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), there have always been spurts of attention on the perennial issue of gender in the music industry. Too, all the way back to blues mamas 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.


It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan of Joni Mitchell. More like devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space. 

I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back. 

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums Clouds, For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.

Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website:; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing. 

This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.  

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

Please also visit Joni’s website and deep dive into the excellent gallery they offer including all the lyrics and artwork that accompany each of these albums:

Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday back to standard and then back into my slack tunings too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture. 

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni also suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality (which is part of why she’s great). 

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved.

Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.