The Business of Pop Music, and The Women Who Are Leading It
Since early September, we’ve been in the midst of an unprecedented run of female domination in pop music. Up until this week, the top five spots on the Billboard Hot 100 were all occupied by women. This is the longest streak of its kind, and evidence of an undeniable trend in pop. Almost all of the women were directly involved in writing or producing their own music, and several of them have spoken at length of their ambition, their work ethic, their views on the music industry overall, and what they want out of their careers. It’s an inspiring moment for women that has gotten almost no real coverage outside of the pages of Billboard, and even there the record label executives interviewed about it made sure to point out “‘On the other side, we’re hearing labels say “Can you find me the next Sam Smith?”” That interview was in the October 17th edition of Billboard. The all-female streak continued for another two weeks until Maroon 5’s “Animals” cracked the fifth position.
It’s no accident that this occurred in the same period of time that Taylor Swift sold more albums in one week than any artist since N*Sync in 2002, and outsold every other album released this year in the same span of time. 1989 is a certifiable hit, and Swift herself was actively involved in conceptualizing the promotion of the album, and enlisting fans to help spread word of mouth to get those huge first week sales. From her start as a teenage country singer, Taylor Swift has matured into a smart, thoughtful woman who spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the value of art back in July. At that time she said:
“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”Given this, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that she decided not to immediately make 1989 available on Spotify, and that eventually the rest of her albums were removed from the service. When she came under fire for this decision, a great deal of the taunts centered around the idea that Swift clearly didn’t understand how the music business worked even though she’s been working in it since she was 16. Then it was insinuated that it must be someone else making the call to pull her music off Spotify despite the fact that the decision was entirely in line with Swift’s previously stated feelings about free streaming services, and that of all of Big Machine’s artists only Swift’s music was pulled from the service. Sure enough, Swift confirmed in an interview with Yahoo that it was her decision to pull her music from Spotify, stating “But all I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.” The idea that Swift could be directing her career the way she wants to was apparently completely unthinkable without explicit confirmation, and despite her massive success it seems that all anyone wants to tell her is that she’s doing it wrong.
Nicki Minaj is also in that top 5 club for the song “Bang Bang” which she performed with Jessie J and Ariana Grande. She’s generally treated as the butt of many jokes given her tendency to wear flamboyant costumes and wigs, and write songs like “Anaconda.” She’s also a very articulate woman who’s keenly aware of the biased cultural perceptions she faces, as shown in this video that’s a few years old now:
This is a woman who knows exactly what she needs to do to drive her career, and isn’t afraid of it despite her frustrations with the situation. That was taped sometime in 2010. Nicki Minaj is still topping charts today, and still continues to not give a shit what people think of her as long as she’s successful.
I could go on like this. Iggy Azalea came to America by herself when she was 16 and cleaned hotel rooms to chase her dream of being a rapper. Tove Lo is a member of the superstar producer Max Martin’s writing team and talks about how deeply personal her hit “Habits (Stay High)” is to her and why she chose to perform it herself. Katy Perry kept her album Teenage Dream on the Billboard charts for three solid years, and will be performing at this year’s Super Bowl after publicly announcing that she would not pay to play. Rihanna is an international superstar while maintaining a nearly flawless air of not giving a fuck. And that’s not even discussing the powerhouse that is Beyoncé, because she’d need her own column (or six). Beyoncé and Swift, in particular, have careers that are so extraordinary that they can do things that wouldn’t work for other artists, like release an album with no pre-promotion or take their music off streaming services that refuse to restrict their music to only paying subscribers.
We are in a golden age of ambitious women in pop music pursuing their dreams and being actively engaged in their business. But I know that there’s plenty of you already warming up your arguments that I’m wrong, because it’s pop music so it’s silly and doesn’t matter. Because they wear short skirts, so they don’t deserve respect. Because they sing about love, and ex-boyfriends, and heartbreak, and those things are shallow and meaningless even though “love” as a subject is probably responsible for 80% of all music ever written. Because their music is catchy and designed to get stuck in your head and make you dance, instead of making you sit down and think deep thoughts. Because they are wildly successful, and there’s an awful lot of people who think they shouldn’t be because they deliberately TRY to be popular instead of making unprofitable music that suits some unnamed critic’s artistic sensibilities. That the way they run their business is “wrong” even if they are achieving all their goals, and acting according to their own desires.
The other side of this equation is, of course, the consumers who are making these women famous. And by and large, it is women and girls. Disparaging these artists and pop music in general is yet another way our larger culture works to tell girls that their feelings are stupid and shallow. A multi-billion dollar industry is driven by young women, and yet can’t bring itself to really respect them or the artists they revere. It is toxic. It’s easy to disrespect or belittle someone like Katy Perry who is deliberately ridiculous and over the top for the sake of entertainment, but a bit harder to think about the young Katy Perry fans who may hear that. When I was about 10, the Spice Girls hit the states like a sequined, platform-shoe wearing bomb and I was in with my whole heart. Their music wasn’t ground breaking, it was more catchy than insightful, and their public personas were boiled down to one or two absurdly shallow attributes. And I didn’t care. I heard the rumors and the teasing, and the put downs directed at them. It just made me feel like those people thought I was dumb for enjoying them. It took me until I was in college to really feel like I could talk about music without being ashamed of my tastes, and that was after four years of high school band and orchestra, three years of all country orchestra, and successfully auditioning into a well-regarded music school. The way these women are covered and discussed matter. Giving time to them as people is as important (if not much much more important) as their stage costumes. Taylor Swift’s thoughts on the music industry and her career are more newsworthy than her dating history. Women dominating the Billboard Hot 100 for two solid months is something we should be talking about. So let’s start.