Why we need to keep talking about underrepresentation of women in music in 2019


At the end of the year numerous music publications come up with their best of the year lists. The amount of songs and albums created by women in those lists have been a point of discussion for a couple of years now. In The Netherlands, a lot of people celebrate the holidays while listening to the Top 2000 on Radio 2, a list of the 2000 best songs of all time, voted by Dutch radio listeners. In the current edition, less than 10% of all 2000 songs are performed by women. A discussion started, but quickly turned south when a producer said on television that ‘women are simply less inclined to make good music’…

The producer we are talking about is Ronald Molendijk. He had a hit in 2003 as part of Soulvation, was a judge on the Dutch version of Pop Idol in recent years and is regularly a guest in talk shows as music expert. When asked about the reason for the lack of female artists in the Top 2000, he answered: “Because women are less inclined to make good music. In general there are less female artists out there. Men are by definition more at home in a recording studio. You also need stamina to last in the music business…”.

I am not even going to dignify the statement about the difference in quality between music by male artists and female artists with a lengthy response, other than that it fits an ages old discourse in which ‘feminine’ music is viewed as lesser than more ‘masculine’ male rockbands. In the end it all comes down to personal taste and while everyone is free to enjoy the music they want to, blaming the lower success rate of women in music on their lack of musical qualities is problematic. So what mr. Molendijk insinuates is that most female artists, producers, musicians and songwriters lack the stamina to make it in the music business. What he fails to mention however, is that for years and years (and still ongoing I would say) women have had to fight harder to be taken seriously in their job within an industry that was and still is ruled mostly by men. If you want to fault female artists for not making it or not sticking around long enough, you also have to take into account the circumstances they are working under and how the game they have to play is not always a fair one.

We will talk about that more later, but first let me go back to Mr. Molendijk. His statements caused quite the commotion in the Netherlands and he was invited back to tv show RTL Boulevard to explain himself. They also invited Lakshmi, one of the artists that responded to his statement with a well written letter. What could have been an interesting and fruitful discussion was ruined by Mr. Molendijk’s arrogance and inability to listen to the reasons why others found his statements problematic. He started off by calling Tim Knol, one of the male artists that reacted with disbelief to Molendijk’s comments, a woman. In Molendijk’s mind, only women can stick up for female artists apparently. He never let Lakshmi finish the point she tried to make about what his words do to women who work hard to keep their head above water in the music industry, while statistically being at a disadvantage for receiving radio airplay and getting festival bookings.  Instead, he more than once interrupted her, put words in her mouth she never said and when she tried to make that clear to him his attitude towards her became hostile.

Molendijk and the people who agree with him, try to stress the fact that the Top 2000 is voted by the people and that people nowadays can choose what they listen to on Spotify. Maybe, people are just naturally more drawn towards music created by men. As much as this is a possibility, you can’t argue this without looking at the circumstances. The Top 2000 is a list of the best music of all time, in which the 70s and 80s are best represented. Even more so than now, female artists were operating in a man’s world getting less airplay, recognition and resources and were therefore even more underrepresented than now. People who grew up in that era are simply more likely to vote for male artists and bands as that was the music they grew up with. As for Spotify, I agree that listeners these days are more autonomous when it comes to choosing what they want to listen to, but it is naive to think that streaming services are spaces completely free from what the powers in the music industry dictate to us. First of all, lot of people still listen to the radio or watch tv and will later stream the songs by the artists they encounter there instead of just discovering all their music while streaming. Furthermore, Spotify introduces new music to us in curated playlists (although nothing on Spotify is curated according to Mr. Molendijk…) and the recommendations come from algorithms based on trends in the music industry. Interestingly enough, women often get their own playlists (women in pop, women in rock etc), because they are again underrepresented on the main lists. As if gender makes it into a different genre. (for more information click here, they explain it better than I do)

Although mr. Molendijk might not want to admit it, this whole discussion is bigger than playlists, algorithms and statistics. I can tell from personal experience, as a guy who is generally speaking more drawn to pop music by female voices (as frequent readers of this blog might have noticed), I have often had my taste in music ridiculed. While growing up I got told more than once that the music I enjoyed was too feminine, only for girls, too gay and certainly not music for real men. Being a pop blogger, participating in online discussions about music and talking to my friends who enjoy similar artists, I can assure you that those comments are certainly not an exceptional discourse. If my love for fierce female pop icons at the time was at all negotiable, would those comments have forced me to try to listen to a different style of music? My point is, people’s taste in music is not set and is influenced by what is expected from them within gender roles, as well as what is trendy and not. So maybe, just maybe, if it was less uncool to appreciate female pop singers, female rappers and all female bands, would that potentially change how many ladies would have ended up in that Top 2000?

With that question in mind, I have got a couple more issues for you to consider and honestly think about. Do we really think that in 2018 girls are as likely to be supported by family and friends to become a guitarist in a rockband as their male peers? Do we really believe that we hold male and female artists to exactly the same standards and not for example, judge female pop stars more often on their appearance? Would we just as often question if a male artist had actually written his own songs or be surprised they play their own instruments as we do with female artists? When we are talking about women being not as ‘at home’ in a recording studio as their male colleagues, would that be because they are naturally less savvy with the tech part, or would it be because they are less likely to be able to prove themselves as producers as the studio is by definition viewed as a male’s domain?

Compared to the 70s and 80s, the position of the female artist in the industry seems to have improved, but we are not nearly there yet. As long as there are people who blame women’s underrepresentation on their lack of musical qualities or stamina, we have to keep talking about representation, equality and gender stereotypes.



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