Although Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Madonna are essential ingredients of our modern culture, women musicians have had a very difficult time breaking through and getting the credit they deserve. Our latest Spacebomb article gets at the little-known history of talented women and their musical contributions.
Music critic Ellen Willis from the Village Voice once stated, ”Rock is, among other things, a potent means of expressing the active emotions–anger, aggression, lust, the joy of physical exertion–that feed all freedom movements, and it is no accident that women musicians have been denied access to this powerful musical language.” Gender equality in the music industry has substantially improved since Willis made this statement in the 70s, a time in which rock and roll was almost exclusively written and performed by male artists. What has historically been a male dominated vocation, dating as far back as the renaissance period, is now sidling towards a more equitable environment for men and women to display their talents. However, this concept of equitability comes with several clauses. Because the industry is historically, and in some circumstances currently, ascended by men, women are consequentially subject to varying stigmas and prejudices.
Ann Powers, a pop music critic who currently writes for NPR Music, laments over the societal struggles of being a female professional in the music industry. Powers expressively notes there is a high level of anxiety that many women will go through in order to avoid being perceived as a “woman artist/writer.” Powers also shared that, in her experience, often female musicians will avoid being interviewed by a female journalist due to an effort to avoid a lack of legitimacy. This is because, at times, male journalists/critics have been taken more seriously than their female counterparts.
NPR recently organized “Hey Ladies: Being a woman musician today” in which they asked women all over the country to share their stories and experiences about working in the music industry. There is a gamut of different experiences, both positive and negative, addressing multiple facets of a working musician’s life. In reading through the responses, one will find commentary about the layers of complications that tend to exist for a woman in the music industry. Many women wrote about their frustrations with this preemptive assumption that they will be incompetent as a player before even being heard.
Some male and female artists may say this is because good female players are more rare, although the less experienced female players still force their way into the scene. This mentality seems to stem from a movement to diversify all industries, both through gender and culture. This apparently leaves some men feeling frustrated that subpar female musicians get opportunities they have not earned. Other women wrote that regardless of one’s musical skill, there is also an expectation that there should be a delicate balance of grace, charm, and beauty at the anterior of a woman’s interaction in the music industry. On a more local level, Richmond’s small and ever-growing music community has a relatively small and diverse female music scene. Of these women, very few hold leadership positions and some of those that do tend to be categorized as “bitchy” versus assertive and organized. This can be very trapping, especially when a woman feels a passion to move into a leadership position but may be subject to derogative titles that typical male musicians seem to evade.
Some of the current issues that lay within the music industry can be traced back to societal standards and expectations dated over 400 years ago. The female presence in music has a sparse history. Much of the renaissance, baroque, classical, and romantic periods predominantly highlight the work of male composers and players, thus leaving us with a void of female composition and artistry from that time period. To further prove this void, within the Concise Oxford History of Music, Clara Shumann is one of the only female composers mentioned.
She is quoted as saying this during her lifetime:
“I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose — there never was one able to do it. Am I to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.”
Below is a recording of Clara Shumann’s piano trio in G flat minor, which displays her obvious capacity to compose music.
Another female composer who took very little faith in her talents was Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, who primarily published her music under her brother’s title, Felix Mendelssohn. Here is a recording of her lovely composition of “Lied: Larghetto” from Song Without Words.
In the book Gender and the Musical Canon, the author posits that social structures are primarily fashioned into two categories: a private and a public sector. During the era of Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, women were primarily affiliated with the private sector — that of the home, cooking, midwifery, child rearing, etc. Contrarily, men were affiliated with the public sector — that of church/religion, medicine, government, education, and art. Ultimately, this postulates that, if music was fashioned around the public sphere, then men were more naturally inclined to dominate this sphere. Furthermore, early music industry was objectively intended to serve the realm of piety. It was highly improbable that a female composer would be commissioned to write religious music for the Church. This could have been considered a theological disruption considering women were presumably inferior to carrying a role of leadership, even in regards to music.
During the 20th century the women who were composing/playing gained far less attention than their male counterparts. Some would argue that this occurred because compositions that women were writing were musically inferior to what men were composing. However, listening to recordings of the compositions easily nullifies this presumption. Amy Beach was an American composer and pianist who wrote this piano concerto in 1900.
In jazz, everyone is familiar with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Mary Lou Williams, but what about Lil Hardin Armstrong, who wrote “Just for a Thrill” in 1936, which did not gain recognition until Ray Charles covered it in 1959?
Lil Hardin Armstrong version
Ray Charles version
It would not be completely fair to go on listing under-appreciated female composers in the 20th century without at least acknowledging that there was a scope of worthy male composers that also gained little recognition during that time. However, the list of well-known male composers easily outweighs that of women composers.
Fast-forwarding to the 1980s, a visible shift occurred for music industry icons for both men and women. Particularly for women, the former wholesome and even formal image of the music industry was evolving into a more sexually liberated platform. Pro-sex feminist count this decade as an invaluable time of innovation that women used to empower themselves. This is a point in time when Madonna reframed the idea of the mainstream female musical icon by overtly incorporating sexuality into her image. This set precedence for women to use their sexuality as a form of empowerment as performers in the music industry.
This is sometimes a point of contention where some female musicians feel comfortable using sexuality and femininity as empowerment tools, whereas other women feel manipulated, uninspired, and cautious to use their sexuality as part of their art form. Both approaches seem to have their benefits and ultimately seek to give options to women in how they choose to engage their power.
Western society has always tended to lean towards male-dominated industries. The music industry is no different. Women will continue to challenge the normality of expected gender roles while also using the power of femininity to gain equitability not just as women, but also people. The general concept that equality exists in society has some validity; however, Ellen Willis’s words depicts a continued search for equality that neither man nor woman has found yet:
“DOGMA: a political belief one is unreasonably committed to, such as the notion that freedom is good and slavery is bad.
BIAS: predilection for a particular dogma. For example, the feminist bias is that women are equal to men and the male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior. The unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between.”
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