Why I Wrote 'Popular Girls: Moments of Triumph, Tragedy, and Trailblazing In a Century of Women In Music'
I want to talk about why I wrote Popular Girls. Let’s be real, there are far more articles, books, documentaries, and biopics out there that spotlight the men in music compared to women, with plenty of titles even for individual artists or bands like Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Elton John, Nirvana, and 2Pac, to name a few. The available titles for books alone on female musicians and bands (excluding memoirs and autobiographies) are slim even for the biggest of names.
Even when you skim through those music-oriented encyclopedic-type books, you’ll notice that women make up only a fraction of the articles. I remember one in particular, which I will refrain from naming, that bragged about its more-than-300 biographical entries, two of which were solo women. TWO!!
Popular Girls: Moments of Triumph, Tragedy, and Trailblazing In a Century of Women In Music
This is unacceptable, especially when you consider the amount of iconic non-male singers, musicians, songwriters, producers, arrangers, composers, engineers, executives, and educators who have helped shape the sound of every genre, from blues and bluegrass to electropop and hip-hop.
I came across so many fascinating and unimaginable stories of women in music that I was entirely unaware of while researching this book, as well as songs and albums that I had no idea were inspired by women, encouraged by women, or created with women. Despite being oppressed, ignored, discouraged, taunted, dismissed, assaulted, objectified, ridiculed, intimidated, disrespected, harassed, unpaid, or even barred from making music, women have had an impact that has struggled to garner the same or even similar notice or appreciation that their male counterparts are accustomed to.
Near the publication of this book, women were still drastically underrepresented in almost every mainstream musical genre and were dealing with a noticeable pay gap, while only finally beginning to rectify the abuse and harassment highlighted by the recent #MeToo movement. In fact, when researchers looked at the 700 top songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart from 2012-18, they discovered that female artists made up just 21.7% of the hits, while the numbers were even less enthusiastic when it came to female songwriters (12.3%) and producers (2.1%).
This study arrived just as the #GrammysSoMale hashtag trended online, after Alessia Cara was the only female to win one of the “big five” honours at the 2018 Grammy Awards (Album, Record, Song, Producer, and Best New Artist). It was soon divulged that between 2013 and 2019, women made up just 10.4% of nominees for these particular categories.
Researchers during the same time period asked 75 female producers and songwriters what their experiences in the music industry as women were like, 40% of which admitted that their colleagues discounted or dismissed their work or skills. In addition, nearly the same amount confirmed that they experienced stereotyping and sexualization. A quarter of these women also stated that they have experienced being the only female in the recording studio, while a third felt that the music industry was male dominated.
“What the experiences of women reveal is that the biggest barrier they face is the way the music industry thinks about women,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, who was a part of the “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” report that was released in February 2019. “The percentage of women is highly stereotypical, sexualized, and without skill. Until those core beliefs are altered, women will continue to face a roadblock as they navigate their career.”
These numbers were even more disparaging in specific genres, such as heavy metal, hip-hop, and country music. According to Dr. Smith and other Annenberg researchers, by 2019, women made up a mere 16% of country artists and just 12% of Nashville’s songwriters. Women were also being played on country radio far less than men, as the Top 10 was often absent of women artists altogether, especially for female artists over the age of 40. This lack of women in country music hit the fan in 2015 with the arrival of “Tomato-gate,” in which radio consultant Keith Hill suggested that men made up the “lettuce in our salad,” while “the tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
Just a few years later, in the summer of 2019, there was a media furore after The Brew Podcast ranked their choices for “the 50 Best Rappers of All Time,” in which not a single woman was included. In a genre where female rappers who fit into the “video vixen” stereotype experience far greater success on average, women have long been disregarded, ignored, or not taken seriously.
“Female rappers have always been part of the genre’s lineage,” culture critic Taylor Crumpton told BBC Music in 2019. “Yet due to power dynamics, those in charge decided to weaponize their gender in efforts to not grant them the titles they deserve.”
As for heavy metal, which is “generally perceived as a last bastion of traditional masculinity,” according to the CBC’s Liisa Ladouceur, women who are household names are few and far between. Even the ones that are making a name for themselves in the metal music circles are often sexualized by wearing outfits that appeal to their male-dominated fanbases.
Not that all women in metal conform to these “standards” or that there’s even anything wrong with women opting to portray themselves as they please, but it is a stereotype that can be discouraging or even harmful for other talented females who don’t necessarily fit into these sorts of body images.
Metal women have always been exposed in an entirely different light than men, as highlighted in the annual “Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock” issues from Revolver, a prominent metal magazine. According to The Atlantic’s Kim Kelly, “the ladies’ musical backgrounds and achievements often play second fiddle to their luminous cheekbones or dangerous curves.”
I haven’t even gotten to the sexual, mental, and emotional harassment women face in the music industry and, in fact, have been since day one. And I’m not referring to the teenage groupies or exploited video vixens that have become synonymous with the industry, but rather the singers and musicians and writers and publicists (etc.) who have been dealing with deplorable behaviour at the hands of their male colleagues and superiors. Read the memoirs of the women in music and see for yourself, in their own words.
The problems of sexism and sexual abuse in music is so rampant that the Internet is crowded with articles with titles like “If We’re Going to End Music Industry Sexism, the Dialogue Around It Has to Change” (by Emma Garland), “EDM Doesn’t Have a Women Problem, It Has a Straight White Guy Problem” (by Zel McCarthy), “This Is My Reality as a Woman Music Journalist” (by Lina Lecaro), and “A Month-By-Month Breakdown of Music Industry Misogyny in 2015” (by Annie Zaleski). And that was just from Noisey alone.
Even when women speak out about their injustices or abuse, they are often not believed or are silenced, or even blamed. They are interrogated and called names, taunted online or threatened, like when the Dixie Chicks discussed their disapproval of President George W. Bush. They are told to shut up and stop whining, like when Taylor Swift revealed her struggles with her record label. They are outright condemned or blacklisted, like when Sinéad O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live or when Janet Jackson’s breast was accidentally exposed at the Super Bowl. These and so many other examples are problems that men in music seem almost entirely immune to.
In addition to all of this, the legacy of women’s impact on the music industry has been frustratingly misrepresented, relegated, or completely ignored time and time again. For example, in a 2004 article by The Guardian, which showcased the 50 most important moments in pop and rock, just four (or 8%) of those moments were orchestrated by women. In another instance, Ultimate Classic Rock listed “35 Important Moments in Country-Rock History,” in 2016, in which Linda Ronstadt was the only female artist featured.
There are countless lists online that rank music’s greatest songs, albums, concerts, tours, bands, singers, songwriters, producers, musicians, and music videos, though women are represented far less than men on almost all fronts, especially if they are “all time” compilations. It’s a shame that women get the short end of the stick when it comes to being played on radio, credited behind the scenes, and/or appreciated by the fans and critics alike.
To be fair, it seems as though the gender gap is shrinking when it comes to these lists, especially with publications such as Pitchfork and Billboard, but their rankings are often of more recent work, rather than of the entire histories of particular genres.
Believe it or not, there were times (that’s plural) when journalists questioned whether or not women making music was simply a trend, one that has been the subject of plenty of other books out there. As the years went by and these books continued to spring up, some music historians wondered if “segregating” female artists and musicians to their own books (et al) was actually a bad thing, perhaps advancing the “need” to categorize music by gender in the first place.
“…In popular culture, and especially in music, the pseudo-generic man still rules,” wrote Ann Powers in her 2017 article for NPR, “A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong at the Center of the Story.” “Writing about gender still feels necessary to me even as our definitions shift. I’m officially tired, however, of writing about music that recognizes women when gender is the topic, but when music itself is the topic, almost always returns its focus to men.”
Like I said, there are plenty of books out there that focus on women in music – some of which I have referenced in this book – however, most of them were written about women in specific genres, like soul or country, or about a certain era, such as Motown or the disco phase. Others focus on “women who rock” or “fearless females,” offering only limited insight into a small group of famous women in music.
I simply could not find a book or dedicated website that would span all genres, eras, geographical regions, and musical vocations when it came to women in music. Nothing like this existed. So, I set out to compile a book that would tell all their stories and nothing but their stories. Not just the moments of triumph and trailblazing, but also the moments of tragedy, because it all matters.
Of course, some stories will inevitably encompass certain male musicians at times, because artists like June Carter Cash and Courtney Love, for example, will always be associated with the men they loved. Sometimes, it is practically inescapable to discuss a female artist without incorporating the men who inspired them or helped to establish them in the music industry. There’s nothing wrong with that but I try to focus in on her as much as possible.
Popular Girls compiles the entire history of women in music, good or bad, because without the full story, it’s not the true story. So, whether it’s the Carter Family’s Bristol sessions, the backlash of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Aretha Franklin’s demand for a little “Respect,” the drug-induced death of Janis Joplin, the launch of Olivia Records, the rise of “riot grrrl,” the imprisonment of Pussy Riot, or Beyoncé’s historic Coachella spectacle, Popular Girls sheds a light on the whole story of women in music.
And don’t get me wrong, I understand that there’s a great chance that I have missed some moments along the way, and I have had to pick and choose who would be highlighted here. There are thousands of women who make or who have made music and so there’s no way I could have told all their stories in just one book, without being able to offer something of real substance. But, because I wanted to include as many music makers in this book as possible, I have had to relegate many of the artists to the appendix, in brief but functional mini bios.
I know that this leaves plenty of room for criticism by readers who feel that some of the artists in the appendix should have had more space devoted to them (perhaps like Joan Armatrading or Julie London or Idina Menzel?), while other artists with expansive articles should have been presented in brief bursts instead (perhaps like Rebecca Black or Ashlee Simpson or the Pussycat Dolls?). There’s also the issue of omissions, which I am sure there are plenty.
But I tried to at least include every notable name here, keeping in mind that I had only so much space to work with. For anyone who may be considered “notable” yet is not featured in this book (in particular, “world music” acts), that was not on purpose … I am human after all. If there’s somebody that is not included in this book that you feel should be, please feel free to contact me and fill me in, because I would be more than happy to rectify this in any possible future revisions.
I struggled with even the title of this book, let alone the content I chose to fill it with, because the last thing I wanted to do was inadvertently offend anyone or compartmentalize women in the process of trying to honour the women who have been making music over the last century (and way beyond). I hope you do not misinterpret the Popular Girls title or take offense to the term “women in music,” because in the end I felt that this title was necessary in portraying what this book, for the most part, is: moments from the most popular women in their respective genres and/or eras. And if I did in fact offend you in any way with the title of this book, or perhaps its content, I am sorry; it certainly was not my intention.
As for the writing style in Popular Girls, don’t expect epic essays or opinionated reviews. I am here to state the facts and not judge anyone or their work, though I believe in being open and honest even when there have been blunders in one’s career along the way.
I also wanted this book to be easy and comfortable to read, rather than coming off as pretentious, like so many music-related articles online. I am not here to impress you with fancy words and whimsical analogies, but rather share with you a history of women in music that is concise and inclusive, absorbing and truthful, prolific and practical.
Most of all, I wrote this book to honour, celebrate, and document the women who make music. To share their stories and struggles. To capture their moments of triumph, tragedy, and trailblazing. To do what should have been done long ago. This is the storied history of music's most popular girls.
You can purchase a copy HERE!
“The general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.”
- Ann Powers, 2017 (NPR)