ANNA WESTWELL explores how the female voice has evolved in music.
For centuries, music has been inherently male. Few female classical composers from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries have been as praised as Beethoven and Bach, though great female composers such as Isabella Leonarda (1620 – 1704), Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875) and Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 1847) existed and made significant contributions to the musical landscape. Even in the ‘Rock and Roll’ era, male musicians would still receive more credit and fame than female artists who were equally gifted.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, she suggests men have been more successful than women in the past because we have lived in a martial or aggression-based society; one that oppressed women and favoured men because they were considered ‘stronger’. But our society has changed significantly in recent years, treating men and women as equal in many parts of the world. This change was reflected in the rise of pop music in the noughties, during which female artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift won success and global acclaim. Yet while this meant teenage girls became accustomed to hearing women on the radio regularly, the branding of these singers as ‘feminist icons’ remains unconvincing.
In the 2010s, these ‘icons’ sung mostly about men. This made young teenage girls listening to their songs aware of how they were being perceived by the male eye. Rihanna’s Loud, released in 2010, was dominated by songs about sex – such as ‘S&M’ and ‘What’s My Name’ – and also by songs where female self-worth derived from the opinions of men, like in ‘Only Girl (In The World)’. Beyoncé incorporated feminism into her branding and was frequently labelled a feminist, yet in 2011 she released 4, an album in which every song was about men, with the exception of ‘Who Run the World (Girls)’. Though ‘Who Run the World (Girls)’ undoubtedly inspired many feminists, its popularity on the radio was second to male-focused songs such as ‘Love On Top’. Likewise, the recent and frequent jibes about which ‘ex’ Taylor Swift would next sing about were indicative of a male-centric focus that many located in her music.
Right-wing, macho, male leaders now run the Western World. Yet, due to these dire circumstances, there is a newfound sense of revolution amongst women; feminism is on the rise. Anyone that attended the Women’s March in London, or around the world, shared in this feeling of power, even for a moment. The music world has begun to register and respond to the change in world order and the threats to liberty and peace. Electronic music is now commonplace, overtaking generic pop, while new, female-led bands and women artists are appearing, giving voice to positive messages for an increasing disillusioned youth.
Anna Wise featured on Kendrick Lamar’s two recent albums To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city. She has just released her debut album, entitled The Feminine: Act I. Her thirteen-second clip entitled ‘How Would You Call A Dog’ accompanying the release transitions into Wise singing, ‘so they calling you a bitch, they calling you a slut because you said no./ Because you slept around’, ‘because your hair’s long, ‘cause you shaved it off’. The album is ultimately her own commentary on modern sexism: a woman cannot win and, far too often, a woman’s personal decisions are controlled by how men will perceive them: ‘because I wore a skirt, you think I’m down to ride,/ You think I wanna fuck cause I comb my hair’.
Lion Babe are another band quickly gaining recognition. An electronic soul duo made up of singer Jillian Hervey and producer Lucas Goodman, their first EP was released in 2014 and included two break out singles: ‘Jump Hi’ with Childish Gambino, and ‘Treat Me Like Fire’. Upon first listen, the feminist messages contained in lyrics like ‘Jump so high, tie me down,/ Try to hold me up, but the wall ain’t high enough’ may go unnoticed, yet Lion Babe’s repeated mantra, ‘Jump so high’ expresses clear hopes of overcoming male oppression. ‘Treat Me Like Fire’ risks succumbing to the shortcomings of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé in its exposition of a romantic relationship. However, contained within these lyrics are empowering messages: ‘I’ll introduce you to my eyes, my lips, my hair,/ If you’re good we’ll go from there’, and ‘In the end I’m doing me, that’s all you got to see’.
Lion Babe released their debut album, Begin, in 2016 and the messages contained within their initial EP were once again displayed throughout the ten new tracks. ‘Wonder Woman’, for instance, is dominated by a rousing marching beat, which, when accompanied by lyrics such as ‘I ain’t gonna take all that I’m a Wonder Woman…/ You don’t wanna see what happens when I get provoked’, aims to spark a change in attitude amongst their audience, just as ‘Run the World (Girls)’ did to some extent in 2011. ‘Got Body’ has a smoother, funkier instrumental backing than much of the album, yet the lyrics still exude empowerment: ‘Big curves, big bones, honey skin tone,/ So clap…/ We all don’t need to look one way’.
2016 was likely one of the worst years in living memory, but it allowed the music industry to mutiny against right-wing Republicanism, turning its own sexist language against them: ‘grabbing them by the pussy’. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Rihanna’s ANTI are also urging independence and a unity amongst women. Rihanna’s opening song ‘Consideration’ is fuelled with the same empowering electro-soul as Lion Babe’s album, whilst Billboard has dubbed Lemonade a ‘revolutionary work of black feminism’. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift successfully promotes her own positive form of self-love with every new release. 2016 may have been a depressing year, yet music has continued to demonstrate its formidable power in fiercely fighting sexism. Indeed, it is often when times are darkest that the light gets in.