2020 saw the Mercury Music Prize reflecting an enormous cultural shift. For the first time, since it was founded in 1992, the number of shortlisted female artists and bands fronted by women has outweighed that of their male counterparts.
However, their success has been buoyed by the work of countless female artists before them; many of them unsung heroes. Let’s take a look at some of the women who blazed the mainstream music trail and kept the door open for future songstresses.
While she grew up singing gospel in her local church in Detroit and became known as ‘The Queen of Soul’, Franklin’s legacy stretches through jazz, blues, rock, and pop. Although she had nine albums under her belt by the time she was 25, the turning point in her sound came when she began recording at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio, in Alabama.
There, she laid down the vocals to one of her most defining songs, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You). Earlier outings, such as Misty and Follow Your Heart had captured the soulful, yearning quality in Franklin’s voice, but the Muscle Shoal recordings unveiled a harder and bluesier edge; a quality that would go on to influence the likes of Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé.
However, Aretha Franklin’s musical contributions go way beyond her extraordinary abilities to turn a mediocre melody into something special. A staunch political activist and committed feminist, she fought against injustice wherever she saw it. The song Respect became a rally-cry for women and Young, Gifted and Black became synonymous with the American Civil Rights Movement.
Counting the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra among her fans, Aretha Franklin set the bar for other artists to measure themselves against.
Shortly after the Vietnam War, music took a sideways step. While rock and pop didn’t exactly stand in the shadows, they were briefly eclipsed by a folk resurgence. This was fronted by the likes of Bob Dylan, Donovan, and James Taylor, who combined intelligent and poetic lyrics with back-to-basics guitar work. However, women were notably absent from this growing line-up of trippy troubadours.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, the odds were already stacking against Joni Mitchell. At the age of nine she contracted polio, which led her to embrace open tunings to compensate for her weakened left hand. At 21, she was virtually penniless and was forced to give her new-born daughter up for adoption. Her early outings as a singer in Toronto saw her playing in “church basements and YMCA halls” or busking, while working in a department store to pay her rent.
Mitchell’s breakthrough came in 1968, after a performance at a club in Florida’s Coconut Grove district. There, she met David Crosby who produced her first album, Joni Mitchell (aka Song to a Seagull). Songs such as Marcie and Cactus Tree perfectly showcased her otherworldly vocals, confessional lyrics, and unconventional guitar style. Subsequent big-hitters, such as A Case of You and Big Yellow Taxi cemented Mitchell’s position as the ethereal outsider, never afraid to experiment but never one to compromise.
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It’s virtually impossible to talk about female musical trailblazers, without mentioning Madonna. Born Madonna Louise Ciccone, she took the pop world by storm in the Eighties. Her first two singles, Everybody and Burning Up, were floor-fillers in American clubs, but it was Holiday and the subsequent Like a Virgin which brought her international attention.
However, Madonna’s success is more than the sum of her music. While she brought a new, squeaky-clean sound to pop, her attitude and fashion-sense were equally important to her trajectory. Moments such as the ‘sexy’ wedding dress in Like a Virgin and the infamous Gaultier bra celebrated the idea of female sexuality and urged women to take ownership over it. Even her crotch-grabbing dance moves had more in common with female empowerment than anything lewd.
There’s also no sign of Madonna slowing down. Now in her seventh decade, she continues to push the boundaries, both musically and culturally. The Madame X persona, adopted for the album of the same name, challenges the idea that female sexuality declines with age.
Contentious, controversial, and consistently outspoken, Madonna remains an honest-to-goodness female music icon.
While the close of the Sixties saw the deaths of some of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest icons (think Morrison, Joplin, and Hendrix), the dawn of the Seventies saw music become bloated and excessive. While glam and prog rock found their respective grooves, the Zeps and Stones of that era had become swaggering behemoths. For many, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll had fallen by the wayside.
Chicago-born Patti Smith haunted the New York club scene in the early Seventies, fusing three-chord rock with the poetry and performance art she picked up in Paris. Living in poverty and with much of the music scene dominated by male artists, her sound was understandably angry and something that hadn’t been seen since the likes of The Stooges – and certainly not from a female musician.
Smith’s first band, The Patti Smith Group, released its first album, Horses, in 1975. This album, featuring songs such as Free Money and Land, is widely-credited as being the catalyst for punk. Scant months after its release, bands such as The Ramones, Black Flag and The Cramps exploded onto the New York scene.
However, Smith did much more than pave the way for garage bands. While she disputes that Horses was a punk album, she also cleared the path for other female artists to follow, such as Joan Jett, Suzi Quatro and, later, Siouxsie Sioux. Speaking in 2014, she summed it up in her own, inimitable fashion: “I had a strong sense of myself, and I came to say, ‘Here I am’. I’m speaking to those like me, the disenfranchised, the mavericks. ‘Don’t lose heart, don’t give up’.”
With 153 awards and 415 nominations up her sequinned sleeves, there’s more than enough evidence to convince even the most jaded sceptic of Dolly Parton’s place in music.
While she might appear as familiar as the sunrise, it’s easy to forget that Parton ploughed a loud and proud furrow in a genre that has, traditionally, been dominated by men.
One of 12 children, Parton was raised in poverty. However, inspired by her mother’s singing abilities and after being given a guitar at the age of eight, she taught herself to play and started to write her own songs. Within two years, she was performing on local TV shows and radio stations, in her native Knoxville. At the age of 13, she made her debut performance at the Grand Old Opry, in Nashville.
Eight years later, Parton was approached by country singer, Porter Wagoner, who needed a replacement female singer for his TV show. Her outstanding vocals, easy, breezy nature, and all-American good looks made her a favourite with audiences across the country and she and Wagoner released a string of country hits together.
However, Parton’s star was shining brighter than her counterpart’s and she went solo. The Seventies and Eighties saw her shedding her country weeds and wading into the world of pop. Songs such as 9 to 5, Islands in the Stream and Jolene established her as a multi-genre artist, with an appeal all of her own. A recording of her I Will Always Love You, by Whitney Houston, remains one of the biggest-selling records of all time.
A staunch campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights and the owner of her own theme park, Dolly Parton’s influences can be found in the likes of Taylor Swift, Shania Twain and The Chicks.
The early Noughties seemed to have followed a similar musical trajectory as the early Eighties. Once, music had been an outlet for the alienated and the marginalised. By around 2008, it had become squeaky-clean and a playground for the likes of reality stars, actors wanting to be taken seriously as musicians and boy bands. In many ways, pop had plateaued, and celebrities were ten a penny.
Lady Gaga brought mystery, enigma, and a healthy dose of weirdness back into the frame. However, the meat suits and extra-terrestrial claims aside, Gaga has been able to support her philosophical extravagances with solid pop.
From the outset, Gaga identified herself as an outsider and revelled in it. Her first EP, Fame Monster, was confessional, angry, and tender all at the same time. Dance In the Dark, Bad Romance and Teeth took the fundamentals of pop music and turned them upside down. Experimenting with goth, electronica, and rock, Gaga asserted that no music genre was exclusive to anyone.
On top of that, she’s never been afraid to put her money where her mouth is. At the height of her powers, Gaga released Born This Way, lending her out-and-out support to the LGBTQ+ community. While, a decade later, it might not seem so big a deal, it’s worth remembering that the LGBTQ+ community was still finding its feet. Born This Way became an anthem for those who felt ostracised, through no fault of their own.
A mould-breaker and a trendsetter, Gaga has continued to reinvent herself. What remains constant is her eternal championing of the underdog and her ability to define reality on her own terms, through her music, lyrics, and style.
Salt N Pepa
While the names Cheryl James and Sandra Denton might not mean that much to you, you should certainly remember the name Salt N Pepa. Often mistaken as a duo, Salt N Pepa was actually a trio, with Latoya Hanson being the original third member, although her shoes were later filled by DJ Spinderella.
Of all the music genres, perhaps the one that was most obviously male-centric was hip-hop. The early Eighties saw the genre gathering ground, with artists such as DJ Kool Herc, The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash hogging the mic. However, as it gained traction and MTV came onto the scene, hip-hop videos tended to use scantily-clad women as set-dressing, while the lyrics only seemed to encourage their objectification.
Enter Salt N Pepa.
Salt N Pepa did what, at the time, was almost unthinkable: they played the boys at their own game and turned the genre on its head. Style-wise, they took the rapper’s traditional garb and added their own sense of fun and femininity to it. The varsity jackets, trackie bottoms and de-rigeur caps were brightened with splashes of colour, giving female fans a chance to embrace the trappings of hip-hop on their own terms. Throw in a set of doorknocker earrings and Salt N Pepa became trendsetters.
However, it was with their lyrics that the trip effected the most change. Songs such as Push It, Tramp and Whatta Man explored the themes of female sexuality, independence and occasionally took a pot-shot at their male counterparts. Suddenly, hip-hop wasn’t just for men: “We kept pushing it until they had to start respecting us. We opened the door for women rappers. When Beyoncé and her family dressed like us for Hallowe’en last year, it was her way of acknowledging what we did.”
Without Kate Bush, artists such as Bjork, Florence Welch and even Adele might have found their journeys a lot harder.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, female musicians tended to be seen as ‘decorative’, rather than as serious artists. Even the great Debbie Harry found the press focussing on the way she looked, rather than what she was saying or how she sounded.
Kate Bush changed all that. With her eerie, unearthly vocals, poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and unique fashion-sense, there was no-one like her. Male artists, such as Bowie and Bolan had played with gender-bending, but Bush showed another aspect to femininity; one that didn’t conform to the norms set by men.
Her debut single, Wuthering Heights, took the UK charts by storm, kicking Abba from the top spot, and in spite of the protestations of music glossies. Sounds Magazine wrote that Bush’s records “smell of tarot cards, kitchen curtains and lavender pillows.” However, it was this lyrically-balletic and musically unconventional approach that was to cement Bush as a true pioneer of pop. The Man with the Child in his Eyes and Hounds of Love saw Bush experimenting with her voice, from its trademark, haunting quaver, to something deeper and sultrier. Similarly, her lyrics explored themes that had been relatively untouched in the past. Female sexuality, adolescent lust and alienation were all grist for Bush’s melodic mill.
Today, Bush has largely withdrawn from the music scene, with the exception of a residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014. However, when you listen to songs by female artists that don’t quite go with the flow, you’re sure to hear echoes of Bush somewhere in the mix.
This list is by no means comprehensive, with women such as Whitney Houston, Beyonce, Annie Lennox, Skin and Chrissie Hynde all having kicked the door in for female artists. Let us know in the Comments below who you think has had the greatest impact on modern mainstream music.