She-Horse: Brand Politics & The Perennial ‘Women-in-Music’

I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender,

but I’d like to. I’d like to see my own that way,

free from its female tethers. Maybe it would be like

riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,

but everyone looks at the horse.

-“Horse,” by Chase Twichell* 

It was around 2015 that I began to notice stirrings of a familiar cultural tide coming in: women-in-music. The topic of sexism and gender politics in the music industry continued to pop up in music mags and social media. There were interviews with women musicians detailing the sexism they endure in the industry, and even entire websites and magazines exclusively devoted to female artists (She Shreds, for women bassists and guitarists, Tom Tom Magazine for female drummers).

The most whiplash-inducing moment of dejá vu, though, was when I heard an excited and determined young feminist declaring, “This isn’t just a music trend, this is a movement!” Though I agree with the general sentiment of articles like “It’s Time for the Music Industry to Have a Feminist Revolution” (Oct. 2019), the problem is, we already have.

Several times.

From the mid-90’s music media’s obsession with “She Rock” (the mainstream nod to the underground, zine-fueled Riot Grrl movement), to the female singer-songwriter industry buzz of the 70’s (whose grassroots inspiration was the second wave of feminism in general, and the lesbian-separatist Womyn’s Music Movement, more specifically), to the blues mamas like Ma Rainey and Big Mama Thornton shaking their hips long before Elvis ever appropriated R&B for white teenage girls, women have always been an integral, but sidelined and under-recognized, part of popular music.

And so, wherever there have been women, there have been patronizing inquiries about what it’s like to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry. This pattern often reaches its cultural zenith during moments of “women in music” trends, when female artists are suddenly considered commercially viable in the industry, and feminist ideas are, however briefly, normalized in the mainstream.

In fact, in her 1992 book “She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock n’ Roll,” music historian Gillian G. Gaar recognized a startling regularity to this women-in-music pattern, which seems to occur once per generation, moving in predictable 15-20 year cycles. A key feature of this cycle is that the notion of ‘female empowerment’ and a ‘women’s movement in music’ is applied with abandon to all female artists, regardless of whether they identify as feminist and want to be included or not. (Chrissie Hynde and Joni Mitchell are two artists who notoriously resist the feminist label, and their reasonings are as idiosyncratic, complicated, and personal as any good feminist conversation should be–just don’t call them “feminist.”)

But this generalized appliqué of feminist brand politics onto artists who happen to be female is always a clue that the notion of “female empowerment” has probably become more useful to the industry than it is for actual, like, women. To be sure, despite each surge of supposed progress, the industry as a whole is still 83.2% men and 16.8% women. And that means men inclined to creepily abuse power, like Dr. Luke, still by and large hold the position of cultural gatekeepers, which allows them to manipulate or intimidate talented aspiring female artists, creating circles of control and abuse that limit how far women can move in the industry.

It seems that, despite the appealing gloss of the idea of female empowerment, in the music industry, true gender equity just doesn’t seem to stick. A problem that seems to necessitate the perennial need for women-in-music “movements.”

Fits your Instagram feed just perfectly 😉

But could it actually be that the branding of female artists into a gender-specific sidebar, one that is relentlessly (and perhaps disingenuously) focused on the cause of ’empowerment,’ is partly to blame for the lack of permanent change? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that feminists or feminism are at fault for holding women back, but that the commercialization of supposedly-feminist values, for the sake of marketing music to women, might be. Even further, is there a corollary of this industry pattern to the larger pattern of feminist backlash in society in general, with its stop-and-start cycles of progress and endless two-steps-forward-one-step-back do-si-do on gender equality?

Does branding our politics actually have the unfortunate result of neutering (or rather, spaying) them into complacency?

“When we’re sold the idea of power as a purely individual force rooted in buying stuff rather than a collective one with the potential to drive forward change,” Emma Hope Allwood writes, “all that results is a kind of tokenistic personal brand politics that doesn’t go much further than the square crops of our IG feeds” (“The word ’empowerment’ has literally lost all meaning”, Dazed, 2018). Just as corporate brands from Amazon to Nike instantaneously and vigorously jumped on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon en masse after the killing of George Floyd, corporations are all too eager to align themselves with political movements–when it is en vogue to do so. These brand politics are, regardless of the (assumed) progressive personal feelings and politics of board members and CEOs, still ultimately a move made for the sake of of company’s bottom line. In the shuffle, a force that is supposed to be an agent of cultural change can easily become subsumed into the larger capitalist status quo.

Just as a corporation’s targeted hashtags mean nothing unless their talk is backed up by actual progressive change–like equal pay and diversity in hiring initiatives–individual consumption of empowerment-branded goods and services amounts to nothing more than social media “slactivism” if it is disconnected from community-led and grassroots organization that builds and sustains real political momentum. And in a way, women-in-music is one of the cultural patterns that laid the groundwork for this kind of identity-fueled but often directionless political foment.

“It’s difficult to see how feminist advertising is committed to structural change, since the appeal is to individual women rather than a collective movement,” observes Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny.

The Notorious Pussy Hat.

Unlike other types of femvertising (the selling of products to women by associating them with empowerment, be it deodorant, Lululemon leggings, or girl power anthems), the music industry’s take on ‘female empowerment’ can feel “authentic” because it does not seem, at least on the surface, to remove the collective from the revolution. Whereas sports bras and lipstick sold with empowering messaging, for example, have an individualist, consumerist endgame that is rather grotesquely obvious (the purchase of a product), the “goal” of women-in-music is more diffuse and inherently focused on a ‘collective’ of sorts: a paying audience. Yet still, if thousands of young women in an auditorium cheering about the idea of empowerment does not result in more women making better pay and more fair treatment as performers, engineers, producers, and label executives, then the music industry’s appeal to audience’s ideas of women’s “progress” is more a recurring theme in branding language than about real industry change.

Allwood mused that back in 2012 she never could have imagined this strange new future where feminism would be so popular that ’empowerment’ could even be a marketing slogan. But the truth is that the co-opting of feminism (and all grassroots political movements, in fact) has a long history, one that operates in predictable patterns. As Sut Jhally has been saying for decades, advertising has completely permeated every aspect of our lives; our politics being fed back to us as products shouldn’t really surprise us. And part of what is so insidious about this women-in-music pattern is that we need public spaces to discuss issues of gender equality so that attention is adequately paid to them and change can be enacted.

On one hand, no one wants to have to deal with the eye-roller, “What is it like to be a woman in the music industry?”

On the other, there is no denying patriarchy is real and everywhere, so there are ample experiences of sexism, harassment, and disadvantage to discuss and analyze. Thus, the double-edged sword of the media coverage of these women-in-music “trends” is that it always feels alternately insulting and, well, tentatively, empowering. It is a win, one tends to feel, whenever even a teensy bit of consciousness of shared experience is raised. 

After any given mainstream feminist “uprising” of women-in-music, the established pattern continues, with feminists and feminist dialogue inevitably branching off again into separate subcultural quarters, and the once-fashionable industry attention to issues like sexism, sexual harassment, pay equity, and diversity in hiring never forcing any real industry change. While prevailing sexist attitudes might incline people to take this as evidence of women’s inherent lack of talent and ability, it is probably more indicative of how far from “fair and equitable” an industry like the music industry really is, with its history of payola, ties to the mafia, and so on. From a certain lens, it is somewhat naive to ever really expect an industry that is so blatantly unethical to suddenly clean up its act and be fair to women, of all people.

The factor that ultimately did force real industry change (though not of the feminist sort) was a wild card — the digital streaming revolution. Whether anyone could make money at music at all was now in question, which presumably only encouraged existing good old boys’ networks to tighten their grip on whatever power they still had. Sexism, a wise friend of mine once observed, is ultimately only a handy tool for edging out more than half the competition; we tend to complicate it a lot with all of our theories and analyses, but it’s really only about sheer, elbow-them-outta-the-way capitalism.

While the plight of women in the industry stopped garnering attention around the millennium, I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge that the transition from the old to the new music industry was, in fact, most poignantly eulogized by Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free Now” (an artist who also just so happens to be female). There is no other song that summarizes the existential angst of the modern musician, or the music industry as a whole, so earnestly or eloquently:

“Everything is Free” by Gillian Welch.

Moving forward in cultural time and space to the political maturation of the next generation, by the time Trump was about to be hoisted into office in populist fervor in 2016, the stirrings of the next women’s music movement had already been in motion for a few years in indie music culture. This time fueled by blogs and social media rather than 90’s zine culture, in appreciation for Gaar’s math, this up-and-coming “women’s movement in music” was breaking surface precisely twenty years after the mid-90’s “she rock” wave. In addition to the feminist consciousness at various shows and story headlines, the phrase ‘female empowerment’ was appearing in my inbox with music listings with all too much frequency. Seemingly dozens of advertising houses and labels with pop divas were now looking for new song material, on a regular hunt for ‘the next girl power anthem.’ 

On one hand, I still agree that it is thought-provoking and healthy to do revisionist histories of forgotten women artists alongside profiles of under-recognized women artists. (Take, for example, She Shreds’ feminist reprise of mariachi culture, or their dressing-down of male-focused guitar lore with an important and long-overdue nod to black women guitarists. These are topics that should not only be of interest to women or female musicians, but to anyone who wants to know the underground and under-sung influences in musi. After all, there is no shortage of supposedly earth-shattering new retrospectives on Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the “gods of guitar” greeting us every year at the newsstand.

A bit of intelligent, feminist counterbalance is necessary, by Goddess.

But my concern with the patterns and tendencies of women-in-music moments is more about when grassroots impulses cross into the mainstream and we repeat the cultural ritual of the whole quasi-feminist circus again, with nothing gained. Everyone gets excited about the new ‘movement’ to topple the music industry patriarchy, and it all winds down without yielding any real progress within the industry itself. My weariness is perhaps also the guarded matriarchal protectiveness one generation of feminists always feels for another; “Please don’t break their visionary hearts, cruel world.”

On the other hand, women-in-music and ‘female empowerment’ is now so baked into the industry, I wonder if it even means anything anymore at all; maybe there isn’t really enough momentum to make a viable ‘mainstream’ trend out of it–because what’s the “mainstream” anymore, anyway? Maybe by now, the female empowerment/women-in-music novelty coin has been tossed back and forth so many times it has lost its patina and no longer has much cultural currency.

True, thanks to the concurrent forces of social media and the streaming revolution, music culture has changed dramatically since our last spin of the she-rock theme song. Today, everyone is their own “brand”—and no one stands out as a triumph of  feminism on one hand and identity politic branding so much as Queen Bey, whose deft blending of marketing and empowerment could easily leave most people feeling there isn’t much difference between the two after all. Pause for a moment and consider how far of a cry her empowerment-branded messaging is from the mid-90’s ambivalent Difranco singing, “I am a poster girl with no poster.” To review, Difranco’s hesitation was with the weight that came with representing the feminist politics of her entire fanbase, alongside the manner with which those politics were increasingly reduced into a commercialized, novelized tagline, as she tentatively began to “cross over” from the DIY indie scene to the mainstream. And the conversations we used to have about these topics were, as a feminist friend of mine said once, “good and complicated.”

“Freedom” – International Day of the Girl, Beyoncé.

I’m not questioning the legitimacy of Beyoncé’s reign (I mean, never). And I don’t doubt that her presence and message is genuinely inspiring and, yes, empowering, to many women and girls. I’m only interested in what it looks like when we have sustained and diverse representation of all types of feminist perspective–including the ones that question and challenge, umm…the prerogatives of capitalism.

Despite the undisputed reign of certain pop divas, there is still a need for feminism in music, both in terms of abysmal gender representation across the industry and in instances of sexual abuse. (Aside from R. Kelly, the industry has yet to be fully Me Too’d; I’ve heard people say it’s coming but it has yet to.) And, if music culture is still a reflection of the general culture, it reflects that there is still as profound a need as ever for feminism in society overall.

When the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford debacle revived with horrific precision the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, reminding us that our revolutionary feminist feelings post-2016 are really only a repeat of the early 90’s, I felt this same weariness again. And now, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the potential gutting of so many gains made around civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protections with a conservative-swinging Supreme Court, it really does feel like progress has been all too shallow. If progress is so dependent on the life of one justice to hold it in place, we’ve allowed it to remain far too fragile. The shallow branding of our politics feels like a symptom in a larger pattern of the status quo patronizing us with plastic tokens that say “Grrrl power!” when what we really need is profound, indelible structural change. 

When Brandi Carlile swept the Grammys in 2019, in one of her after-show interviews she reframed the women-in-music question, positing that the 90’s were an era where women dominated, and she saw no reason that couldn’t happen again. This was a pointed counterpunch to the pile of political poo created by Grammy president Neil Portow’s defense of the almost exclusively male winners of the 2018 ceremony with his “Women artists have to step it up” line.

But to me, it almost feels like the music industry has leaned back in its leather swivel chair, put its feet on the executive’s desk and clasped its hands behind its head and retorted, “Well, we have the female empowerment brand, isn’t that enough for these women?” 

With a pussy-grabber in the White House (for now) and amidst the initial gains of the Times Up and Me Too movements against a backdrop of encroaching authoritarianism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, this is a cultural and political moment when we simply cannot afford to have our rallying cries get watered down into ad slogans. We need feminism to be strong, robust, and capable of calling bullshit, now more than ever.

Feminism, when done right, is one of the best cross-cultural modes of communication, inquiry, and activism available to us. Despite how the machinery of the marketplace tries to allocate our interests into pink or blue gender-specific sales categories, and despite how social media tries to convince us that our racial and other identity politics are irreversible lines drawn between us, there is actually more vision, more energy, and more momentum in progressive politics, now more than ever. Which means the advertising campaigns will also grow all the more sophisticated, and it is all the more important to prevent our political vision and will from being boiled down into a commercialized reduction of itself into aesthetically-pleasing fonts and packaging.

When our empathetic impulses to create a more just world are numbed into individualistic consumerism, it is a direct, precise hit to the political nervous system–if we buy it. That this phenomenon has such consistent precedent, whether in music culture or elsewhere, tells us how swiftly and reliably any stirrings of radical feminist action bubbling to the surface can be rendered mute and ineffective through commercial co-optation.

Yet at the same time, there is also never a commercial ‘women in music’ trend without a true grassroots uprising somewhere on the cultural periphery that originally inspired it. Music reflects the energy and heart of the culture, after all. The persistence of this pattern, both culturally and commercially, demonstrates that music has the potential to do more than merely reinforce and challenge gender norms, and then reinforce them again. But it’s up to the collective to take care that we are not pacified by having our radical impulses sold back to us as ad slogans.

And that collective intelligence is our most critical inoculation against the slithering maneuvers of brand politicking: the fact that modern progressive and radical movements possess, in the words of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, a “leader-full” philosophy–a decentralized, democratized political consciousness supported and defined by the efforts and messages of a multitude of leaders contributing diverse perspectives and abilities. The same is true of modern intersectional feminism; there is not one central leader to be found, and its goals are not represented on a solitary podium where one (previously white) woman would stand and supposedly represent the concerns of all womanhood. In a leader-full context, we’re smart enough to know that the purchase of an “empowering” product is not going to magically bring about some kind of ready-made revolution; instead, critical dialogue, engaging with different perspectives, and organizing for actual political, economic, and structural change, is understood to be a responsibility shared by a multitude of thinkers, teachers, activists, and creators.

Ultimately, what we have to remember is that if capitalism specifically organizes around gender as a central tenet, we cannot transform gender and its norms through the coy seductions of the capitalist system. And, we cannot expect the marketplace to transform or empower us. That is a job we can only do within our own minds and hearts, and with one another.