Growing up in early-2000s Texas, I didn’t typically resonate with the music that surrounded me. Down in the Lone Star state, country music dominated radios, live events and just about everything else you could think of. There wasn’t a time when you could enter a store or take a walk downtown without hearing a twangy-voiced, boot-wearing male country artist swooning over a bottle of whiskey. The musical atmosphere in my hometown was filled to the brim with these male country singers, and as it turns out, this binary wasn’t isolated to the state I grew up in.
The country music industry continues to show seemingly heavy biases in favor of male artists. A study done at the University of Southern California found that the ratio of male to female country artists is 5.2:1, a staggering difference that builds on a history of exclusion. In addition to this, USC researchers found that in country music, top male artists had an average age of 42, while their female counterparts had an average age of 29. This 13-year age difference reveals the requirement of women in this industry: to remain youthful and attractive. In the eyes of industry executives, these female artists seem to become expired and unprofitable past a certain age, all while their male counterparts are able to retain steady and successful careers years after.
Undoubtedly, this kind of misogyny is not restricted to the country music industry, and can likely be found in almost every vein of the entertainment business. Despite these disadvantages, female artists continue to emerge and dominate both commercially and critically, finding fans who revel in their talent in spite of the adversity they face.
One of the first female artists I listened to after emerging from the country music black hole was Kesha. In 2010, no one could turn on the radio without hearing one of Kesha’s dance-heavy, synth-pop earworms, which is what I loved about her. She was everywhere: on TV, in movies, all over the internet, completely dominating the music industry during that time. Kesha helped me realize that female artists resonate with me on a much more personal level, igniting some sort of kinship that gravitated me toward their personas.
She was the sound of rebellion, with an image and identity of carefree, unapologetic authenticity that felt rare to me. During this time, I was also coming to terms with my own sexuality, and found that hearing a voice with this magnitude of freedom gave me the inspiration and strength to find my own authenticity. I found that, in the work of female artists like Kesha, there is an understanding and expression of the adversity they have faced, met with a sort of declaration of independence. In spite of these obstacles, these women have done their best to remain fully independent, and this is what made me resonate with their art most of all.
Following this epiphany came a string of powerful female artists who each had an influence on my life. Lorde, for example, came at a time when I was eager to understand the world. Her songs, riddled with wisdom and a similar perspective to mine, spoke to me uniquely. In her voice, I heard the outcast that lived inside me, unexpressed, for years. She was my outlet for every time that I didn’t feel a part of something, and thus she became the voice of a vagabond that I desperately needed to hear.
Around the same time, my older sister showed me a music video of a woman wearing sunglasses made out of cigarettes, strutting around a prison singing about telephones. This is when I fell in love with Lady Gaga. Arguably one of the most individual and unparalleled artists in recent years, Gaga was not only a figure of unapologetic self-expression, but also an ally to everyone who felt different.
In songs like “Born This Way,” I found comfort in her unconditional support of the LGBTQ+ community and felt a connection to her art which drove deeper than songs by her male counterparts. Personally, I have yet to hear a straight cis-male artist sing explicitly in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Hearing this message from Gaga, however, wasn’t the only thing I loved about her art. It was that she was making everyone else sing it with her. In clubs, at parties and in countless other settings, the lyrics to “Born This Way” could be heard from crowds by the hundreds, making Gaga’s artistic impact worth listening to.
There are countless other female artists I could name who have had immense, game-changing impacts on both the industry and the individual, like myself. Some before my time, such as Madonna, Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, were able to pioneer new paths for female artists following in their footsteps. Others, like Beyoncé, Adele and Taylor Swift, have similarly broken long-standing records and changed how we view their art. These female artists have shaped and redefined how we express, understand and connect with their adversity, and allow us to individualize their experience to merge with our own. Going back home to Texas now, I hear the female artists who have actually been there the entire time, camouflaged in a sea of their opposition. Now, however, I am able to see and appreciate their art for all they’ve contributed and fought for.