Albums that criticized sexism in the music industry
Last month, Dr. Luke, despite Kesha’s rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse charges, ranked No. 1 on the Billboard Top Producers chart. Also last month, the Recording Academy nominated comedian Louis CK for a Grammy, despite numerous accusations of sexual misconduct. All this to say that the music industry often has no regard for the safety of women.
This becomes more and more evident over time. Earlier this year, it seemed like we, as a collective society, were thinking about how we were treating Britney Spears. Our recognition of this situation of sexism, however, quickly traded off and turned into a documentary, which happens quite frequently, making it seem like talking about trauma in this industry is only necessary if it is profitable.
So it was perhaps inevitable that some of this year’s biggest releases consist of women verbalizing the mistreatment they face in the process of creating and exiting art. Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, who arrived in May after the unveiling of memorable and hugely successful singles, painted a portrait of a young woman who is fed up with constantly having to prove that she is smarter and more mature than anyone who usually would valued. A lot of people – mostly men – were surprised to find that they liked this female pop star; many pretentious music lovers argued over the genre of his songs. Do we have the right to add the term rock? Alternative? Punk? (On a similar note, many of the headlines dubbed Sour like a breakup album, and a lot of other titles have claimed that it wasn’t “just” a breakup album. They are right, they are not, but would it be a problem if they were?)
But that’s irrelevant. There are reasons to be wary of Rodrigo; she was, after all, a kid of Disney, and that can’t be ignored when discussing the colossal impact of her debut album in the music world this year. However, one of the reasons Sour so well done, it makes you forget all that. The fierce first track, ‘Brutal’, is both vulnerable and bombastic, especially when she sings: ‘And I’m so tired that I could / Quit my job, start a new life / And they’d all be so disappointed /’ Because who am I if not exploited? This – from an 18 year old woman who played a role in the Musical High School series of mock documentaries – felt monumental. How often is exploitation mentioned in pop music, let alone specifically named?
And a lot of it comes down to the fact that, well, she’s literally a teenager. Much of the attention given to him is due to his youth, and Sour seemed determined not to let any listener find her naive. She doesn’t want to be patronizing or underestimated.
More recently, Taylor Swift expressed a similar sentiment on her re-recording of the 2012 Red. Its struggles with the industry became evident in 2020 when Scooter Braun sold its masters so that it no longer owns its past work. “Nothing New” is a collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers which focuses on the new version of Red, the version she created in order to have ownership and agency. The first lines capture the treatment of women in an industry that deserves to demean them: “They tell you while you’re young / ‘Girls, go out and have fun’ / Then they hunt and kill the ones who actually do / Criticize the way you fly when soaring in the sky. The fact that Bridgers skips this track shows that this problem hasn’t changed since Swift wrote the song around 2012; Bridgers is the next woman in the spotlight who asks, “Lord, what am I going to become / After I lose my novelty?”
Billie Eilish wonders this on Happier than ever. After turning 19, she sings on the opening track: “I’m getting older, I think I’m aging well / I wish someone told me I would do this on my own.” It’s pretty obvious that the music industry often pedestal women who are in their late teens; the younger the women, the easier they are to exploit and fetishize. Yet the pressures are greater and the rate at which they are growing is increasing. All of this is only exacerbated by the fact that millions of people jumped at the opportunity to sexualize and objectify these women from the age of 18, as if they never saw her as a real person to begin with. .
Similar to Rodrigo, she sings: “Things I Formerly Appreciated / Just keep me employee now.” It truly portrays the loss of sincerity and a real creative drive once art is turned into a career. Much of the album has this kind of meta-theme; the title itself refers to the dissonance between Eilish’s private and public life. Her personal priority of being happy is constantly skewed by the stories the media make up about her.
So much is lost when a woman brings vulnerable art to life. It is often judged to correspond to stereotypes; the genre “sad girl” is the best example, showing that women cannot express their feelings in music without being lumped into a category that reinforces the idea that their gender makes them inherently “hysterical” and “overly emotional”. “. What else is lost is the musician’s ability to exist as a being; on “Blouse”, from Clairo’s July album Sling, she repeats: “If touch could make them hear / then touch me now.” She sacrifices her limits just to be listened to, and that seems like a requirement for every woman who makes music. It doesn’t help that the industry intentionally shines a light on young, white, skinny, cis, and conventionally pretty women; the media may regard them as an interchangeable type. This can obviously weigh on a musician, who offers something sincere to an industry that reimburses by calling them disposable.
All of these builds have performed extremely well this year, whether through sales or feeds, award nominations, or placement in year-end polls like Uproxx’s. But the industry hasn’t really listened to the real work it brings up. Change begins by seeing musicians as more than workers and women as more than objects.