View Full Version : Study reveals pop is still a man's world

Dec 30th, 2011, 08:42 PM
Study reveals pop is still a man’s world
Dec 19, 2011

It’s not an out-of-nowhere revelation or anything, but it still helps sometimes to have the bleedin’ obvious confirmed on paper for all to see: male recording artists far outnumber their female counterparts on the pop charts.

A statistical study (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03007766.2010.522827) presided over by Concordia University sociologist Marc Lafrance and published this past week in the journal Popular Music and Society concludes, after sampling 10 years’ worth of Billboard charts, that all those Lilith Fair-emboldened claims made at the turn of the millennium that women were finally bound for equal representation with men in pop music might have been a touch too optimistic.

Lafrance and co-researchers Lara Worcester and Lori Burns examined two of the industry bible’s accepted barometers of public taste, the Top 100 singles sales chart and the Top 100 radio-airplay chart, between the years 1997 and 2007.

Basically, they counted the number of hits by male solo acts and female solo acts, as well groups methodologically classed as “male,” “female,” and “male and female,” that hit the charts through that period and, as sociologists do, measured the overall scores tallied by each side against each other in a variety of scientifically rigorous ways.

The results place men solidly in first place. Saleswise, “male artists had 238 hit songs (54.1 per cent) and female artists had 182 (41.4 per cent).” When it came to getting spins on major North American radio stations, “male artists had 271 hit songs (61.6 per cent) and female artists had only 151 (34.3 per cent).”

“This really just came about out of curiosity,” says Lafrance. After a recent conversation about the “women in rock” mania that briefly blazed up in music journalism towards the end of the 1990s, when the likes of Alanis Morissette and Céline Dion and Shania Twain were moving boatloads of records and Lilith was a surprise smash hit on the concert circuit, he had assumed that there would have been a subsequent, corresponding boost in the female presence on the pop charts.

A professionally ingrained sense of duty to find empirical evidence to support that hypothesis compelled him to pull some Billboard data from the Lilith era of 1997 to 1999, and the data wound up proving him wrong: “1997 and 1998 were two of the worst years for women on the charts in our decade-long sample,” he laughs.

A research project was, thus, born. And while the results might not be super-surprising — wow, men dominate yet another field — there’s still some intriguing food for thought to be found amidst the finer details.

The disparity between sales figures and airplay figures, for instance, is an interesting theoretical departure point because it implies that people are granted far less choice in gender representation in the music they hear on the radio than the music they actually take home to listen to themselves.

“Not only do men dominate more often on the airplay charts, but the margin by which they dominate is wider than it is on the sales charts,” the report tells us.

The decision makers behind modern, corporate radio’s narrow playlists clearly favour the male voice — or, at least, the decision-making process that gives rise to their musical and gender homogeneity does. Think radio is a bit of a boys’club? Well, yeah, you’re probably right.

A noticeable disparity, too, lies between male- and female-fronted groups. The latter is an almost non-existent presence in the study.

Women are grossly under-represented on these two Billboard charts as musicians, as women who play instruments and form bands. No wonder it’s still cause for popular remark when a new “all-girl” band starts making the rounds.

True, this is partly traceable to the fact that pop’s traditional guitar/bass/drums set-up (not to mention rock ‘n’ roll’s “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” mythology) is still regarded as a “boy” thing while girls are more likely to be quietly planted at the piano or behind a cello.

There are still a lot of women playing bands out there, however, and it’s revealing that they don’t tend to score many Billboard hits.

Who does? Well, think of the big female pop stars of the moment — Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga, who’s a bit subversive but still playin’ the game — and then think backwards in time to their previous iterations.

Pop favours a pretty gal in a revealing outfit, plain and simple. Also, the report rightly notes: “The female artists who do well on the charts are an increasingly important part of celebrity tabloid culture — a culture that, as we know, scrutinizes and sensationalizes many aspects of their lives both on and off the stage.

“Similarly, these female artists are often fully fledged consumer brands whose commercial success is driven as much by who they are and how they look as it is by what they do and how they sound.”

Every so often someone who breaks the mould slips through, yet that then becomes the hook. Adele has this year’s biggest album in 21, yet have you yet come across a story on her that doesn’t mention somewhere that she’s more “real” (ie., larger) than your average pop star?

“There’s something very ornamental about the way women figure on the pop charts,” concurs Lafrance. “There’s a long history of us, as a culture, of being very happy to be entertained by the lovely, charming, chirpy female singer. We’re happy to be beguiled by her, but when it comes down to who we actually value as musicians and who we really attribute ‘cred’ to, that still seems to be the province of men.”

There’s some good news for the girls. When they do make the charts, women tend to do much better than men, getting closer to No. 1 much more often and for longer periods of time — although to Lafrance, this suggests that pop stardom for women is a more fleeting experience than for men.

“We can’t help but conclude that men seem to be able to chart on the strength of their own careers as musicians,” he says. With female artists, though, “there seems to be a kind of cultural imperative at work (where) women need to produce themselves as sexy, exciting, readily consumable brands.”

He might be onto something. When a female pop star gets big, after all, she gets big. She’s everywhere you look, starring in a movie and launching her own perfume and clothing lines.

Her cultural impact is enormous — look at the inescapable dent Gaga has smashed into the popular consciousness — but it’s also a presence of the exhaustive/exhausting, all-pervasive variety that tends to wear out its welcome before long. And then it’s on to the next one. You haven’t come a long way, baby.