My daughter loves music. One day I was ferrying her around in the car and as soon as she had her seatbelt fasted she went for my radio settings replacing my listening preferences for a mainstream station. She was delighted when Ariana Grande’s voice bellowed out from our crackly speakers. She turned it up and sang along with her idol “a little less conversation, a little more touch my body”. I remarked under my breath, more than a bit irritated “you do know that no woman would ever really say that”. She told me I was old.
I consider myself an artist. I write from the most personal and intimate part of me: the struggles of my soul. I am as female as you can get. I have no interest in standing on a stage and singing someone else’s view of the world. I write and sing songs to be heard, not to be seen. But here is why such a humble ambition makes for incredibly tough terrain.
There is a problem of gender inequality in the music industry. As a female artist it affects me personally. The space I’m competing for on festival line-ups is much more limited for me than for my male peers. In venues too, two thirds of all live performances in the UK on any given night feature no women on stage at all (a Guardian analysis, 2017). Add to that the way in which women are portrayed and what they are valued for, the odds are clearly more than stacked against me.
When I start berating myself about why I am suffering from a pressure to be visually pleasing and conform to impossible beauty standards I have to give myself a nudge and reassure myself that there is nothing wrong with me personally, but there is something wrong with the countless meetings I have had to endure with the music industry (men) wherein I have been told to dress up, make sure I get a good night’s sleep, wear nice make-up (three examples of many). These comments, of course, are not crimes in their own right, but as ubiquitous as they are, they spell out loud and clear what matters to the industry I’m working in; namely if I want to be one of the 21.7% female artists out there, I’d better make sure I look up to it (spoiler: I don’t!).
You read correctly: an investigation by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (a study of Billboard’s top 100 songs between 2012 and 2018) identified that women make up only 21.7% of all artists and only 12.3% of songwriters.
The implication of the latter is too big to be brushed over. When my daughter is singing along to Ariana Grande, Beyoncé and the likes, she justifiably believes the words she is hearing originate from the formidable women who are singing them. Like all of us, she uses music to frame her own emotional experiences and this lie told to my daughter will become a battle she will have with herself when she is trying to create a respectful relationship. A little girl is learning about the world through the popular songs she consumes. She is exploring territories that she wouldn’t venture with me, her mum. Without challenge she is absorbing a blueprint on what an emotional and physical relationship is. Why on earth would my daughter disbelieve a beautiful, young woman singing with all sincerity “a little less conversation, a little more touch my body”.
My daughter isn’t the only one to use music as a framework for all life’s good and bad bits. We all have our own party songs, our songs for falling in love as well as songs for grieving and falling apart. So how can something so fundamentally human fail to represent an entire 50% of us?
A survey I read recently (Daily Mail online – 29/10/2019) said that 73% of women think about their size and shape every single day. There are no songs about this. Instead we are bombarded with endless songs objectifying women making the problem even worse. (An analysis of Top Ten Billboard songs(2011) showed a shocking 92% about sex).
How I, a woman in the music industry, can manage to sustain any kind of self-esteem let-a-lone a viable career is something I battle with on a daily-basis. The artist in me is often the only thing that keeps me going. That and the reaction from people who do get to hear my music, whose support and feedback makes for generous compensation.
The song my daughter was singing, I later found out, is called “Into You”. Co-written by Grande with, yes, four men: Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Alexander Kronlund and Ilya Salmanzadeh.