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Adele dedicates album win to Beyoncé: Why mega female solo stars are having a moment

The two singers, as well as fellow female singers Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift, have all found massive success. But why there still so few women in the music industry overall?

Adele accepts the Grammy for Song of the Year for 'Hello' given to her and co-writer Greg Kurstin (not pictured) at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, on Feb. 12, 2017.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters | Caption

Adele won multiple Grammy Awards in major categories such as record and album of the year at the 2017 Grammy Awards ceremony, the latest achievement for the “25” singer, who is glittering alongside such musicians as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift in a stunning constellation of current female artists who continue to dominate the recording industry.

Adele won the album of the year award for her work “25” and received the record of the year prize for the song “Hello,” featured on “25.” She also received the Grammy Award for song of the year for “Hello” and the award for best pop vocal album, among other prizes.

When Adele accepted her award for album of the year, she dedicated the prize to fellow nominee Beyoncé, whose album “Lemonade” was also nominated for best album.

“I can’t possibly accept this award and I’m very humble and gracious,” Adele said. “But the artist of my life is Beyoncé and ... the ‘Lemonade’ album was just so monumental and so well-thought-out and so beautiful and soul-baring … all us artists here adore you. You are our light.” 

The success of these female artists comes at a moment, on the heels of the first woman to be nominated for US president by a major party, when women are increasingly turning toward their own for inspiration. But even as these larger-than-life pop stars are alternatively held up or criticized as role models for all kinds, female musicians and producers as a whole continue to face resistance across the industry.

“Beyoncé, Gaga and Adele … rule the world (of pop),” Guardian writer Kitty Empire wrote in 2011. “The soundtrack to pop in 2011 has three extraordinary female lead vocalists soloing all over it, drowning out much else,” Ms. Empire wrote. 

Adele and Beyoncé continue to be two of the most successful singers working today, with Nielsen having declared Adele's "25" the highest-selling album of 2015 and Beyoncé's "Lemonade" becoming the singer's sixth album to sell 1 million copies in June 2016. (All of Beyoncé's albums also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, which measures album sales.) But they are hardly alone – Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Ms. Swift are just a few of the other big female stars who continue to turn out hit after hit. 

Troy L. Smith of the Cleveland Plain Dealer lauds Adele's singing talent as a "towering force of nature" and Swift's songwriting skills as "the top-tier of her generation when it comes to both country music and pop."

But when adoring fans want these female stars to serve as role models for a generation beyond being simply successful entertainers, things can get complicated.

Twitter trolls jeered at former first lady Michelle Obama when she called Beyoncé a role model on Twitter in 2015, with International Business Times writer Toyin Owoseje noting that some "critics pointed out the 34-year-old songstress dresses provocatively, dances suggestively on stage and in videos, while some of her tracks feature 'sexually explicit' lyrics." However, others "highlighted the fact that Beyoncé is one of the industry's biggest success stories and [her] 'body confidence' is a great example to young girls struggling to love themselves," Ms. Owoseje wrote.

New York Times Magazine writer Amanda Hess noted that many of these singers are routinely asked if they are feminists "and if they shied away from the label, outrage would greet them online.... To Lady Gaga, feminism was about protecting 'the integrity of women who are ambitious.' Taylor Swift realized, she said, that she had 'been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.' Feminism was being defined down to its most benign interpretation. It was less a political platform than a brand identity."

Meanwhile, Vulture writer Kelsey McKinney agreed that artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Swift were a force in 2016, writing, “It’s hard to consider 2016’s music without thinking about the women who made it.” But Ms. McKinney sees another problem: the dearth of women overall in the music industry.

“The celebration of pop’s biggest female stars at 2017’s [Grammys] ceremony will imply that it was another great year for women in music,” she wrote. “And no question, it was – for a handful of them.  What that narrative obscures, however, is how difficult it remains for women to break into the industry at every level... Only 22.3 percent of the 206 songs in the Top 40 were sung by women.”

McKinney also found that women were scarce behind the scenes, writing, "23 of the 463 producers who created Top 40 pop in 2016 were women" and adding, "Take one of the night’s most prestigious awards, Record of the Year. That category honors the performer and producers of the year’s best song. Five tracks are nominated: one each by Rihannah, Beyoncé, and Adele, one by Twenty One Pilots, and one by Lukas Graham. 36 individual people are listed as nominees for the creation of those five songs. Four of them are women. To borrow from Adele: Hello?"

Other major winners at the ceremony included Chance the Rapper, who received the best new artist prize, as well as Twenty One Pilots, who received the award for best pop duo/group performance for “Stressed Out.” David Bowie, who died in 2015, received multiple awards, including the best rock performance prize for “Blackstar” and the best rock song award for the same work.