Caught in the storm of a persistent lack of representation and the recent reckoning of certain high-profile abusers, women have historically occupied a shaky space in music. Though women’s status in the collective consciousness of music has significantly improved, the experiences of women in the music industry remain distinct. Though they have worked hard to carve out their own niche, female artists are still at risk of being subject to short-sighted male scrutiny and of having their contributions to music diminished.
Anna Celenza, a music professor at Georgetown University, highlighted the noteworthy, yet subtle, improvements in representation for women in the industry over the past decade in an interview with The Hoya.
“For a long time, the business side of music was always controlled by men. Women played a role in the creative side, but never in the industry side,” Celenza said. “So if you look at who the great A&R people, the people who are finding artists, or the executives, the whole scene was very male-dominated. I would say that only maybe just in the past decade are things slowly starting to change. It’s improving, but the industry is still very much a male-dominated space.”
A capella singer and band member Hanna Chan (COL ’19), who recently signed with Georgetown’s Prospect Records, elaborated on the male-dominated nature of music, stressing the male gaze as one of its main issues. For women in music, it not only matters how women break into the industry, but also how they are perceived when they do, according to Chan.
“When putting out music, and especially when performing, it’s almost as if both your music and your appearance are put under intense scrutiny,” Chan said. “The male gaze is so much more daunting and objectifying when you feel like you talent is being judged and lumped in with how you look. I mean, you want people to listen to you, not stare at you or sexualize you.”
From up-and-coming artists like Chan to some of the biggest names in entertainment today, the phenomenon of unrelenting gendered expectations is apparent in the entire music industry. These expectations not only poorly affect female artists but also benefit male artists.
“Women are much less likely to be called geniuses,” Robynn Stilwell, a professor of music at Georgetown University, wrote in an email to The Hoya. Stilwell’s expertise include the intersections of music, identity and sexuality.
The collaborative nature of a lot of music today contributes to the warped perception of female artists, according to Stilwell.
“One of the things about rap, for example, today is that it is so collaborative. There is a lot more of people working together nowadays,” Stilwell wrote. “Of course, the collaborative nature of the genre works very well for a lot of male artists, Kanye West being a great example. But it tends to not work as well for the women.”
An artist like Kanye West, who is famous for employing heavy collaboration when producing his music, is still surrounded by the narrative of a male genius. On the other hand, women, no matter how hard-working and independent, are more likely to be seen as the window dressing, even in a track curated with a collaborative atmosphere in mind, according to Stilwell.
However, women are no longer waiting to be recognized in terms of their contribution to music. Cardi B has an army of supporters on social media and in the press, and her remarkable performance on the Billboard Top 100 this past year certainly lends itself to the idea that we are in the midst of a revival for women in rap. Elsewhere, rappers like Young M.A and Rico Nasty are redefining ideas about femininity and gender presentation.
Yet even when women achieve success in a certain arena within music, pressures that stem from their gender in the public spotlight persist. For example, even in a genre like pop where women have seen widespread success, their roles are still subject to their predominantly male audience, according to Stilwell. She also noted pop’s obsession with youth especially as it concerns women.
“There are a number of successful female artists in pop. However, pop unfortunately is a place for girls. They rarely ever get to be grown women,” Stilwell wrote. “And even when they are grown women, such as Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, we still collectively want to see them as their teenage selves. A perfect example of this is Madonna working so hard to stay young simply because we don’t have a place for a Madonna who’s not.”
Apart from pop, women are starting to be increasingly seen in other genres, such as rap.
Thus, though the road to and within music may be rocky for female artists, women have not failed to create some of the most important art existing today.
“From early on in music history there have always been women who don’t fit the paradigm,” Stilwell wrote. “That’s a large part of the problem with telling the story of women in music. There may not be space for them in the story men have created, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.”