The ubiquitous end of year album lists might seem arbitrary but they are an important way for people to find new music and I believe they have a significant impact on an artist’s overall career. So this year I decided to do a very unscientific analysis of various polls to see how well female voices were represented overall.
I read more than twenty polls from major publications as well as looking at the excellent ‘Album of the Year’ site for more general data. For the purposes of my analysis I counted any album where the main singer/songwriter was someone who identified as female. I also counted any album where a woman was equally billed, like the Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile album. In terms of groups this meant I counted The XX because their female member sings and has a writing credit on all tracks, but I didn’t count Slowdive whose female member sings some background vocals but has no songwriting credit. This is an analysis of how well female voices are being heard so I felt that I had to draw the line somewhere. Please let me know if you find any errors with my data.
Here are my main observations after reading these polls, please see my pinned Twitter thread for links to the various polls discussed below:
1. Women ‘Win’ Less
This overall poll of polls, currently taken from 130 ‘Album of the Year’ lists, proves that female artists gain the number one spot much less frequently than men. In 2017 Kendrick Lamar came first in 35 polls compared to Lorde’s 11 wins and SZA’s 5.
Now you might just think that this was because of the strength of Lamar’s album and therefore there’s no problem. But delve into the data and you will see a pattern: Bowie had the most ‘wins’ in 2016, Kendrick Lamar again in 2015, The War on Drugs in 2014, Kanye in 2013 and 2010, Frank Ocean in 2012 and Animal Collective in 2009. PJ Harvey came out the winner in 2011 but that is one woman in the whole decade so far who has won the best album of the year from the majority of publications (Harvey is also one of only six women who have won the Mercury Music Prize in the last 25 years). Even Beyoncé herself couldn’t beat this system last year, ending up in second place with her career defining Lemonade album.
There were 12 female fronted acts who ‘won’ at least one poll in 2017, compared to 18 male acts, which is uneven but actually not too bad considering some of the other figures. This number would suggest there’s more than enough quality albums by female artists that could win these polls but it just isn’t happening enough.
2. Male Acts Dominate The ‘Big’ Polls, Especially In Old Print Media
The polls from the traditional big UK publications made depressing reading. NME had only 16/50 female acts on their list, Uncut had 22/75 and Q and Mojo had a pathetic 14/50. Worse still was Esquire magazine with 12/50, although perhaps that says something about their target market.
Online blogs are definitely more diverse and most of these represented women quite evenly, like Pitchfork had actual equality at 25/50 and Noisey had 41/100. Drowned in Sound had 48/100 and an all female top ten, which was fantastic. When reading these polls it was incredible to see how many different acts appeared on different lists. There is such a breadth and depth of brilliant female musicians out there who deserve to be heard.
I found three polls from big publications or blogs with a majority of female artists on their lists: Paste Magazine (27/50), The Bluegrass Situation (15/25) and The Line of Best Fit (27/50). When you look at the AOTY data as a whole, which ranks the popularity of albums with a points system, there are 24/50 albums by female artists in the 2017 poll of polls. This suggests equality is possible when a wider scale of publications are taken into consideration.
3. Men Rank Higher
The poll of polls may have 24/50 female fronted acts but delve a little deeper and you find something else a little troubling. In terms of the top 20 albums there are only 6 female acts. So while it is true that women are being represented in these polls, they are not ranking as highly as men. This pattern repeats itself at awards shows, like the Grammys for example where Lorde is the only female in the nominations for Album of the Year.
4. Some Genres are More Equal than Others
Women in pop and RnB appear to be doing well in these polls, as you can see by how highly ranked Lorde, SZA and Kelela were by most publications. Indie and alternative music again seems to be healthy with St Vincent, Big Thief, Wolf Alice and Julien Baker appearing in a lot of lists. Still, I do feel there are some brilliant albums that were overall quite underrated like Hurray for the Riff Raff, Paramore and Phoebe Bridgers.
In terms of country music most of the big all-genre polls only included Margo Price despite excellent albums from Nikki Lane, Courtney Marie Andrews and Angaleena Presley, among others. Genre specific polls were a little better for women in country/Americana as Rolling Stone’s list had 17/40 female acts and American Songwriter 11/25. Considering the problems women are facing on radio in this genre I think we have to take that as a win.
However by far and away the most troubling thing about these polls was the lack of representation for female rappers. Hip hop is the dominant genre in the charts and in many of these lists and yet women are almost entirely absent. Even in a genre specific poll like Stereogum published of forty rap albums only four females made the list. I’m not knowledgeable enough about this genre of music to explain why this is happening but as an advocate for women in music I find the lack of representation utterly shocking. It actually makes me want to go listen and review female hip hop because I know these women are out there. With the success of Cardi B’s singles we can only hope this leads to a new wave of albums by female rappers being heard.
Despite all these issues I don’t think these lists are bad in themselves and I’m not advocating for their end. On the contrary I think it is vitally important to have these all inclusive lists. However I do think that until we see women winning these polls as often as men, as well as fair gender and racial equality across the board then we have a problem. The under representation of women in these polls is also replicated in terms of charts, streaming, radio, festival line ups, interviews, reviews, concert ticket sales etc. The majority of these polls reflect that but they also offer us an opportunity – when one woman wins a poll then the chances are next year another might do the same.
After I began this thread on Twitter there were a lot of angry people who tweeted me thinking I was arguing for female quotas – which was not my intention at all. While I personally think affirmative action could be justifiable, I know it is something many people disagree with and therefore it might undermine the credibility of these lists. Plus it would be hard to implement in a case like this since a lot of these polls are a combination of different people’s opinions.
So what can we do to improve representation? Here are a few possible suggestions for your consideration:
1. Be More Aware of Inherent Biases
Consciousness raising is the first step to changing our biased views of the world. If we can all understand how the patriarchal history of society has ingrained inherent biases that make us view male voices as more significant and worthy of attention then maybe we can begin to think differently. Please read my review of Margo Price’s new album, where I discuss these issues in more detail.
2. Encourage more women to release music and promote them better
Some people have argued that perhaps the problem with these polls isn’t discrimination but instead claim that they are just a consequence of the fact that men release more music than women overall. If this is the case then these polls and the music industry itself will always be dominated by men. To improve this situation we need to encourage more women into the music industry and do a better job of promoting them and helping them to succeed (I hope this blog is one tiny way of doing that).
3. Maybe ‘Women’ Should Be A Genre
Across history women have improved their status in society and politics by working together through collective action. In the end there’s only so long you can stand about hoping to get a chance to sit at the table with the men before you start to realise there are other ways to get the results you want. That doesn’t just mean we should start smashing windows or protesting Kanye-style either, even if it feels necessary at times. Instead we should look to learn from other examples of women working together to promote their art on a wider scale.
For example in the literary world women were sick of being excluded from the Booker Prize nominations so they started their own, now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s an all genre award and has become one of the most prestigious in the industry, making the careers of many new writers and honouring the legacy of others. I’ve long believed that a Women’s Prize for Music could do something similar to promote female talent in the music industry. Every year an album released by a woman would be guaranteed an award and all the coverage that would bring for them and the other nominees could only be a positive thing.
Personally I think the more time women spend advocating and supporting each other, the less we even notice or care about being excluded by the patriarchy. If we work together then ‘Women’ could be the most popular genre of music in the world. And if Sarah McLachlan would bring back Lilith Fair then that would be a really awesome start to my plan.
If anyone else has any other thoughts on these polls or ideas as to how to achieve equal representation in the music industry then please contribute to the comments or use the contact page to send me a message.
If I’d had infinite amount of time I would have also liked to look at how well these polls represented older women, women of colour, LGBT women and also non-binary/gender fluid people. These are issues I hope to return to in the future because I believe that fair representation benefits everyone.