Thursday, December 04, 2008

Sexism at Rolling Stone? This week's Rolling Stone lists the 100 best vocalists ever. I did some totals, and 75 singers were male while only 25 were women. At first that sounds like a case of people prefering male to female voices. They're stronger, more resonant. Women's voices can be shrill and screechy. Growing up in the 80s, I could count on one hand the number of contemporary female singers I liked. (Off the top of my head, Blondie, Hynde, Lennox, Sade, Sinead).

But I noticed that the judges picked by RS were men by three or four to one. It is clearly a male dominated industry. Not only are the judges men, they tend to be older, and the list shows a real preference for the 50s-70s. That's not simply bias: many people including myself think that music was better then.

Anyway, perhaps the long list of male artists reflects male bias or the traditional expectation that women would give up careers for family.

I looked at those who made the list who were born in 1960 or after, and the ratio shifts dramatically. While four guys made it onto the list--Bono, Cobain, Rose, and Yorke--five women made it--Houston, Aguilera, Bjork, Carey, and Blige. Three guys were just a year or two too old--Prince, Jackson, and Morrissey--but even with them, male dominance is not what it used to be.

And this squares with my own experience: I haven't counted, but the gender split of the young singers I listen to now is roughly 50/50. Maybe there are more relaxed female singers now--the kind I usually like (e.g., Corinne Bailey Rae).

The girls seem about as good as the guys at singing these days. The creative types are still largely men--notice how most of the women I listed are known for their voices--but I suspect the gap is smaller now. The gender revolution of the past half century has, I suspect, exposed us to more female talent. The problem is that what folks, male or female, are creating ain't what it used to be.


  1. Agreed, but there is also the social-economic question.

    As a sometime low-level writer about the indie scene in and around SoCal in the late 1980's, and early 1990's, what was different then than now was the whole infrastructure that allowed non-"bimbo" singer/songwriters/artists who were female to be successful.

    There were clubs to play in, a lot more. There were independent records, and a far more open commercial radio not to mention adventurous college radio. A band with a lead female singer/songwriter who was not "bimbo-esque" but serious about musicianship, could play, in various local clubs, get a small-time record deal, enough to finance road trips to places in the Midwest and East, and then use that to get more airplay on the radio.

    Plus, at that time music mags actually mattered, and fans would pay actual real money to see the band and buy their CDs.

    Now, you get a more corporate effort, with singer/songwriters who are female forced into the bimbo model, and most of the female talent is the Disney type, from squeaky clean girl next door to sleazy bimbo.

  2. Anonymous12:55 AM

    Part of the decline in male dominance is that few boys take up singing these days. I don't know how it was 40 or 50 years ago, but these days the vast majority of people who are interested in singing are women.

    If you want to audition vocalists you will get mostly women. I know academic choirs have trouble finding enough male voices, and small volunteer choirs (in churches etc.) tend to be mostly female - 80-90% around here.

    I don't know if it's just that the boys take up guitar instead, but anywhere you go there seems to be an overabundance of female singers and male guitarists. But I wouldn't be surprised if there were simply more male singers before the rock era.


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