On March 16, Meghan Trainor released a disaster of a sexist music video called "Dear Future Husband." It featured Trainor scrubbing floors and essentially running down a laundry list of some of the most sexist notions about women and relationships. On the heels of that, though, it's worth remembering that there are plenty of powerful moments when popular musicians have used their platform for good. Though sexism is ubiquitous in the music industry, so too are powerful feminist musicians — male and female.
It's easy to ignore if you look away, but sexism is a nasty presence in music beyond Trainor that we need to address. Part of the problem stems from a striking imbalance in the numbers: According to the Huffington Post, a report from PRS for Music, an international organization of songwriters, composers and music publishers, showed that of its 95,000 members, only 13% are female. And just 15% of UK music label owners were women in 2012, according to the Association of Independent Music. One look at the lives of female pop stars only confirms it — female musicians are subjected to near-constant harassment and vicious double standards.
There's no doubt: The music industry is a male-dominated field. But thanks to musicians taking a stand against the patriarchal system, we're chipping away at the status quo and giving women the credit they deserve.
1. Janelle Monae
R&B singer-songwriter Janelle Monae is well-known as an outspoken feminist, and her latest album, The Electric Lady, proves it. Playing off Jimi Hendrix's slyly patriarchal Electric Ladyland, Monae makes her album about the lady and not about "the male fantasy theme park," as the Feminist Wire puts it so well. Plus, the R&B artist owns her own record label, Wondaland Records, and makes the majority of creative decisions there.
"I absolutely have encountered sexism in the music industry," she told NME in an interview. "I don't look at myself as a victim. I think some people just are not taught any better. And certain behavior has been passed down and it's been accepted and I think it's up to us as women not to accept it, and lead by example. I won't allow myself to be oppressed."
In April 2013, Canadian musician and jack-of-all-trades Grimes took to her Tumblr to post an epic feminist manifesto. On the heels her world tour, the 25-year-old singer says she'd finally had enough of the disrespect she received during shows and decided to speak up about the issue. "I wrote what I wrote below," she said in a follow-up post, "not to complain or make anyone sad, but because I feel like if it's possible to not accept stuff I hate and live a comfortable life then I want to do it :)."
"I don't want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized," she wrote. "I'm tired of men who aren't professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to 'help me out' (without being asked), as if I did this by accident and I'm gonna flounder without them. Or as if the fact that I'm a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers."
3. Kurt Cobain
"Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth," the deceased Nirvana frontman told NME in 1991. "And it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape."
On a similar note, he wrote in his published journal, "It's up to men. ... I still think that in order to expand on all other -isms, sexism has to be blown wide open. But there are thousands of green minds, young gullible 15-year-old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they've been told of what a man is supposed to be and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment."
4. Solange Knowles
Indie singer-songwriter, and Beyoncé's sister, Solange Knowles sent out a series of tweets in response to a Pitchfork review of the indie singer's album, True. The review included the line, "Hynes has met an ideal female vocal muse in Solange, who executes each cut with simple grace and yearning naïveté." Solange was not happy to be painted as a helper to her male producer Devonté Hynes, when in fact she co-writes all of her music and writes music for other performers.
After taking to Twitter to express her disappointment, she ended with the simple but powerful statement, "Sexism in the music industry ain't nothing new."
Icelandic pop star Björk has long been an advocate for women and women in the music industry. This quote comes from an interview with Pitchfork just after the release of her latest album, Vulnicura. Like Solange, the extent of Björk's songwriting has been questioned by the industry, when in fact she co-produces and co-writes all of her own material.
"I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You're not just imagining things," she told Pitchfork. "It's tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times. Girls now are also faced with different problems. ... But it's an ongoing battle. I hope it doesn't come across as too defensive, but it is the truth. I definitely can feel the third or fourth feminist wave in the air, so maybe this is a good time to open that Pandora's box a little bit and air it out."
6. Kenny Chesney
This stand against sexism comes from a most unlikely place — the world of country music, long known for its sexist stereotypes and female objectification. But in an interview with Billboard, Chesney stood up against the rampant sexism in country music and even acknowledged that his own past tendencies were ill-advised.
"Over the last several years, it seems like anytime anybody sings about a woman, she's in cutoff jeans, drinking and on a tailgate — they objectify the hell out of them," he told Billboard. "Twenty years ago, I might have written a song like that — I probably did. But I'm at a point where I want to say something different about women."
7. Kate Nash
British singer-songwriter Kate Nash takes her job as a feminist seriously: She's the global ambassador for the Because I Am a Girl initiative. The initiative helps girls in underdeveloped countries receive education and food. When Nash went on tour in 2013, Because I Am a Girl tagged along and helped spread the word of female empowerment.
"Feminism to me is something that becomes more real, more palatable and important to you when you really experience sexism," she told the blog, Conversations with Bianca. "You grow up a bit and you're taken out of the bubble and you know that it's still really present. Being in the music industry really opened my eyes to it, in a really simple way at first. I was the only girl in the room all of the time until I really searched for more female company."
8. Jack White
Jack White may dislike many things, but feminism isn't one of them. Though his music has been criticized for its negative portrayals of women, White is actually a proponent of women's rights. In fact, he's even inspired some to wonder whether he's "rock's greatest male feminist."
"It's a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument, it's almost a novelty," White told Spin. "Like, 'Oh, isn't that cute.' It's a shame that in 2014 that's a little bit of what's going on in the perception in the room."
9. Neko Case
Though she says she resisted identifying as a feminist for a long time, singer-songwriter Neko Case now takes her role seriously. Playboy reviewed Case's album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, and wrote, "More thoughtful and mature and funnier than the typical female artist types, she's also not trying to ape the hunter-gatherer characteristics of her male counterparts." Lines like that didn't sit well with Case, so she took to Twitter for an epic takedown of the magazine.
"Don't take any shit," she told Vice in an interview just before Playboy's review was published. "Accept nothing but the fact that you're equal. I don't think it should be a taboo subject, either, where people are like, 'Feminism, if you say that word, there's gonna be a fight.'"
10. Taylor Swift
Though she was criticized for not identifying as a feminist for a long time, Swift eventually came around. "As a teenager, I didn't understand that saying you're a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities," she told the Guardian in an interview. "What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means."
"You're going to have people who are going to say, 'Oh, you know, like, she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends,'" Swift told Time magazine. "And I think frankly that's a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They're all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises the red flag there."
11. Beastie Boys
Though the Beastie Boys took a lot of heat for their misogynist song, "Girls," the boys from Brooklyn have admitted to growing up and looking back at their songs with some regret. "There are no excuses," the rappers told Time Out New York. "But time has healed our stupidity. We hope that you'll accept this long-overdue apology." Since then, they've said, "We strongly support empowering young girls [and] breaking down gender stereotypes." The Beastie Boys have proven that sexist notions can be reversed.
"Sexism is deeply rooted in our history and society that waking up and stepping outside of it is like I'm watching Night of the Living Dead Part Two all day, every day," Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz wrote in an anthology of the band, according to the Nation. "Listening to the lyrics of this song, one might say that the Beastie Boys 'Fight for Your Right to Party' guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe, but in this fucked up world all you can hope for is change, and I'd rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever."
12. Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches
In an open letter in the Guardian, the lead singer of the British band Chvrches made an appeal to resist rampant online sexism. Chvrches are indebted to the Internet because the band was "born on the Internet," she wrote, but added, "There are, however, downsides to being known on the Internet." Mayberry wrote that she's been on the receiving end of a landslide of disgusting, horrible sexist threats, and that kind of behavior shouldn't be acceptable — especially since the Internet is such an easy hiding place for faceless trolls.
"Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat? I hope not," she wrote. "Objectification, whatever its form, is not something anyone should have to 'just deal with.' ... I am not a martyr, nor am I attempting to change the world in any revolutionary way. I am only in a band, not one of the many wonderful people in organisations striving for change."
13. Kathleen Hanna
Former lead singer of riot grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna has long had a reputation for being an outspoken feminist activist. In addressing her role as a pioneering feminist in music, she told Rolling Stone, "I don't like every woman in pop music, but it's not the woman, it's the music. And I need to be able to say I don't like Lady Gaga's music, and that doesn't mean I'm slamming Lady Gaga."
"I don't know how 'feminist' [new musicians] call themselves or whatever, but feminism isn't something that you are, it's something that you do," she told Rookie magazine. "I don't give a shit what you call yourself. Like: Betsy Ross. Betsy Ross is a fine thing to call yourself. Whatever. If you're doing feminist work in the world, then it's exciting."
14. Brandi Carlile
Openly gay country-folk musician Brandi Carlile is no stranger to the hardships facing women — a burden that's compounded by the fact that lesbian musicians face a double standard. She started an organization called Looking Out that supports women through music: $1 from every concert ticket Carlile sells goes to the organization. She believes that the best way to achieve equality in music is for women to look out for and support each other.
"The best thing that ever happened to women in music, in my opinion, is a sense of community," she told Ms. Magazine. "Surround yourself with people who teach and inspire you and you might find the power in numbers. Women can sell tickets, records, and being a rock star is not a boy's game."
15. Lily Allen
Though British pop star Lily Allen denies any distaste for Kanye West's sexism on his album Yeezus, she did write a feminist manifesto called Sheezus. And like both Björk and Solange, Allen has faced questions about whether her material is self-produced or the product of a "man behind the scenes." In fact, Allen writes all her own music.
"You will also notice of the big successful female artists, there is always a 'man behind the woman' piece," she told NME. "If it's Beyoncé, it's Jay Z. If it's Adele, it's Paul Epworth. Me? It was Mark Ronson and the same with Amy Winehouse. You never get that with men. You can't think of the man behind the man. Because it is a conversation that never happens. If you are Ed Sheeran or someone, no one ever talks about who has produced or who is the man behind Ed Sheeran."
16. Meredith Graves
A member of the riot grrrl band Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves takes issue especially with the double standard that women face in music compared to men. At a festival in September, the singer read aloud an essay about that sexism. The New York Times called her essay "a monologue about the difficulties around female identity in pop: why the artificial beauty so many men desire in women stops at the artistic persona, where women aren't trustworthy if they're not real enough."
"Women are called upon every day to prove our right to participate in music on the basis of our authenticity — or perceived lack thereof," she wrote, according to Pitchfork. "Our credentials are constantly being checked — you say you like a band you've only heard a couple of times? Prepare to answer which guitarist played on a specific record and what year he left the band. But don't admit you haven't heard them, either, because they'll accuse you of only saying you like that genre to look cool. Then they'll ask you if you've ever heard of about five more bands, just to prove that you really know nothing. This happens so often that it feels like dudes meet in secret to work on a regimented series of tests they can use to determine whether or not we deserve to be here."