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Changing Tides: The Evolution of Women Musicians in Mainstream Coverage

Media has the power to shape culture and write history. In this longform article we go back 100 years and explore the cycles of erasure that have wrongfully led our society to believe that the presence of women is anything but pioneering.

September 26, 2020
Written by
Natalie Baker

In the first three Rolling Stone covers of 2020, more musicians were women of color (Lizzo, SZA, Megan Thee Stallion, Normani) than all of its covers combined from 2010 to 2015 (Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Nicki Minaj). 

This shift in representation hasn’t been swift so much as sudden: a whiplash undoing of mainstream publications presenting scattered gendered exceptionalism, packaged and sold under a slobbery male gaze as music journalism. Plenty of people have been calling it out (or mutely unsubscribing) for decades, but to little avail. However, over the last few years, a combination of capitalist survivalism and good old-fashioned public shame has jolted greasier-than-glossy magazines into accepting that short-term impulse buys for sexy covers can’t remedy the consequential reputation rot.

Plus, it wasn’t like the wrung-out “sex sells” strategy, with all its thin assumptions of who’s doing the buying and what they want, had actually been working. Over the course of a decade, Rolling Stone newsstand buys had slunk from 139k per issue in 2007 to 28k in 2017, surviving more on a few bouts of impressive political journalism than much else. In 2018, the new owner of Rolling Stone’s parent company announced that their goal for the publication was to be relevant to millennial consumers—a hell of an endeavor for a magazine that has been recycling Bob Dylan and The Beatles since its inaugural issue. Guitar World similarly changed its tune in 2016 when it announced an end to the annual bikini gear guide.

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The corporate notion of appealing specifically to younger generations emerged in 1954, when Billboard announced that jukebox operators had been increasingly stocking R&B records to meet the demand of white teenagers who weren’t interested in the orchestral “popular music” that dealers had been pedaling in segregated shops. Fast forward more than 70 years and the business goal of remaining relevant to young buyers is increasingly intertwined with an expectation of respect for the web of identities musicians hold. While it’s unwise, if not difficult, to espouse an eagle-eye understanding of a phenomenon while living through it, it can feel at times like things are changing for the better.

However, change can be an elusive, slippery thing when touted imprecisely. Who are we including when we talk about how women are recognized, celebrated, or ignored? Who fits within that gendered category, and who do we consider entitled to recognition? Which voices count as “the media?” When we compare “right now” to “back then,” with which moment do we begin and how does our linear conception of time encompass the waxing and waning nature of progress?

This article is about how mainstream music publications have portrayed musicians who live outside of the cis male mold, because widespread visibility can have a powerful impact on our understanding of what is possible. As Oprah put it in a documentary about the Ed Sullivan Show’s impact: “You don’t understand what it’s like to be in a world where nobody looks like you. When I first saw Diana Ross looking glamorous and beautiful, it represented possibility and hope. It was life changing.” Achieving visibility and respect that fully reflects the contributions of a person or group to our culture is part of a systemic cycle of awareness, acceptance, and appreciation. Maddeningly, these cycles wax and wane without regard to the unity of our intersecting identities, which is why so few of the musicians discussed in this article are openly trans or nonbinary. To discuss how certain musicians have been talked about over the course of history is to be limited to those names that were uttered loudest to begin with. It is paramount, then, to distinguish between an analysis of what was and an analysis of what we have found. This is the latter.

And it started with Mamie Smith.

Early Blues Women and the Black Consumer, 1920s

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“A studio headshot portrait of American blues singer Mamie Smith,” photograph, circa, 1923, Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images
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Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, April, 25th 1921

Rock created the music publications we read today, R&B created rock, blues created R&B, and Mamie Smith made the blues a national sensation. In the summer of 1920, a small label called Okeh Records recorded Smith singing a rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues.” The record was an overnight sensation among Black working-class consumers, catalyzing a series of reactions by the record industry that would change popular culture forever. As Angela Davis pointed out in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Smith’s success simultaneously led record companies to finally consider the tastes of Black consumers (while pigeonholing them into segregated buyer categories) and producing the music of Black women musicians. As blindly rooted in profit as these corporate labels’ reactions were, the ultimate impact was that rock ‘n’ roll and some of our biggest music icons’ signature sounds originated in Black communities—often Black women musicians, specifically. Because of Mamie Smith’s success, the country’s biggest record labels rushed to sign Black women musicians such as Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Ethel Waters, Gladys Bentley, and Bessie Smith (no relation to Mamie Smith), who a teenaged Billie Holiday listened to before moving to Harlem and singing in the nightclub where Benny Goodman discovered her. The rest is history—or as Frank Sinatra put it in a 1958 interview with Ebony, “Lady Day [Billie Holiday] is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” Little could he know that, as was finally acknowledged in 2000 by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Holiday’s genealogy of sound extends to today.

At a time when white women’s orchestral pop music still held up marriage and heteronormative domesticity, these early blues recordings were the first instances of women singing to a national audience about independence, fluid sexuality, domestic violence, and working class struggle—phenomena that have often been mistakenly treated as inceptive when they later re-emerged in everything from the sexual revolution colliding with second-wave feminism to Madonna to the #MeToo movement.

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Not only were the messages of early blues women revolutionary, but their popularity being based on the music they produced rather than their appearances was new too. Before records became an affordable way to listen to music, women’s musical successes and their ensuing coverage in the mainstream were tied to their visual performances on vaudeville stages.

The Influence of Tharpe and Thornton, 1930 – 1950s 

The Second World War came and went, and temporary openings for women in factories (such as Gibson’s Kalamazoo Gals) as well as the mainstream music business along with it. When the war ended, government propaganda of women’s equality did too, leading to a spike in pop music as a vessel for messages of feminine domesticity. When the war ended in 1945—seven years after she packed an audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall—Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” made history as the first gospel song to cross over into popular appeal, while Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey” topped the charts, marking the beginning of Day’s career as an “armed forces sweetheart.”

Sure, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was so popular that she played to a massive stadium 14 years before The Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert (popularly cited as the first such performance), but Variety’s white male writers couldn’t resist framing their kudos as being about a person “of considerable heft” whose music was “even for sophisticates.” The same drivel applied to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, whose 1953 charts-topper “Hound Dog” rocked the musical landscape at #1 for seven straight weeks while she was subjected to vile physical comparisons and blatant respectability politics. Elvis may have idolized Tharpe, but he played right into the hands of industry executives looking to put a white man’s face on Tharpe’s and Thornton’s sound. Worse than Presley’s co-opted success was the white-washing of rock ‘n’ roll history it triggered. The British Invasion, as rock critic Kandia Crazy Horse would later point out, finished what Elvis had started. By 1970, Tharpe was described by one publication as “so rhythmically exciting that when she accompanies herself on guitar she might be a blacked-up Elvis in drag.”

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe
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Afro-American, July 14, 1951

Emergence of the Modern Rock Critic, 1960s

Considering how the 1960s birthed second-wave feminism, it’s impressive how dude-centric the emergence of modern rock journalism was. In fact, if there’s a moment from which you can directly trace the peak crudeness of mainstream music magazines, the mid-1960s might be your best bet. While the 1980s took the objectification of women to appalling heights, it was the 1960s emergence of the modern rock critic as well as gonzo journalism—which prided itself on making dumpster fires of professional ethics—and the left’s rejection of sexual mores that provided a rebranding opportunity for deeply entrenched misogyny in the music industry.

Even Rolling Stone had its exceptions, though, as any vessel of exceptionalism must. A few months before the magazine published its first issue in 1967, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” hit #1 on Billboard’s charts. Taking a break from its worship of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, the second issue of Rolling Stone dedicated a full page to the Queen of Soul. “Let her do her things, after all, she’s the one with the talent,” the piece advised Franklin’s new producer before launching into a song-by-song analysis of Aretha Arrives (1967, Atlantic Records). The next year, the young music outlet published an eerie echo of Billboard’s 1923 acknowledgment of Bessie Smith’s triumphs: “In this day when groups and infrequent solo male artists dominate the music, the public interest and the charts, Aretha Franklin’s incredible commercial success is extraordinarily noteworthy.” Whether it was in Rolling Stone or The New York Times, Franklin got credit—and even though she made history when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the mainstream media’s serious treatment of her talent was revolutionary 20 years prior too.

However, journalists still found ways to gender their coverage of Franklin, erase the women who came before her, or both. In 1968, The New York Times published one of their earliest articles about Franklin: “Establishing an identity through asserting the basic female emotions does not sound like a very original or interesting development for a pop singer—yet it is, in fact, almost without precedent in Miss Franklin’s tradition,” claimed white male writer Albert Goldman. “The old-timers like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey (or Mahalia Jackson today) were massive matriarchs,” Goldman lazily stereotyped before turning to the woman-as-victim cliche of “the Billie Holidays or Dinah Washingtons [who] loved, suffered and learned resignation before they opened their mouths… Aretha’s woman may suffer, but her soul is whole and untrammeled by depression or abuse.”

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New York Times, May 30, 1971
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Aretha Franklin, 1967 Rolling Stone

Gonzo Journalism and the Male Gaze, 1970s

In hindsight, the 1969 Woodstock and Harlem Cultural festivals served as a perfect transition into the 1970s. Joan Baez and Janis Joplin were notable exceptions to Woodstock’s celebration of men in music, while Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson headlined the 300,000-strong Harlem Cultural Festival weeks prior. Choice exceptionalism prevailed in both the festival circuit and mainstream media coverage, but it was also an era of milestones: the Filipino-American rock trio Fanny made waves on the Billboard charts, inspiring The Runaways, fronted by Joan Jett; Sylvia Robinson recorded her chart-topping “Sylvia” before founding Sugar Hill Records and bringing hip hop into the mainstream with her production of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”; and Suzi Quatro became the first woman to reach rock star status for her bass playing. Not surprisingly, the media’s response was mixed.

In a 1974 article published in the influential and permanently-dated music magazine Creem, writer Robert “Robot” Hull seemed stuck between masturbating through his own words and acknowledging Suzi Quatro’s talent: “Suzi Quatro is a real cutie, rootie tootie, not sweet hog honey like Linda Ronstadt but a tight roller derby queen with juice and enuf krassiness to rank her right up there with the Sweet and Slade,” he drooled. Fittingly, Hull would go on to become a major rock critic and eventual producer of CD series’ like “Sounds of the ’70s.” Rolling Stone’s own coverage of Quatro later that same year was mild in comparison, but still ensured that any recognition came through a lens of male gaze, with the bassist propped onto the empty pedestal of “glittering sex queen” in one line and taken down in the next as “a short, trim woman from Detroit who moved to England after nine unsuccessful years in the American music business.” The New York Times couldn’t resist following the fad, with white male critic John Rockwell choosing to focus his coverage on his opinion that “Quatro dresses in leather jumpsuits and tries to project an image simultaneously aggressive, indifferent and raunchilly sexy.” The newspaper’s coverage of Fanny was equally stupid. “Going to see an all-girl rock group, one has to bring a mixture of condescension and paranoia,” wrote Mike Jahn, admitting the band was good before launching into time-tested cliches: implying they couldn’t move their amps, praising them for not being “Joni Mitchell-type cute,” and making sure the reader knew that this rock group wasn’t just a “pop choir.” Even with androgyny sweeping the mainstream musical landscape (with an apparent absence of acknowledgment of aesthetic contributions by non-cis musicians like Jayne County) this uninspired combination of visibility and ignorance continued into the 1980s.

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The Rise of Independent Publications and Women Critics, 1980s – Now

“Annie Lennox began her life as a man two years ago,” reads the intro of choice for Rolling Stone’s 1983 cover story of Eurythmics’ newfound fame. In an act of truly gymnastic erasure, the piece recited Lennox’s explanation for her switch to an androgynous style as an anti-harassment strategy before concluding that “sexual speculation” at her recent concert “suddenly seemed irrelevant in the presence of such triumphant talent.” Nevermind the implication that abuse is reserved for those who are inadequate or that the musical ingenuity of other powerhouses from the era like Whitney Houston didn’t stave off the collective gnashing of teeth by arena crowds or magazines alike (Rolling Stone would wait until 1993 to publish a proper feature of Houston, promoting its unremarkable interview with a bright red splash of “Whitney Houston Gets Nasty” across its cover and another “Whitney Houston Gets Down and Dirty” for its headline).

As hip hop exploded and rock and pop kept morphing into a mind-numbing multiplicity of genres, music journalism was slow to evolve. The New York Times covered the beloved Grammy-award winning Selena for the first and only time before her death in its 1994 stereotype-laden coverage of a Mexican Independence Day party in New York City, while Rolling Stone didn’t even manage to mention her until late into 1995. Both publications treated TLC the same, ignoring the group except to insult them, even as they broke international records with CrazySexyCool (1994, LaFace and Arista Records) and shook the world with their famous call-out of the greed of the music industry in a 1996 Grammys press conference.

In the same way that TLC fought back against their management, the 1990s also ushered in a new generation of independent music publications founded and run by women who were sick of the mainstream press. Carla DeSantis Black founded Rockrgrl in 1995, publishing interviews and articles about bands like Sleater-Kinney and Tegan and Sara long before bigger publications took notice. Even before then, beginning in 1985, Lori Twersky published the zine Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag with a Bite, a title that would live on in the separate pop culture magazine Bitch, founded by Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis in 1996.

All three of those influential publications were founded in California, so it’s fitting that San Francisco became a hub for women music journalists in the 1990s before their migration to the East Coast’s biggest publications. Evelyn McDonnell became SF Weekly’s music editor in 1992 and moved on to take the same job at the Village Voice in 1996, but not before overseeing an intern named Sia Michel. Before becoming today’s deputy culture editor at The New York Times, Michel was the first woman editor-in-chief of Spin, where Caryn Ganz climbed the music journalism ladder, eventually becoming deputy editor at Rolling Stone and then pop music critic at The New York Times. Ganz has joined other rock critics like the inimitable Jessica Hopper (who, true story, penned her first piece of music journalism because of lousy coverage of Babes in Toyland) in using her influence to sing the praises of acts ranging from Haim to Lizzo to Chastity Belt. And when Rolling Stone started 2020 out on the right note, it was women—Brittany Spanos followed by Emma Carmichael—whose writing dominated the centerfold features.

Our understanding of time may be linear, but cultural trajectories rarely are. The volume and tone of the mainstream media’s recognition of our communities has been a similarly fickle thing. To take their words and hold them up to the light isn’t an act of independence so much as accountability. We’ve always been here, taking music to new places, and we always will be. Or, as Mamie Smith sang in the song that started it all, “There’s a change in the ocean / Change in the deep blue sea… I’ll tell you folks, there ain’t no change in me.”

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