated selves and it’s opening doors.
For Aubrie Sellers, whose garage country New City Blues merged raging guitars with smart snarky commentary and a voice like light through crystal, it meant moving from the fraught to the spooky, surf and Tarantino-esque for Far From Home. Playing shows with everyone from Robert Earl Keen to Brandy Clark, sharing a thick slab of Tanya Tucker’s CMT Next Women of Country dates and co-headlining with Lillie Mae, there’s an interconnectedness – see Musgraves above – among these females who throw the rulebook out the window.
That restlessness, the questing, the ambition, the need: it’s all there. Even the Pussycat Dolls and Spice Girls got back together, realizing a place for female solidarity, as well as a need to celebrate the difference. Like a spoonful of sugar, make it fun, but get out there and chase it, because even the most overtly pop music can hold kernels of what matters.
Whether it’s P!nk’s incredibly athletic – vocally and physically – shows, Lizzo’s waves of euphoria, Musgraves LGBTQ country-cum-disco, or Dua Lipa’s soon-to-be Future Nostalgia already proclaimed “a game changer for pop” by The Irish Times and “powerful pop perfection from a star unafraid to speak her mind” in Britain’s tastemaking New Music Express, even the fizzy stuff digs into deeper places, elicits greater responses. P!nk wasn’t 2019’s Pollstar’s Tour of the Year just because she can Cirque du Soleil – the $215 million top grossing worldwide tour of 2019 dispels any of those notions (also see the $13 billion grossed by the Top 50 female acts on page 15).
In a time where talk dominates, these ladies’ boots, sneakers, stilettos and flip-flops got to walking – and not just a line. They went where they wanted. Beyond the creativity, the hard work, the desire to stretch the boundaries, they refused to be anyone but themselves.
Yes, it’s a Hooters happy world, but even Victoria Secret decided to shut down the extravaganza that was their fashion show – not that these women noticed. They were too busy writing, recording, singing, touring, growing. To them – like all the women behind the spotlights making it happen in this issue – doing was all that mattered.