“Biblically chauvinistic” is how the Rolling Stone magazine described the James Brown 1966 record “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” As a record it certainly takes some beating when promoting a stereotype. A stereotype, which has been continuously reinforced throughout the music business since its conception.
Whilst the mainstream charts maybe dominated by female artists research constantly reveals that women working in the music business earn far less than their male counterparts – a staggering 47% of women in the music business earn less then £10,000 per year.
It is a business that is dominated by male executives who control its means of production, marketing and recording output. Recording artist Lily Allen recently observed, “You will also notice of the big successful female artists, there is always a ‘man behind the woman’ piece. If it’s Beyoncé, it’s Jay Z. If it’s Adele, it’s Paul Epworth. Me? It was Mark Ronson and the same with Amy Winehouse.” These attitudes prevail throughout the music business right down to the basement end of manufactured pop. The banality of Miley Cyrus ‘tweaking’ caused a media stir, which was possibly related to Cyrus’s history as a child star for the Disney Corporation. Whilst Cyrus’s performance might be seen as silly and tedious the fact is Iggy Pop has been ‘twerking’ for 40 years, including the odd penis exposure as well as regularly humping his amplifiers on stage – yet he is considered a rock god.
There is something very disturbing about a popular culture that increasingly portrays women as disposable commodities frequently being hunted down by a serial killer or subjected to the creepy attention of a male artist who is acting like a potential candidate for inclusion on the sex offenders register. Although given the recent spate of celebrities facing sexual assault charges in the UK they may not be acting. Equally repugnant are those fellow men who shout “politically correctness has gone mad” every time these issues are raised. Lets be honest if you are the type of tool who enjoys women being portrayed in this way then it is highly unlikely you have read this far into this blog and you are properly jerking off to that misogynist Robin Thicke video.
“Ignore it” you may say after all there is an off button I can push Well I did, but ignoring it does not make it a right. Switching off a TV does not mean switching off your brain and that is the real choice here. I am not for one minute advocating censorship far from it. In my view those who produce this material should be exposed to additional taxation. The revenues generated should be earmarked for support services for women who become victims of male violence. If a sovereign country was inflicting such harm on another country surely we would be expecting intervention, possibly economic sanctions.
Those women who have stood up, challenged and turned the tables on the status quo have faced ridicule or worse. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actress, author and philanthropist Dolly Parton has throughout her career been the subject of ridicule from taunts of trailer trash, cheap, dumb blonde and least we forget the breast obsession. Web sites are dedicated to crude jokes about Parton. Realising these circumstances Dolly Parton played the card of self parody as well as deploying her very clever business brain. This has enabled her to amass a financial fortune and make music that she wants to make. This attitude towards women is not a modern phenomena, which as been cooked up by dead beat rappers with their pathetic lyrics of ‘hoes and bitches.’
The harrowing demise of Billie Holliday in the 1950s is a prime example. Most media stories concerning Holliday’s torturous death tend to focus on the sexual violence and illicit substances. What is often overlooked is that in her final years Holliday was swindled out of her earnings and died with $0.70 in the bank. As an incredibly gifted, yet troubled artist Holliday was hounded to the very end. Whilst dying police raided her hospital room and placed her under arrest until she passed away on 17th July 1959. She was 44 years old.
The magnificent Nina Simone became the catalyst for change in the 1960s. Strong, intelligent, outspoken and a versatile musician she became a role model for musicians (female and male). Simone started playing the piano at 3 years old and by the age of 10 she was perfuming piano recital in the town library. Like Holliday she was ripped off by the record companies. She saw very little money from her first record, the top 20 hit of “I Loves You Porgy.” Simone always characterised record companies as “pirates.”
Over the coming decades Simone took increased control over her career and destiny as an artist, which not only provided financial rewards but enabled increased creative freedom. At the time this was unparalleled for both a female and Black artist. The song Mississippi Goddamn, which she released in 1964 was written by Simone after the murder of Medgar Evers. Although the song contains a jolly rhythm it is a scathing anti-racist tour de force. Towards the end of her life Simone became increasingly erratic with legendary mood swings. In 1985 she fired a gun at a record executive whom she considered was stealing her royalties claiming that she tried to kill him, “but missed.”
The 1960s produced many iconic female artists Dusty Springfield, Nico (Velvet Underground) Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) and Janis Joplin for example. It is a decade that increasingly witnessed the use of ‘tabloid sensationalism’ as a weapon against women. Singer, songwriter and actress Marion Faithfull was subjected to sordid and untrue media reports in 1967 concerning her sexual relationship with Mick Jagger. Whilst the headlines and speculation did little to hinder Jagger’s career. In fact the stories further enhanced his bad boy reputation, but for Faithfull her career was badly damaged. 27 years later Faithfull observed, “It destroyed me, a woman in that situation becomes a slut.” Before Beyonce, there was Diana Ross (formerly of The Supremes).
The Supremes were a product of Barry Gordy’s Motown conveyor belt of popular hits during the 60s and 70s. Gordy was the original Simon Cowell with the gift of identifying and bringing together pop talent, along with tightly controlling and carefully managing their public image. Whilst Ross and Gordy were romantically entwined for Gordy it quickly became a case of biting off more than you could chew syndrome when it came to Diana Ross.
Whilst The Supremes were on a UK tour in the 1960s Gordy insisted The Supremes perform a version of Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.” Gordy believed that such a performance would enable The Supremes to access a slot on a mainstream UK television programme. Ross refused outright. “I could not explain anything that made sense to her,” Gordy said. “She refused to do it completely.” That’s when Gordy realised, “if she didn’t do it, I knew I could not manage them.” Ross went on to became one of the biggest selling female solo artists in music history.
Joni Mitchell produced and released her seminal Blue album in the early 70s whilst at the same time Jazz drummer Karen Carpenter was persuaded to move centre stage and sing for the brother/sister duo the Carpenters. It may have took until 1979 for Suzi Quatro to score a hit in her country of birth (USA), but Quatro was a constant presence throughout the 70s in the UK charts. Quatro’s trademark leather jacket, jeans, bass playing leadership and pop-rock anthems presented an altogether more edgy imagine that had a significant influence and impact. An influence that has sadly been underestimated given for many young people Suzi Quatro was the first female artists who was seen to be the leader of pop-rock group on mainstream TV. By the mid 70s Kate Bush and Patti Smith emerged. Two diametrically opposed artist who commanded respect through their craft. Smith went on to release what many still consider to be one of the most quintessential and influential rock album’s of all time ‘Horses.’
1975 also saw the release of the electro pop ‘Love to Love You Baby’ by Donna Summer that pounded the dance floors of every credible disco. The song, which featured Summer moaning and groaning as if in the raptures of an organism would cause controversy around the world. It also presented the artist in a highly sexual charged way that would take Summer years to shake off. The song and its producers eventually left Summer feeling like she had no control over her life and went on to suffer with bouts of depression and insomnia. Summer would later become a born-again Christian and sue the producers of the record. After the legal settlement Summer decided to exclude “Love to Love You Baby” from her concert playlists and did not perform it until 25 years later.
As the 1970s were drawing to a close there was something quite different about the female artists who were emerging outside the mainstream. Whilst the recording output varied according to taste. The confidence and attitude of the female artists was not in dispute. Operating within an increasingly political environment a whole bunch of strong, independent, intelligent and often conformational female artists were playing a leading roll in the rock scene. It was a time when Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Fay Fife (The Rezillos), Gaye Advert (The Adverts), Debbie Harry (Blondie), The Slits, Pauline Murray (Penetration), Tina Weymouth,(Talking Heads), Joan Jett (The Runaways) and the glorious Poly Styrene (X Ray Spex) to name a few took a male dominated world and shook it by the throat. A quick search on Google for Penetration performing ‘Don’t Dictate’ live will emphasis the point as Pauline Murray tackles men in the audience head on. It was another song from this period, which had a greater influence on me personally.
Released in 1977 “Oh bondage up yours” was the debut single by X Ray Spex. Polly Styrene was the bands lead singer and main songwriter who described the song, “as a call for liberation. It was saying: ‘Bondage—forget it! I’m not going to be bound by the laws of consumerism or bound by my own senses.’ It has that line in it: ‘Chain smoke, chain gang, I consume you all’: you are tied to these activities for someone else’s profit.”
As I grow older and start to see the world more holistically I can often look back at key moments when a stake was placed in the shifting sands of my life. These stakes are important because they create a focus point when somethings clicked. When I get a cold chill after being exposed to yet another pile of misogynist crap by a retarded hunk in plastic bling rubbing his small codpiece against a scantly dressed women. I can point back to buying the original 12″ vinyl version of “Oh bondage up yours” in 1977.
Every cause has a counter effect and what had been achieved in the 1970s was to be challenged throughout the 1980s free for all and sod thy neighbour attitude. Samantha Fox’s was 16 years old when her mother submitted several photographs of her daughter in lingerie to a Sunday tabloid newspaper competition (Girl of the Year amateur modelling contest). By the 198os Samantha Fox was a popular topless glamour model in a daily tabloid. In 1986 Fox choose to take up a new career as a pop star. Her first release was the tacky ‘Touch Me (I Want Your Body)’ that reached No. 1 in seventeen different countries. She went on to sell more than 30 millions albums and co-wrote the song “Dreams” for girl group All Saints’s 2000 album, Saints & Sinners. Although she was credited as “Karen Wilkin” because the group refused to record the song if Fox’s real name was used. In 1984 Sheena Eastern had a hit with a Prince written song ‘Sugar Walls’ a pseudonym for Eastern’s vagina. By the close of the 80s Cher was to be seen cavorting around a battleship in a fishnet body stocking rattling out the hideous ‘If I could turn back time.’ Amongst this drivel there were occasional rays of sunshine from the likes of Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) and the Sugarcubes whose lead singer Bjork was to became one of the most original and innovative female recording artists of all time.
As with most cases in life it is not those at the vanguard who reap the rewards of their struggles. Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Courtney Love (Hole), PJ Harvey, Riot Grrrl, Sleater-Kinney, Grace Jones, Beth Ditto (Gossip), Poison Ivy Rorschach (The Cramps) and the stunning Skin (Skunk Anansie) were to find their journeys just that little bit more easier because of the women who had gone before. In turn this made for a more creative and fertile music scene for the rest of us to enjoy. It would of be interesting to hear the views of these female artist regarding female artists in the mainstream pop world today. I can only guess that for many it will be a case of raised eyebrows and recognition that syrup manufactured girl pop groups will always have a place.
I struggle to envisage many will sign up to the ‘girl power’ of the Spice Girls call to arms, “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha.” In truth their struggle and achievements will seldom be recognised in the mainstream, because the mainstream needs to be controlled and manipulated from above. The advent of technologies has in many ways released the creative artist to pursue their particular path, but success on a scale that will enable economic independence remains a long way off for many female artists. As a father of 3 daughters it is with great relief that when foraging around Bandcamp I have discovered such an amazing range of female artists who are producing some truly magnificent material. To name a few: