Recently, Maren Morris was the first women solo artist to top the Country charts in over a year. This was celebrated across social media, by men and women alike. However, there was little conversation that extended beyond congratulations. While there is no doubting the importance of celebrating women’s achievements, the problem arises when the conversation ends there.
To put the situation into context, Maren Morris’ ‘Girl’ marked the first time that a woman solo artist had topped the charts in over a year, the last time being Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘Legends’ in February of 2018. That means that between February 2018 and August 2019 no women had topped the Country charts. If we ignore that fact, are we implicitly suggesting that for well over a whole years worth of male chart-topping songs, not one woman has been good enough to do the same? When we celebrate Maren Morris topping the charts, we must have a conversation about a system that is depriving other talented women of the opportunity to do the same. If we simply celebrate the few times that women are able to break through, we push the idea that while men can top the charts with ease, there is a small gap for women squeeze their way into if they fight each other hard enough. To top it all off we celebrate the inequality when one women is seen to win the space over other women.
Failing to recognise the lack of opportunities for women has even greater consequences than seeing them disappear from the charts- when there is little to no room for women artists to have their talents recognised it creates the perfect recipe for competition. While music charts are competitive by nature, limiting the space that women are able to occupy so massively makes the competition crippling. As soon as we believe a resource is scarce, we begin to compete for it. The industry is telling women that topping the charts is an achievement rarely accomplished by women, which consequently means they have to fight one another to be recognised as equally creative as men. Competition means that in order to win, the other must lose, therefore, the rare time that a woman tops the charts, a great number of women have to lose.
Considering that most women in the County music industry will continue to lose in this competitive situation imposed on us, it is no surprise that this can impact on self-esteem.
Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become reliant on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: your value is defined by what you’ve done. This means that women’s value in the industry is based on their chart success that is already heavily weighted against them. By limiting the space that women can occupy in the music industry and therefore making the vast majority of women ‘lose’, we are directly impacting on their self-esteem. Again, there will be men who lose out in the competition of topping the charts, however, women are at such a disadvantage to even be in the running, that we create the dangerous and false rhetoric that women are inherently less talented than men.
If you are a women in the music industry, you have probably see how this cultural normalisation of woman on woman competition reduces us to throw away novelties. Scroll through Twitter or Instagram and it probably won’t be long until you see a poll or tweet asking you to choose between two talented women musicians, most of the time not even bothering to mention music but rather rating their looks- this is not Twitter’s Next Top Model. It’s not hard to see how women being pitted against each other not only reduces us to being considered less talented than our male-counterparts, it also creates an environment where our music matters about as much as our clothes or looks- after all, if our music mattered, we would be in the charts.
We know that there are plenty of phenomenal women on the Country scene, this then begs the question, why are we not seeing them top the charts? According to a recent study by Dr Jada Watson of Ottawa University, in 2018 women held a mere 11.3% of the songs on the Country airplay reports. Taking into account that radio play and chart success go hand-in-hand (the less women are heard on the radio, the less likely they are to reach people to be downloaded and streamed and thus less likely to chart), it is easy to see why there is such a lack of women topping the charts. The same study found that the reasons given to women for not receiving airplay on Country radio are just as dismal as the act itself. According to women in the Country music industry, these are some phrases they hear everyday:
‘If you want to improve station ratings, remove the women.’
‘Country radio is a principally male format.’
‘We only have space for one female on the roster.’
‘Women don’t want to hear women.’
The formula appears to be: deny women radio play and therefore chart success, blame the women’s lack of talent and here’s the sucker punch, even blame women consumers. This is the reason why Maren Morris’ chart success inspires me as an artist but leaves me with a bitter taste that I can’t wash down- we are celebrating a great moment for one woman in Country music that also highlights the continued suppression of the majority of women.
Women deserve to decide to value their work. It should not be based on a system that is clearly already penalising the vast majority of women artists. How long can we expect women to continue to offer their creative energy if so much of the time they will have to lose in the end to a system that is already betting against them?
Maren Morris hasn’t achieved success because of the competitive roadblocks that the industry has placed in her path, she has achieved success in spite of them. As women we all succeed in spite of them. This is why we must continue the conversation, otherwise we risk celebrating the roadblocks along with the success if we fail to separate them.
Perhaps we need to actively seek women outwith Country radio- whether it’s women Country playlists, supporting lesser known and local women artists by going to their shows, or engaging with women artists social media profiles and keeping up with their new releases. The truth is, women don’t need the praise of a system that is simultaneously punishing them for their participation. Women need to be part of the system itself, cooperating and creating rather than competing, however, with a male-dominated industry that ideal is a way off. If Country radio is to survive, women need to be seen and heard at all levels, whether that’s behind the scenes or on air, otherwise, women will find alternatives and listeners will follow.
Article written Honor Logan (https://twitter.com/honorlogan3)