NEW YORK — Move over boys, the girls are back in town.
For the first time since 1985, when the music industry began tracking buying habits by gender, women are now shelling out more cash for CDs, tapes, and records than men.
For some, the culmination of a decade-long trend signals a watershed for the male-dominated music industry and American culture as a whole. From Celine Dion's "Titanic" theme song to Shawn Colvin's dominance at the Grammy awards this year, women have taken center stage, becoming the taste-makers of a kinder, gentler music. The angry, hard-rockers like Nine Inch Nails are having to make room for the peppy pop of the Spice Girls.
Some argue that a fickle public may alter this trend at any moment. But for now, the industry's high notes are being hit by women. And female consumers like what they hear.
"I think the whole industry is changing - it's finally gotten the message that women like certain things, they want a certain kind of music and they're putting it out there," says Carole Williams, a briefcase-toting social worker flipping through CDs at HMV Records in New York City.
"Now that I've gotten over my anger at the high price of CDs compared to LPs, I'm buying more," she says.
Ms. Williams's view is embodied in the recently released annual survey by the Recording Industry Association of America. It found that women music buyers outnumbered men by 51 to 49 percent. Ten years ago, men were at the top, 57 to 43 percent.
But others see the phenomenon as nothing more than a cresting wave in an ever-changing popular culture, where the bottom line - profits for the record companies - remains the only constant.
"Young women have always been a main buying demographic in the music business," says David Leach, executive vice president of Mercury Records Group, a division of the international music giant Polygram. "At certain times there happens to be more product and more music that strikes a nerve with them; this just happens to be one."
For example, there were no gender-buying statistics kept during the Beatles craze of the 1960s. But it was primarily teen girls, not boys, who created the screaming throngs and plastered their rooms with posters of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
The latest buying statistics don't impress Oedipus, vice president and program director of WBCN in Boston, one of the top-rated modern rock stations in the country. "So they've edged out men, what does that mean?" he asks. "We specifically target men, so these stats don't affect us at all."
But other culture mavens argue the rise of women goes much deeper than simply a statistical blip. They see it registering women's new overall strength in the industry.
Girls are not only the top teen fans, but women are also the stars producing albums, asserting their musical values and in the process becoming new role models. At the same time, more women in the work force have more cash in their pockets, and thus, say some observers, have helped shift the industry's focus away from male adolescent angst.
The Grammys this year were dominated by Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLachlan, and Paula Cole, strong solo women whose lyrics touch the complications of the heart and the challenges of daily life.
The Spice Girls, the all-girl British teen idols, have made "Girl Power" part of America's lexicon. And the titanic hit "My Heart Will Go On" is making a wreck of most male competitors.
"There are strong women in almost every genre of rock and roll, right across the board," says Paddy King, manager of HMV Records in New York. "You'd be hard-pressed to find the strong solo male artists, as opposed to the plethora of women out there."
Marketers have taken note. Music CDs are suddenly popping up at retail outlets frequented by women. From Victoria's Secret (which has had five classical CDs go platinum) to Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic, clothing franchisers are putting musical packages together that consumers can pick up at the cash register while paying for a pair of jeans.
Borders and other big buy-and-browse bookstores are also carrying music. And more women are buying there, as well. Some analysts contend such stores offer an atmosphere that is much more comfortable and appealing to women than traditional record stores.
But whatever the venue, tastes are shifting. At Rocky Mountain Records in Boulder, Colo., 16-year-old Becca Brunke, decked out in black with a bright red rain coat, says she can relate more to the music available now because it's not "totally macho." She also says she and her friends have matured.
"When we were little, listening to music was something to do, but now it means a lot more to us," says Becca, who now buys a couple of CDs every month. "Maybe it's something you heard when you were on a date, and now that song reminds you of that. Or sometimes it's just the message of a song."
In Bethlehem, Pa., sixth-grader Hadley Cameron knows by heart most of the songs by the Spice Girls, Puff Daddy, and Third Eye Blind - mass-appeal acts that have struck a chord with young girls.
"I like upbeat music because it's fun to listen to. I like to learn the words and stuff, to dance to it, and my friends like it too," says Hadley. "It's fun."
But the record industry should take note that, even at her young age, Hadley has a clear idea of what she likes. The Hanson brothers, also teen idols, used to be one of her favorite groups. Now, they're only "OK." "I think they're getting kind of old," says Hadley. "I think they need a new album or something."
* Sara Terry Gabrels in Boston and Jillian Lloyd in Boulder, Colo., contributed to this report.