Cover photo: Clementine Creevy of Cherry Glazzer
By C.B. Radio
Sharon Van Etten, Girlpool, Phoebe Bridgers – 2019 has already been great for female musicians. Just one month into the year, each of these bands/artists has put out a career-defining record that points to a larger pattern extending through the past several years in modern music: women are now dominating the music landscape both critically and commercially.
The “Me Too” movement is partially responsible for the influx of female voices in our culture as a whole, but musicians aren’t made overnight. Women songwriters have always written their weight in gold. Popular success, however, doesn’t always follow.
Before today, a woman’s music career often required a domineering man to pluck the guitar strings and play puppeteer. For every Diana Ross, a Phil Spector often lurked in the shadows. From Darlene Love to Courtney Love, it used to take a Kurt Cobain to achieve liftoff. Women had to beg and bust their asses. Sometimes sleeping your way to the top was the only way – the excellent tell-all “Girl Group, Girl Culture” contains just one sobering depiction of sex’s role in the Brill Building culture of the 1960s. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like that anymore.
Critical praise often precedes commercial triumph, something that remains unchanging in the digital age. It’s perhaps too easy to dispel magazines that publish written music reviews like Rolling Stone or Consequence of Sound, but record reviews are notable for a number of reasons – mainly because tastemakers have the potential to make or break an artist’s career. Arcade Fire should probably pay Pitchfork half its salary for making the band popular overnight after the publication’s rave review of “Funeral.”
As immensely popular artists like Lady Gaga and Adele continue to make waves that reverberate across our culture, it’s easy to forget they were once virtual unknowns at the behest of whichever magazine or promoter would take note of their open mic nights and free shows. A few finally did. The rest is history – and it’s happening more often to the women most deserving of this kind of success.
There are a few ways to dissect the recent pattern of praise for female musicians. Album of the Year, a website that aggregates various critics’ “year end” lists into one, all-encompassing list of albums, gives us one easy way to analyze recent trends. More than half the albums on its 2018 list were written and recorded by women – 18 of its top 30 albums. My personal list from last year, available here, is nearly as varied – 14 of my favorite 30 records were made by women and/or LGBT artists. If you’d like to compare new releases to professed classics from the past, take a look at any popular list of “best albums” from the 70s, 80s, or 90s and comb it for parity. Do you really think that women just became better songwriters somewhere around 2015? C’mon.
Indeed, as we allow new voices into the popular fold, groundbreaking music tends to follow. The short, poppy track “Daddi” from Cherry Glazerr’s new album Stuffed and Ready is a prime example of the novel ways women are changing the songwriting landscape. Lead vocalist/guitarist Clementine Creevy employs sarcasm and satire in a way that feels fresh, pushing the lyrical envelope during the song’s chorus. “Where should I go, daddi? What should I say?” she sings in her best faux-twee chirp. “Who should I fuck, daddi? Is it you? Where should I go? Is it okay with you?” Creevy isn’t some Freudian shock artist, but a talented up-and-comer who mocks the idea of sought-after male approval with a tuneful wit not often heard by her self-serious masculine peers. It’s hard to imagine, say, Radiohead utilizing such a device.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to the indie rock sphere, where fem-punk bands like Indigo Girls and Sleater-Kinney are finally being recognized for their legendary string of albums from the late ’80s onward. Hip Hop, a genre long-known for its history of misogyny, is also coming around: Missy Elliot’s music has undergone a critical reappraisal of sorts, and newcomers like NoName are dropping records that garner nearly as much attention as Kendrick or Kanye. (Well, maybe not quite as much as Kanye.)
There’s even room for SOPHIE, a truly special transgender musician who’s merging genres and pushing boundaries. I’m not sure SOPHIE would be a success if she were 20 years older and trying to attain pop-stardom in the 90s. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come as a culture that her latest album “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” became the critical darling that it did.
This isn’t to say that we’ve finally exorcized misogyny from the English-speaking music world altogether. Far from it. But the next time you listen to Soccer Mommy or Snail Mail or U.S. Girls or Tennis or Big Thief – ask yourself if they would have earned a record deal 30 years ago. The answer might not be ‘no’ – but you’d be lying if you could answer ‘yes’ with certainty.
For a new generation of women seeking unbridled success in the music industry, popularity is no longer a pipe dream. And that’s a very big deal.