Too many men: How the voices we should have heard were marginalized in 2017


St. Vincent and SZA Caroline Royce/Darin Kamnetz

Let’s start with the Jingle Balls.

These hours-long arena gigs, held in cities across the U.S. by iHeartRadio, function like a pop music yearbook, letting artists that dominated radio and the charts do all-killer, no-filler mini-sets.

Or at least that's the idea. This year's lineups—which included artists such as Taylor Swift, Kesha, Liam Payne and Camila Cabello—didn't always cohere. Writing in the New York Times, Jon Pareles called the Madison Square Garden stop an "an oddly homogeneous look back at 2017" and noted, "In the Jingle Ball universe, women are the ones allotted emotional complexity, self-assurance and retaliation." City Pages came to a similar conclusion just days earlier, in a review of the Minneapolis date. "The males, for the most part, looked pretty and sang nice and barely broke a sweat, secure in the knowledge that the adulation of their fans would fill any vacuum of stage presence. The women looked fantastic and held the stage with steely determination and star power. Pop mirrors life, I guess."

But the Jingle Balls only showcase who music's powers-that-be have decided to back, financially and promotionally. While that's nothing new, of course—labels and radio companies have always pushed their favorites—the industry’s choices seemed particularly off the mark in 2017. Women and non-binary artists across genres created some of the year’s best music, yet the albums and songs being elevated to places of prominence rarely reflected that reality.

The abundance of men in music festival lineups, something that's been called out for several years now, remained a relevant topic of conversation. Men also dominated the 2017 charts, a phenomenon Maura Johnston broke down with an incisive Boston Globe piece called "A discouraging year on the pop charts for almost all the single ladies." Underscoring her point, men topped every one of Billboard's 2017 Year-End charts; in fact, Keith Caulfield noted, "For the first time since 1984, the entire top 10 of Billboard’s 2017 year-end top artists ranking are all men." There are only two women, Ariana Grande and Rihanna, in the top 20.

Rolling Stone Country highlighted the sexism built into country radio programming, and the year-end Country Aircheck top 10, which was all men, later supported its findings. The CMA Awards nominated no women for Entertainer of the Year. And a Variety article, "Grammy Nominations 2018: Where the Ladies At? Insiders Weigh In," noticed how the nominee landscape skewed male: "While three of the five new artist nominees are women — Alessia Cara, Julia Michaels and SZA — solo female artists received exactly two of the 15 total nominations in the other three categories." These "other three categories" just so happen to be the marquee awards: album, song and record of the year.

Separately, these awards snubs, a lack of radio airplay, and examples of chart scarcity aren't fatal to career visibility. Taken together, they reveal a musical map that's not just lopsided, but completely—and willfully—out of touch with culture's polychromatic landscape. Which is frustrating: In 2017, women and non-binary musicians made great strides collapsing genre boundaries, and redefined what it meant to be a pop, rock, country, hip-hop, punk, or folk artist.

R&B artists in particular produced some of the year's most innovative, exciting music. The Internet's Syd released a solo debut, Fin, bursting with kaleidoscopic textures; Kelela unleashed Take Me Apart, her own shapeshifting, moody spin on the genre; and K. Michelle showed off versatile vocals with the equally diverse KIMBERLY: The People I Used To Know. In the pop realm, U.K. songwriter Dua Lipa—who's finally starting to break through with the sinewy "New Rules"—and the synth-swerved trio MUNA crafted sleek music that's both retro and futuristic, while Kelly Clarkson's Meaning of Life is a brassy soul-pop record with a throwback feel. Anohni meanwhile, crafted haunting, circuitous electronic compositions on the Paradise EP.

In rock, grunge-pop purveyors Bully (Losing) and fizzy '90s rock throwbacks Charly Bliss (Glitter) exuded fiery confidence, while the sugary, heavenly pop troupe Alvvays eschewed a sophomore slump on the pillowy Antisocialites. Both Alex Lahey (the shambling, heartfelt I Love You Like a Brother) and Allison Crutchfield (the skyscraping dream-pop of Tourist In This Town) made solo albums that demanded to be heard; the former's "I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself" accurately summarizes what it feels like to stumble at adulthood. Adult Mom's Soft Spots captivated with erudite and intimate indie-folk; punk troupe Downtown Boys' bracing political statements were galvanizing; and Worriers' frayed punk rock was a jolt to the system. Shamir, a non-binary performer, continues to do his own thing, which roughly translates as lo-fi electro imbued with a confessional heart.

The dearth of women gaining commercial traction in country music was even more striking when you survey how many excellent records emerged in 2017. Pistol Annies member Angaleena Presley released the barnstorming Wrangled, a diverse, roots-fired effort with an outlaw heart, while Margo Price's stellar All American Made mixed political commentary with her usual vivid storytelling. Carly Pearce received some notoriety thanks to the No. 1 radio hit "Every Little Thing," but her entire titular album is full of lovely '90s pop-country nods. And both Natalie Hemby (Puxico) and Lee Ann Womack (The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone) released stunning records that possessed some of the year's best, most resonant songwriting.

Thankfully, plenty of year-end critical lists balanced out the commercial imbalance; for example, Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums list alone included (among others) Zola Jesus, Jay Som, Ibeyi, Priests, Girlpool, Kehlani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Still, it feels urgent to do something about the fact that women and non-binary musicians are being left out of the mainstream conversation.

Representation matters, for starters—and with streaming becoming more of a factor in how music is both consumed and rated, curating diversity is more important than ever. Contrary to popular belief, streaming isn't a pure representation of the will of the people; for proof of that, just read Jenn Pelly's deep dive into Spotify playlists to see how algorithms are being manipulated. The utopian idea that streaming would level the playing field and give more artists an opportunity to be heard has proven to be an illusion. With more power being consolidated around narrower channels, the window for weirdness—or at least those who refuse to conform to trends—is much smaller.

Such consolidation also leaves seasoned artists, who already have to fight for attention because their narrative isn't shiny and buzzy, on the outskirts. Tori Amos and Bjork released (respectively) the typically ornate Native Invader and bracing Utopia. Chameleonic artists Paramore and St. Vincent's Annie Clark, meanwhile, reinvented their sound once again. The latter's synth-sizzled electro-glam was brutal and vulnerable; the former's emotional After Laughter—featuring the breezy, candy-coated "Hard Times"—was equally wrenching.

More than that, with power imbalances being toppled left and right in other industries, having a male-dominated music year feels out of touch with reality, if not a relic of a time when such exclusion was the norm. It's no longer acceptable that the default center is white men. The Grammys at least got one thing right with this year's announcements, when the major award nominations are dominated by hip-hop and R&B artists.

To be fair, in 2017, there were exceptions to the quality-popularity disconnect. SZA deservedly had a monster year with the soul/R&B standout Ctrl, while a crop of newer songwriters—Julien Baker, Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker and Phoebe Bridgers—resonated by prioritizing smart, insightful dissections of the psyche. Kesha's comeback from legal machinations was a rousing success, thanks to an empowering No. 1 album, Rainbow, while Halsey's hopeless fountain kingdom helped her transcend an association with Chainsmokers. P!nk (once again) cemented her status as a bulletproof global superstar thanks to Beautiful Trauma, while Lana Del Rey, who's never needed commercial metrics to be iconic, released her best album yet, Lust For Life. And Cardi B became the breakthrough artist of the year—and the first solo female rapper to have a No. 1 hit in nearly two decades—thanks to the unstoppable "Bodak Yellow."

On the flipside, the music released by plenty of non-cis-men artists was properly rated. Katy Perry's Witness, a chaotic and watered-down pop pastiche, rightfully sank like a stone. Haim's meticulous Something To Tell You didn't have much staying power despite a positive first impression, while the singles from Taylor Swift's Reputation, her weakest album yet, have failed to make much of a chart dent: As of this writing, only "End Game," which is bolstered by Ed Sheeran and Future, is in the Top 40. (Swift doesn't need singles to help sell records, of course, and she's one of the few artists who's popular enough to weather commercial ebbs and flows.)

Highlighting albums by women and non-binary musicians doesn't mean that these artists should be lumped into some "female songwriter" or "non-binary musician" category. As producer/musician Caroline Polachek put it when she dropped out of the 2018 Moogfest lineup over the framing of the billing, “Gender is not a genre." She's right—and the sheer number of diverse, amazing records released in 2017 illuminates that genre, not gender, triumphs over other factors.

But for all of the steps taken toward parity and equality, an entrenched sexism (and, often, misogyny) dogs music's upper echelons, limiting the kinds of opportunities given to non-cis-men artists. In society as a whole, 2017 felt like the start of a major shift, particularly that ingrained power dynamics started to topple, and once-acceptable behaviors were finally called out. It's long overdue for music to have that same sort of reckoning, at all levels—and let the voices of women and non-binary artists lead the way.

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