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  • Mia Penner

The Music Industry Is Far from Equal. Here's Why:

Last month, the Grammy Awards featured a medley of “firsts” for women in music. Taylor Swift became the first woman to win album of the year three times, joining Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon in the distinction. Beyoncé broke the record for the number of Grammy awards won by an artist. Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion also became the first female duo to take home the award for Best Rap Song.

Female artists seem to be clutching the music industry in their grasp. But the music industry, like any other big business, is not immune to sexism.

As of 2016, men held 67.8% of jobs in the music industry, occupying the majority of the positions of power. Powerful men in music have exploited women’s bodies and capitalized off of their talent for commercial success.

Kesha’s highly-publicized legal battle is one example of this unfortunate reality. In 2014, the singer sued producer Dr. Luke, claiming that he “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused [her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life” in order to “maintain complete control over her life and career.” Several other female artists, including Lady Gaga, have also accused male producers and record executives of abuse and sexual assault.

Kesha (pictured at right) and Dr. Luke (pictured at left).

The media plays a key role in the demonization of women in the music industry. Tabloid magazines often publish sordid stories about female artists’ personal lives as well as their bodies, which undermines their talent and reduces them to sexual objects. Take, for example, this headline published by Radar Online in 2014: “‘Starving’ To Be Skinny? Taylor Swift’s Shrinking Frame Under Fire — Top Docs Weigh In.” Rather than discuss Swift’s music career, the tabloid opted to spread baseless claims about her weight. Unfortunately, magazine headlines like this one have become the norm.

The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” which was released in early February, illuminated the effects of sexism in the media and the music industry. The media profitted off of Spears’s sex appeal, devoting countless stories to her dating life while simultaneously ridiculing her for being “overly sexual.” The documentary emphasized how the media’s sexist treatment of Spears ultimately contributed to her downfall. It also made clear that male pop stars seldom receive the same media coverage.

The New York Times Documentary "Framing Britney Spears" is available on Hulu and sheds light on the media's sexist treatment of Britney Spears.

What’s more, the media often casts doubt on female artists’ talent. There’s a common assumption that female artists don’t really write or produce their own songs; there must be a man in the room. “For a male artist, people instantly assume they write their own music, but for women, they assume it's all manufactured," said singer-songwriter Dua Lipa in a 2018 interview.

There’s also a clear double standard when it comes to songs about love. Men are praised for writing about past relationships, while women are commonly deemed vengeful or manipulative. Taylor Swift, who has received her fair share of criticism for writing songs about ex-boyfriends, is no stranger to this double standard. “Why is it mischievous, fun and sexy if a guy has a string of lovers that he's cast aside, loved and left? Yet if a woman dates three or four people in an eight-year period she is a serial dater and it gives some 12-year-old the idea to call her a slut on the internet? It's not the same for boys, it just isn't and that's a fact,” Swift said in a 2014 interview.

Women of color have undeniably borne the brunt of sexism in the music industry. Rappers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are consistently labeled “ungodly” and “bad role models” by politicians and the media for using sexually explicit language. Los Angeles congressional candidate James B. Bradley, for example, tweeted, “Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion are what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure.” Bradley ridiculed the rappers for referencing sex while simultaneously playing into the racist stereotype that Black women have absent fathers. Male artists are praised for using sexual language and even objectifying women in their songs, while female artists are scorned for pursuing bodily autonomy.

Cardi B (pictured at left) and Megan Thee Stallion (pictured at right) and the 2021 Grammy Awards.

A 2019 investigative report by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative laid plain the effects of sexism in the music industry. The researchers studied the 700 top songs on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart between 2012 and 2018 and found that women made up just 21.7 percent of artists, 12.3 percent of songwriters, and 2.1 percent of producers.

Progress has certainly been made since the report was conducted, but much more needs to be done to ensure that women are treated equally and adequately represented in the music industry. The change starts with us. We must deprogram the assumption in our own brains that women cannot write or produce music as well as their male counterparts. We must criticize the media for sexist treatment of female celebrities and refuse to buy into the idea that sexuality is innately bad. Above all, we must demand that female singers, songwriters, and producers are respected for doing their job — and a good one at that.

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