Rock on, sister
Not too long ago, radio wouldn't play female artists back to back. This fall, women's voices are everywhere.
If you think your neighborhood record-store chain has an unusually high selection of diva-type releases on its shelves this fall, or that your favorite radio station is airing more female voices than ever, welcome to the male-dominated music industry's latest discovery: It's OK to market multiple women artists at once.Skip to next paragraph
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The Dixie Chicks, Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Norah Jones, Pink, and India.Arie are just a few of the names that have been anchoring the upper reaches of record sales and airplay charts. In fact, 12 of Billboard's Top 20 songs this week feature women. These artists are being joined or about to be by Faith Hill, J. Lo, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, Alison Krauss, Missy Elliott, and several other women dropping new discs in time for holiday buying. And no one seems to be batting an eye least of all consumers.
"It's come to that, finally, that it doesn't matter any more," says John Artale, buyer for Galaxy Music Distributors in Pittsburgh. "As long as they have some individuality, as long as you can tell 'em apart, it's fine."
Not too long ago, the music industry wasn't so sure Americans could tell one soprano from another.
"Back when I was making my first records [12 years ago], men were the ones selling country records," says country singer/songwriter Kelly Willis. "Today it's completely the opposite. Women are selling way more records than men ever did."
Ms. Willis remembers that radio stations refused to play two women artists in a row, and "there weren't a whole lot of women who were writing their own songs or being allowed to."
It used to be even worse. Woodstock veteran Melanie, who has just released a new CD, recalls being told that if a woman got played on the radio, "they couldn't play another one for, like, six hours." The folk singer, who had a string of hits in the 1970s including "Brand New Key," admits that didn't even seem wrong to her then. "It was just the way it was," she says, "so you had to be good."
While other genres haven't seen as dramatic a turnaround as country, there's no question that women are being celebrated this fall. Rolling Stone released its second-ever "Women in Rock" issue. This month's Vanity Fair music issue features nine of the hottest stars in the business all women surrounding a single guy: quintessential ladies' man Barry White.
Exposure on radio airwaves and on MTV, VH1, BET, and other cable networks certainly has a lot to do with women's greater presence. Other causes range from a take-charge performer named Madonna, who had no interest in being managed by a male Svengali, to a little experiment called Lilith Fair.
No back-to-back airplay was still the norm in 1997, when Canadian Sarah McLachlan organized the first concert festival featuring only female performers (or female-fronted bands). Lilith came at a time when women like McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, and Jewel dominated pop radio. Its phenomenal success it actually set attendance records at some venues went a long way toward shaking up the status quo in the music industry.
One of Lilith's strongest messages was that women can control their own careers, and more are doing just that.
Teen singer-guitarist Michelle Branch lays it out in her online bio: "I'm not a fan of changing yourself for anything. With me, what you see is what you get."
Newcomer Ms. Jade, the first woman signed to rapper Timbaland's Beat Club label, agrees. "Everybody knows exactly how I am. They can take it or leave it."
But not all radio stations are tuned in to the trend. When it comes to rock, testosterone still rules. The only way a female gets heard is if she happens to be the drumming half of hot garage-rock duo the White Stripes. And some artists say that if they don't want to bare their midriffs while wailing about love or, preferably, sex the industry does not want to hear from them.
As Rolling Stone magazine notes, "Rock radio won't even touch female artists, while the pop factory keeps churning out sound-alike clones, and ambitious musicians with something to say find themselves out in the cold."
Neo-soul pioneer Meshell Ndegeocello feels the chill. "Because I don't want to write song after song about designer clothes, liquor, cars, and booty, I am deemed outside of the 'urban' demographic, i.e., my music isn't 'black enough' for MTV or BET or Clear Channel [radio] to convince Coke or Lincoln or McDonald's to buy some airtime.
"Maybe if I was a little more '-er' younger, cuter, lighter, thinner ... just maybe I'd get an opportunity or two more to be a bigger part of the popular-cultural machine."
Rosemary Welsch, program director at Pittsburgh public radio station WYEP-FM, says, "There's some improvement, but I think the industry tries to make itself feel better by saying how much better it is." WYEP often provides the first or only airplay given to artists like Willis or Ndegeocello, who don't neatly fit into mainstream genres.