Pop's gender war exposed

By Gillian Orr

Girls on top: Adele has achieved success on both sides of the Atlantic. Photo / Supplied
Girls on top: Adele has achieved success on both sides of the Atlantic. Photo / Supplied

It was the weekend when it was announced that women were responsible for each of the UK's top five albums that finally pushed me over the edge. Let me be more specific. It wasn't the fact that Amy Winehouse, Adele and Beyonce were occupying those top spots that I took issue with - it was the predictable flurry of media reporting, proclaiming that women in music were having some sort of moment.

Have we not been hearing the same thing for years? Since 2006 and the releases of Lily Allen's Alright, Still and Winehouse's Back to Black, stories about some sort of female pop renaissance have been delivered faithfully by a media desperate to latch on to any sort of "trend", no matter how tenuous it may be. In 2008, the seemingly simultaneous arrival on the scene of Florence, Lady Gaga, La Roux's Elly Jackson et al only exacerbated the problem.

If you were to believe the media, a new genre of music had arrived: the female genre. This group of artists has gone on to include the likes of Ellie Goulding, Little Boots, Marina & the Diamonds, Pixie Lott, Nicki Minaj, Jessie J, Katy Perry, Laura Marling, Robyn, Katy B, Eliza Doolittle and Paloma Faith.

They have different levels of talent and disparate music styles but they are lumped together, solely for having a bit of chart success and a vagina. It needs to stop.

It seems appropriate now to confess that I have written articles focusing on female artists in the past. But even back in June 2009, when I was asked to submit a piece about the new wave of female popstars, I questioned it. After all, they were everywhere. Yet still they keep coming.

Certainly, there are many female solo artists around, but surely this is more to do with the fact that after Winehouse and Duffy had the biggest selling albums of the year, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, record labels decided that the music-buying public was receptive to female performers. Such companies have been keen to emulate such commercial success. Marketing budgets for such acts have been increased and they are being pushed more than ever before. It is not surprising there are plenty of women in the charts. (By the way, guess who are making most of the decisions at the record labels?)

The continued interest in female performers is helped along, no doubt, by a press that salivates at the opportunity to print an article alongside a colourful picture montage of these women, many in various states of undress (and yes, I realise the irony of writing that in an article that is accompanied by said pictures).

And let's not even get into the fact that many (though not all) of these so-called "empowered women" are over-sexualised and have to use their bodies to sell records, as the founder of XL Recordings, Richard Russell, pointed out earlier this year, commenting that much of such material was "boring, crass and unoriginal" and had left him feeling "a bit queasy".

Of course, many male artists have broken through over the last few years. But you would be hard pushed to find an article discussing the successes of Tinie Tempah, Example, James Blake, Tinchy Stryder, Plan B, Paulo Nutini and Bruno Mars as some kind of trend. And seeing as this is hardly the first time that a woman has had a hit record, what exactly is going on here? Is there not the vaguest hint of sexism at play?

Some might argue that the women above are far more visible than the men mentioned previously, but surely that is because the media is obsessed with covering the women's outfits, rants and lovers in such detail.

More than anything, the idea that women have taken over the charts is not even particularly accurate. After all, of the UK's top 10 albums of 2010, four were by men, three by women and three by groups. This year, men have been responsible for six UKNo1 singles, women seven. It is not the hopeless situation for men that many would have you believe.

Also, it is not as if female solo success is anything new. If you were to look further back, to cover the period from 1981, you would find that the list of bestselling artists each year for the last 30 years includes 10 women, eight men and 12 groups. Female performers have always had success and will always have success. Should we not be looking to champion women behind the scenes in music, as label heads, executives and in the live arena, where inequality still prevails?

You might believe that women are producing better music than men, and have greater stage presence. Yes, Beyonce is fabulous. But Kanye West's latest album was pretty amazing too. And is Laura Marling better or worse than Bon Iver? It is ridiculous and pointless to compare.

Ultimately, it is all subjective. All this chat about women taking over the charts is a pointless attempt to portray a battle of the sexes, and it is one that can be detrimental to women. It seems that men are allowed to be good or bad on their own merits, as individuals. Women, regardless of talent, are lumped together as part of a trend. Paloma Faith and Nicki Minaj have barely anything in common, music-wise, but they are both used as examples of how women are "having a moment". It is absurd.

It is fantastic that some of the strongest voices out there are women and I love many of the artists mentioned in this article, but the sense of a continuing narrative makes me uncomfortable, not to mention bored. All I know is that if I see one more editorial with a motley-crew picture montage of Gaga, Beyonce, Florence and Robyn, I'll scream. Yes, they are great and they are all women. Let's move on now, shall we?

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