Who's to blame for this disparity?
This may sound like stereotyping, but most of my male friends, the straight ones at least, don't listen—and won't listen—to female artists.
Part of me always knew this, but a recent trip with a bunch of dudes ignited a lightbulb in my brain that (spoiler alert!) we're mostly boring and predictable with our tastes in music, pop culture, and otherwise. After being tortured incessantly by hours of Bro Rock and Breaking Benjamin, it hit me: Not a single song played over the course of the entire weekend was sung by a female artist.
Why is that?
According to data from Spotify, based on a sample of five million subscribers, male users listened to 94.2 percent male artists, 3.3 percent female artists, and 2.5 percent mixed groups. Female listener habits were more diverse, as they listened to 55 percent male artists, 30.8 percent female artists, and 14.2 percent mixed groups. As Noisy uncovered, streaming platforms can share part of the blame. Research shows streaming service algorithms favor male artists when making recommendations and playlists. More streams means more visibility, which often leads to more festival bookings. It all helps produce a quite lopsided and gender-imbalanced music industry.
Then I thought about it further. I realized I don't even bother sharing female-fronted bands or singers with my male friends, because oftentimes my suggestions fall on deaf ears. That, in itself, is pretty messed up.
Growing up with an older brother in the late '80s certainly had its upsides, like having a music sensei guide me through grade school. But for every Faith No More album consumed, there was a Runaways disc to follow; for every Black Flag, an L7 lurked. It never dawned on me to see gender in music—if it was loud, thrashing, and in your face, chances are I connected with it. As I grew older, I consumed a steady diet of No Doubt, Garbage, Veruca Salt, Blondie, and more. But every time one of these female led tours came around, I'd attend alone or with a girlfriend. And despite the fact that I listened to 10 times more male artists than female, I was still known around the hallways as the kid who liked "chick rock"—certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but a semi-awkward circumstance that shadowed me in my middle- and high school days.
In the worst of cases (and most likely for kids concerned about reputation), toxic masculinity plays a big part. Straight males, or at least the most insecure of us, might feel that listening to Adele croon or just dancing with Lady Gaga might make us look a certain way (or even—gasp!—feel some kind of way). Whether it's a feeling of not wanting to be judged as soft or a mild (or major) case of homophobia, this could be part of the reason why males disassociate with music that is female-driven or perceived as feminine. Regardless of these varying degrees of toxicity, there are definitely issues with how some music listeners perceive masculinity and femininity and then self-identify or relate to those concepts.
Is there still a representation problem in the music industry? Very much so. According to a 2018 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, out of the 600 most popular songs from 2012 to 2017, only 22.4 percent were performed by female artists, "and 2017 was a six-year low, with females comprising 16.8 percent of popular artists on the top charts." Spotify even created an equalizer that tells users how many men vs. women they listen to (and then will provide a more balanced gender breakdown in your playlists to fill the gaps). We could fall down rabbit holes about the number of artists labels sign by gender or even the amount of media coverage male artists receive over female artists, but that still wouldn't justify a user's intentional neglect of female singers. These disparities still don't account for why male listeners opt for Juice Wrld over Cardi B or listen to decades-old indie pop or trip-hop just to avoid giving Billie Eilish a shot.
But the problem is all around us everyday. The music industry, including our listening patterns, is a microcosm of pre-existing systemic issues of sexism. We're quick to discredit women and award credit to their male counterparts. How many times have we heard that Kurt Cobain wrote most of Hole's Live Through This? (Not true.) Tim Armstrong is frequently praised for The Distillers' success, nullifying Brode Dalle's ferocious growl and songwriting. Then there's The Donnas, a band that was consistently asked what it felt like to be in a "girl band"; they were also pitched by labels to drop their instruments in favor of choreographed dances. "We did get notes saying, 'Go home and play with your dolls,'" Donnas singer Brett Anderson once told Billboard. "We thought of ourselves as a rock band. Everyone else was constantly saying, 'And you're girls.' But we're not trying to be an 'all-girl band.' 'Being a girl' isn't a kind of music."
There's a correlation between these attitudes toward women in music and male patterns of listening, and much of that still needs to be corrected. And music journalism certainly bears some of the blame, too. Stories that boast the "Top 25 Female Guitarists" or the "100 Best Female Singer-Songwriters" aren't really helping spotlight these artists; rather, they're ranking them over there, adjacent but subordinate to the talent found in male-centric lists. It's all very patriarchal. The media's messages, especially for boys and youth growing up, can have damaging effects on the way one thinks about or views gender in music, and typically those ideologies can last long into adulthood.
But let's take a beat. This may feel like an ice-cold glass of haterade against my gender (it's not), but the sociology and psychology behind our choices never fails to fascinate. Understandably, not everything is for everyone, and I'd never argue that female musicians be placed on too high a pedestal. It's about balance (oh, and a little word we've been hearing lately—equality). But I don't understand a world in which a guy can't get down to the blazing beats of Robyn or those fire Haim harmonies. While music may be subjective, I find it hard to believe that males are less likely to be sucker-punched by an emotionally apocalyptic Fiona Apple song, or that masculine hearts are immune to Florence Welch's soaring pipes—or that the rock fury of Joan Jett or Shirley Manson doesn't summon as much fuck-you attitude as AC/DC or Foo Fighters.
We should strive to be open enough to give all kinds of artists a fair shot and at least try to battle against the overwhelming homogeneity in this world. After all, music, like any good art form, is about opening yourself up to others' experiences (and yes, finding new jams to get drunk to). Just please, enough with the Bro Rock. Anything but that.
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