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The end of the old boys club? How women took over pop music Print-ready version

From Taylor Swift to Billie Eilish, this year's Grammys show that we are in an era of female-dominated music. And the statistics back it up

by James Hall
February 5, 2024

66th Grammy Awards: Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus of boygenius, Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers of boygenius CREDIT: John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Women dominated this year's Grammy Awards like never before with Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Billie Eilish taking home the evening's three major awards. Female singer-songwriter SZA took home three statuettes, while Atlanta-born Victoria Monét was named the best new artist. As if this wasn't enough, Sunday night's most memorable performances at Los Angeles' Arena came courtesy of Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell.

Awards ceremonies have felt like an old boys club - and this has persisted until recently. Note the 2018 Grammys when only one woman, Alessia Cara, received a main award, which inspired the hashtag #GrammysSoMale. A study that same year found that over the previous five years, a whopping 90.7 per cent of Grammy Award nominees were men. Barring a few outliers over its 66-year history - Carole King's haul of four Grammys in 1972 for Tapestry, Madonna's three Grammys in 1999 for Ray of Light, Amy Winehouse's five in 2007 for Back to Black, Beyoncé's record 32 awards (although she notoriously lost on Best Album to Beck in 2015) - the ceremony has tended to rain concentrated volumes of its mini gramophones on blokes.

U2's 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and Santana's 1999 LP Supernatural both won nine awards apiece. Michael Jackson's Thriller scooped eight. Female winners seemed a novelty. "That's just the way it is when you're a woman in a man's world," sang eight-time Grammy winner Tina Turner back in 1978. But, at last, no longer.

The astonishing thing about this year's awards was the breadth and depth of female nominees. Seven of the eight nominees for the flagship Album of the Year category were female (it was won by Swift's Midnights album). This is quite a feat when you consider that on 11 occasions since the Grammys were launched 65 years ago, no women were even nominated for the top award (most recently in 2013). There has been a complete inversion. In this year's nominee lists for the three big categories - for Record, Song and Album of the Year, yes they really are separate things - the Louisiana multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste was the only man to appear.

The situation reflects a seismic change in the music industry. Over the decades there have always been breakout female superstars: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt in the country and bluegrass arena, Aretha Franklin and King in the Seventies and Madonna and Whitney Houston in the Eighties, for example. For much of the time, successful women artists were forced to be puppets, performing songs written by men and slickly packaged by male execs. Artists such as Mitchell, and Kate Bush here in the UK, were pioneers who for many years felt like the only women completely in control of their music.

Now, finally, women are dominating music comprehensively. Analysis of US and UK industry data going back decades shows that this change has been gradual, steady and irrefutable. A head of steam has now transmogrified into a new epoch. We are firmly in the era of female-dominated music.

The statistics are stark whichever way you look at them. Taking the Grammys as a starting point, the Album of the Year award was only won by female artists five times in the 30-year period following the ceremony's launch in 1959 (this includes Fleetwood Mac's 1978 victory for Rumours and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's win for Double Fantasy in 1982).

However, since the start of the 1990s it has been won by female artists 17 times with a ski jump-shaped uptick in recent years. Many would argue that the figure of 17 should be even higher because as rapper Jay-Z pointedly remarked at Sunday's awards, his wife Beyoncé has, despite her success, never won the Album of the Year award. And neither, astonishingly, has Madonna.

Away from the Grammys, overall album sales figures from the US tell a similar story. Since Billboard started tracking annual album sales figures in 1956, the best-selling album every single year (barring film and musical soundtracks) was by a male singer or group until 1986 when Whitney Houston's debut album broke the male grip. Since then, however, female artists have been behind the US's best-selling album 18 occasions, with - again - a huge weighting towards recent years. Indeed, women would have had the best-selling album in the US every calendar year for the last decade were it not for soundtrack to The Greatest Showman being the top seller in 2018.

It's the same pattern in the UK. The UK album charts started in 1956, when the biggest selling album of the year was the soundtrack to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. Between 1956 and 2000, the year's biggest selling albums were by female artists on just 10 occasions (this includes bands with female members or fronted by females: Blondie, The Corrs, ABBA and The Carpenters).

But since 2000, female artists have had the year's best-selling LPs 11 times. On four occasions it was one woman: Adele. And consider this. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, the UK had more than twice as many number one albums by female artists than it did in the 1990s, and that figure was almost double the number in the Eighties.

Beyond the fact that women are putting out thrilling and adventurous music, what is behind the new epoch? It could be that the music pendulum has swung away from 'groups' and 'rock' (largely - and I am grossly simplifying things here - a male domain) towards solo pop stars (a more female domain). Received wisdom says that groups are dead. But the facts don't really bear this theory out.

Plenty of bands have released fantastic albums in the last year. Besides, at this year's Grammys, rock band Paramore became the first female-fronted group to win the award for Best Rock Album. In the UK, the big critical successes in terms of bands are the female outfits Wet Leg and The Last Dinner Party. So much for an all-male cabal.

Some of the change is undoubtedly to do with a shift in sentiment. After the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the music industry had has a long hard look at itself. It has been fearfully male dominated for decades - it still is at the top of the chain - and "representation" has become a watchword. The days of male privilege are over. Witness the backlash last year when Harry Styles said that "this doesn't happen to people like me very often" when he picked up his Album of the Year award. "What?" people asked. "It doesn't happen to... white men?" It was a rare slip - whether real or perceived - from the usually sure-footed Styles.

There have also been changes in how the Grammys are voted for. The organisation removed gendered categories back in 2012, putting men and women on an equal footing. And organisers are increasing the number of female voters. Around 11,000 music professionals vote for the Grammy winners, and a few years ago the organising Recording Academy pledged to add 2,500 female voting members to its number by 2025. It is well on the way to doing this. Women now make up 30 per cent of total voters, while people of colour comprise 38 per cent. Men still dominate but the balance is shifting.

But the dominance of women is mainly down to hard work and high quality of the output of the artists themselves. Who else but Taylor Swift could be halfway through a mammoth world tour having broken ticket sale and cinema box office records, and coolly announce from the Grammys stage that she's releasing yet another new album in a matter of weeks? You could almost hear jaws drop throughout the arena. I can't lip read, but I'd love to know what Ed Sheeran was saying when the camera honed in on him.

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Added to Library on February 5, 2024. (442)


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