Tag Archives: women in music

Dolly Parton – “A radical in rhinestones”

When Dolly Parton played at the Glastonbury Festival last month she won rave reviews. However, the media focus was not just on her exquisite singing (or alleged miming) and fabulous costumes, but also turned to feminism.

Lily Allen discussed feminism with Dolly in an interview for The Radio Times, Krissi Murison and myself debated whether Dolly is a feminist with Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times also honed in on the subject. Seeing Dolly Parton as valuable for feminism is, in itself, nothing new; in 1987 she was named one of Ms. magazine’s women of the year, and Gloria Steinem wrote in praise of Parton’s business acumen and philanthropy. But given that it is not something that the star herself explicitly encourages – she tends to deflect questions about feminism by joking “I was the first woman to burn her bra. It took the fire department four days to put out the fire”.

Many of Dolly’s songs are feminist in that they articulate the realities of women’s lives, including the oppression of women. Just Because I’m A Woman criticises sexual double standards, Blackie Kentucky tells the story of an abused woman who commits suicide, and Mommie, Aint’ That Daddy and Daddy’s Moonshine Still witness the damage caused by alcoholism, with women driven to prostitution and despair. She has written of a woman forced into a mental institution because her lover wants her out of the way, and of a pregnant teenager who is rejected by her family and goes on to have a stillborn baby. She wrote these songs in the late sixties and early seventies, during the advance of second wave feminism. Her 1980 hit 9 to 5 remains the anthem for justice for working women.

More recently, the tenor of feminism in her lyrics has changed. It is more in tune with the new age, noughties strand of feminism tells us women that we’d “Better Get To Livin’” even if we are “overweight, underpaid, underappreciated”. Other songs are gently subversive. Travelin’ Thru, from the soundtrack to Transamerica, is about Christianity and transgender experience. Even Jolene, when you think about it, is less about a woman’s jealous insecurity that she might lose her husband to Jolene, than a song of praise to the gorgeous redhead; the focus is all on her, not him.

Dollywood, the amusement park in east Tennessee co-owned by Dolly Parton is the only theme park in the world, to my knowledge, that is themed around a woman (there are plenty themed around men, real and fictional). She is a savvy businesswoman. Not many singers would have turned down Elvis’s request to sing one their songs (I Will Always Love You) because he wanted too big a cut of the royalties. And she has used her money to revitalise an impoverished area of Tennessee, and to encourage literacy through her international Imagination Library reading scheme. All of this with outrageous wigs and wit.

But what about the ‘Backwoods Barbie’ image? Feminisms faced some flack on Twitter for embracing a star who has had so much cosmetic surgery. Ben Macintyre, in a favourable article in The Times, wrote that “the Dolly look is itself a deflation of sexism, a standing joke about male chauvinist expectations. She may look like a male fantasy of female sexual availability (frozen in about 1968), but her image is entirely owned and controlled by her.” Really? Does any artist who looks like a male fantasy of female sexual availability but who “controls” their image, therefore deflate sexism? Does Rihanna? Does Miley Cyrus (who happens to be Dolly Parton’s goddaughter)? To argue this is to tread close to the headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion: ‘Women now empowered by anything a woman does.’

It is doubtful that anyone can control their image, even stars with some say over their self-presentation, like Parton. Her persona, even before the cosmetic surgery, made her the target of sexism in music journalism and beyond. Scientists named Dolly the sheep, the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell (a mammary gland) after Dolly Parton; how crass!

What Parton can and does do is to challenge some of the sexist stereotyping that accompanies her look. A repeated motif in her songs is that you should look beyond a woman’s appearance, and not underestimate her (Dumb Blonde, Backwoods Barbie, and 9 to 5: The Musical: “You only see tits, but get this: there’s a heart under there..well, ol’ Double-D Doralee’s gonna stick it to you”). It is also important to recognise where her look came from. In her autobiography she says that she took on this image because looking “like a hooker” meant that the local men would not harass her; looking feminine commanded respect. In that context, the cosmetic surgery and the emphasis on bust, hair and nails, has a different meaning.

Of course, creating feminist heroines always involves looking at them with a selective eye. In Dolly Parton’s case this may mean choosing to ignore the early songs that promote co-dependence, the idiosyncratic retelling of American history in her Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction (worth seeing for the racing pigs alone!), and her being less pluralist with religion than she is with sexuality.

I think there’s another reason why Dolly Parton has been claimed as a feminist. She fills a vacuum that might once have been filled by Maya Angelou, or Germaine Greer. There are now no active, internationally recognized feminists with the charisma, empathy, and sparkle of Dolly Parton. Perhaps this is why we must turn to popular culture for our icons, to Dolly and to Oprah. Dolly Parton: a radical in rhinestones.

Helen Morales is author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood (Chicago University Press, 2014)

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Song Sisters: A free songwriting masterclass tour, just for women

Few emerging singer-songwriters can say that they co-wrote a global number 1 hit. Even fewer have been asked to support top acts such as Ed Sheeran on tour, notching up a staggering 51,000 views on just one of her songs, published on respected indie internet video channel, Ont’ Sofa. But judging by statistics it would seem that these singer-songwriters are in a shocking minority.

As a direct result these two extraordinarily talented acts, Fiona Bevan and Kal Lavelle, are embarking on Song Sisters, a groundbreaking double headline tour across the UK during July and August, organised and promoted by Folkstock Arts Foundation’s Helen Meissner, an emerging champion of acoustic music. Kal and Fiona are established and respected female singer songwriters in their own right but were appalled to learn at the recent Women in Music conference held at the Southbank in London that “only 13% of the songwriters registered on PRS for Music are women”, and so the successful soulful-folk-pop friends decided to join forces and do something about it.

The musicians, who met on the gigging circuit, are committed to making a difference and improving the statistics. Rather than sitting back and being smug that they are in the 13%. They want to encourage other female songwriters to get their songs finished and registered. By way of practical support, they are offering FREE ENTRY masterclasses for women only, on the afternoon of every date on the tour. The sessions will run ahead of each ticketed gig and incorporate a song surgery, as well as tips, advice, and a question & answer element with both Fiona and Kal on hand to help.

The exclusively female line-up tour takes them from Exeter to Ipswich, Manchester to Brighton over the summer; in addition, the girls are offering the opening spot on each leg of the tour to local budding female stars.

They are hoping that this tour captures the imagination of singer-songwriters across the country and really inspires them, especially the women, to take their songwriting more seriously.

Not surprisingly, this significant tour has already attracted some top level reactions, interviews and sessions from respected industry names, including Gaby Roslin, Ruth Barnes, The Daily Mirror, The Londonist, London Gig Guide, The Girls Are, M Magazine (for PRS for Music), and BBC 2’s Bob Harris.

Peggy Seeger said: “what a wonderful idea! Women songwriters have been around for a long time – the masterclasses will encourage us to work together and take our rightful place as writers and performers.”

Innovative, unique and accessible, if you are a budding female singer-songwriter, the Song Sisters tour is where it’s at this summer!

The only date in the capital is TONIGHT at Paper Dress Vintage in Shoreditch. Some tickets are still available for the gig and there are five places left on the free masterclass, running from 6.30 – 8.00, after which the gig starts.

To sign up for the masterclasses email songsistersmasterclass@gmail.com and state which of the 15 dates you are applying for. 

Details of the remaining Song Sisters gigs can be found here.

8th July, LONDON: Paper Dress Vintage with Stephanie O’Brien and Kal

27th July, IPSWICH: St Peter’s by the Waterfront

7th August, EXETER: Starz Bar

10th August, RETFORD: The Birches, ReVerb Project

15th August, CHELTENHAM: The Frog and Fiddle

17th August, BRIGHTON: The Marwood

18th August, CHICHESTER: The Chichester Inn

24th August, MANCHESTER: The Castle

27th August, NORWICH: The Bicycle Shop

28th August, SANDBACH: The Cycle Junction

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The Punk Singer – Return of the Riot Grrrls?

Pioneering musician Kathleen Hanna, of punk bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, is the subject of an upcoming documentary, The Punk Singer, released in the UK this week. Directed by Sini Anderson, the film focuses on Hanna’s spearheading of the initial Riot Grrrl movement, offering in-depth commentary on the inception of Bikini Kill, the Olympia music scene and the ups and downs of being an inspirational force in DIY punk-rock history.

In many ways, the film’s release could not have come at a better time, with the incendiary Riot Grrrl subculture and all that it stood for currently seeming more of a distant memory. Initially born from a hardcore punk ethos in the early 90s, bands like Bikini Kill, The Raincoats and many more sought to challenge attitudes of patriarchy, addressing rape, abuse, sexuality and political activism from a feminist perspective. This willingness to openly confront these issues resulted in female empowerment that inspired a generation of women and men.

4 The Punk Singer documenary Dogwoof. Kathleen Hanna Photo courtesy of Pat Smear

Sadly, there has been a cultural shift over the last twenty years in music and politics to distance itself from feminism. Many musicians have made a case for mobilising sexist ‘irony’ into music, while others insist the war for equality is over and that sexism towards women in music has been consigned to history.

But forget that. Switch on any music video channel and you’ll struggle to find a single woman fronting a prominent rock band. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of woman-fronted acts out there – bands like Marmozets, who utilise math-rock and hardcore, fronted by 20 year old Becca Macintyre are starting to gain some ground; as are hard-riff, stoner rockers Deap Vally; and, most surprisingly, the authentic, atmospheric melancholy of Chelsea Wolfe.

However the vast majority of female-fronted bands — Blood Command, Rolo Tomassi, Wolf Alice, Sisters, Honeyblood, Fight Like Apes, The History of Apple Pie — are struggling to find a platform to be seen or heard.

The next generation of female musicians are stylish young waifs sporting ironic band t-shirts, wafting around like Haim or Lorde. Musically, their output is over homogenised, mass-produced, pop landfill. It’s a sad acceptance that in music over the last twenty years, it is sex that sells, not opinion.

Take the most famous women in pop music — Cheryl Cole, Shakira, Nicki Minaj — what it is they stand for? Beyonce is a global superstar who contributed to the Shriver report, slating the myth of gender equality. But even she can be seen pole dancing and writhing around husband Jay-Z in videos like Drunken Love or Partition. Sigh. Let’s face it, the Beyonces of this world are merely mirrors to mass culture. They are not the women to look to for change — and yet they are the ones who dominate our TV screens and airwaves.

These are just some of the challenges faced today by Riot Grrrl bands such as Tacocat, Bleached and Throwing Up, who have received little or no media attention despite their music being loud, refreshing and intelligent. Today, the musical landscape (much like the political) is as unwelcoming to feminist artists as it has ever been.

This attitude towards women in contemporary music is a far cry from the music of my youth in the early and mid nineties. Back then there was a constant horde of rising bands fronted by women: The Breeders, Free Kitten, Pussy Galore, Heavens to Betsey, Bratmobile, Silverfish, Ruby, Veruca Salt, L7, Babes in Toyland, Skunk Anansie, Curve, Garbage, Excuse 17, Bjork, Portishead, Daisy Chainsaw, and countless others.

The Punk Singer Dogwoof Documentary 1

My musical education was shaped by strong front-women constantly seeking to educate, inspire and be heard – even when conflict was commonplace at gigs for bands like Bikini Kill. As these women battled on, both courageous and profane, their message was clear: form your own ideas, question wider problems, do what you want to do and be who you want to be.

But it falls to the insurgent Riot Grrrls of 2014 to reclaim empowerment through DIY. Most famously, it is Pussy Riot (who cite Bikini Kill as an influence) who have been a political, musical and cultural reference point of late. Using their anti-fascist tactics to attract attention to issues of feminism and social structures, both the band and movement have created a public discourse around their concerns. And there are certainly parallels between the resurgence in women aligning themselves with Pussy Riot and the Riot Grrrl community of the 90s.

While the Riot Grrrl name may have diminished in the media over the last two decades, the movement’s values never went away. Riot Grrrl taught crucial lessons about directing anger and frustration about inequality into a public sphere. The issues that existed then are as relevant today.

With the UK release of The Punk Singer showcasing Kathleen Hanna’s political diatribes afresh, it will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of Riot Grrrls to fly the flag for equality, give women agency and make their mark in music and beyond. If ever there was a time to push women in music to the forefront, it is now. And if that means bands will don the Pussy Riot balaclavas to be heard, so be it!

Faye Lewis is a music writer, literature fanatic and George Carlin aficionado. Follow her @FayeLewis85.

The Punk Singer Competition


Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre, rose to national attention as the reluctant but never shy voice of the riot grrrl movement. She became one of the most famously outspoken feminist icons, a cultural lightning rod. Her critics wished she would just shut-up, and her fans hoped she never would. So in 2005, when Hanna stopped shouting, many wondered why. Through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews with Hanna, THE PUNK SINGER takes viewers on a fascinating tour of contemporary music and offers a never-before-seen view into the life of this fearless leader. 

The Punk Singer is released in the UK this Friday, 23 May, with screenings across the UK until 26 June. Click here to find your nearest screening.

To celebrate, we’ve got a “Girls to the front” T-shirt and set of The Punk Singer badges to give away to one Feminist Times reader. To enter simply tweet us @Feminist_Times with your favourite riot grrrl song lyric, using #ThePunkSinger. The winner will be announced at 5pm on Thursday 22 May.

SO200688 Dogwoof Badges comp

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The end of orchestral sexism?

Classical music has a bad track record on sexism. According to one Russian composer, Yuri Temirkanov, women conductors are “against nature”, and Vasily Petrenko, conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, last year claimed that musicians are distracted by “a cute girl on a podium” and that women conductors are less dedicated when they have families.

That attitude could all be set to change, as Morley College today announced the launch of a pilot course for women conductors, to run this month.

Led by conductor Alice Farnham, the course is open to young women aged 16-19 who are currently studying at one of eight UK music conservatoires and plan to continue their musical education at university level. It will cover topics from conducting technique and body language to leadership and communication.

Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House said: “Morley College is doing something fantastic: a programme for women conductors taught by the very gifted Alice Farnham. A chance to explore the issues, musical and interpersonal, faced by the leader of an orchestra who happens to be a woman!”

Currently, not one British orchestra has a female Music Director; just 4.1 per cent of commissions for new works were awarded to women composers in 2010; and, according to one study, women are 50 per cent more likely to progress when orchestras use blind auditions to select their musicians.

Students on the course will receive masterclasses from Sian Edwards, Head of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, and a key-note talk on ‘Women and Leadership’ from the Southbank Centre’s Jude Kelly.

They will also be offered the chance to work with Southbank Sinfonia, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Welsh College, who are partnering with Morley for the project.

Andrea Brown, Director of Music at Morley said: “Having been involved in recent round table discussions and conferences on the subject of gender imbalance in the music profession, I felt the best way I could support addressing this issue was through education.

“Morley has a long history of new and experimental music and this is another way in which we can lead the way and develop future musical talent.”

If the pilot is successful, Morley plans to roll out a longer conducting course open to 16-25 year-olds in the next academic year.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Debbie Harry to become first woman musician awarded Godlike Genius

When NME announced that Blondie would receive their Godlike Genius award at their annual awards this month, I couldn’t help but wonder what iconic rock journalist Lester Bangs would have made of it all. Why? Debbie Harry will be the first female musician ever to pick up the gong – a shocking statistic in 2014, but one that illuminates the depth of an industry problem women have reluctantly complied with for decades.

If you don’t believe me, allow Lester to set the scene for you. In his 1980 biography Blondie, he quipped about Debbie: “I think if most guys in America could somehow get their fave-rave poster girl in bed and have total license to do whatever they wanted with this legendary body for one afternoon, at least 75 percent of the guys in the country would elect to beat her up. She may be up there all high and mighty on TV, but everybody knows that underneath all that fashion plating she’s just a piece of meat like the rest of them.”

Both Lester, dressed up in his ironic finery, and the ‘guys’ he ridicules, flirt dangerously with misogyny. It’s left to Debbie Harry to question, retrospectively, her precarious footing within this testosterone-fuelled landscape.

In a 2013 interview with Oyster Magazine, she described her position as “at times, very uncomfortable… There were some girls doing music, but not a lot, and the record industry certainly wasn’t geared for it the way they are now.”

For many men in 1979, Debbie Harry was an unknown entity they couldn’t quite fathom, despite Lester’s barbed attempt: Detached and sexy, demure yet streetwise. Debbie was an ice-blonde front-woman the journos couldn’t categorise: exploited victim or liberated artist?

This goes some way to explain the depth of the problem Debbie Harry faced during her career. The sexualisation of women in music has always informed our reception of the music itself. Debbie’s sexual independence certainly ruffled feathers, prompting labels like ‘cold’ and ‘smug’. Take the Blondie lyrics, for example, on 1979 B-side ‘Just Go Away’. In it, Harry coolly croons “O Don’t ya know/Don’t wanna see you any more/Put up or shut up.”

This blonde wasn’t a heartbroken sap, waiting on a man to take the lead. As she explained to Sunday Time Style Magazine in 2013: “I was dead sick and tired of all of these songs by the R&B girls, the trios and stuff. They were all victimised by love. I was sick of it. I didn’t want to portray myself or women as victims.” Lester Bangs had missed the point.

30 years later and Debbie Harry is now set to take to the podium at NME Awards 2014. The first female musician NME has ever deemed ‘Godlike’. Which begs the question: Is this a clear sign that recognition for women in music is really changing after all these years?

Truthfully, when I first heard the news I dented the air with a punch and my first thought was thus: FINALLY. I remember when I attended the NME Awards back in 2007. I was working on the NME news desk at the time, along with probably three other women in the office. That year the only women recognized were Kate Moss for ‘Sexiest Female’ and Lily Allen – not for her music, but for ‘Worst Dressed’. The only woman anyone was talking about that night was Kate Moss, for disappearing into the toilets with ‘bad boyfriend’ Pete Doherty.

Back then, standing in the Hammersmith Palais, I felt underrepresented as a woman. There seemed to be a gaping hole, both for women as serious musical contenders and as music journalists. A voice was lacking, both in song and on the page, from the reviewed and the reviewer. Not only that, the way that voice was perceived when it did hit the mainstream seemed aesthetically skewed.

I remember interviewing Alison Goldfrapp back in 2008 for Clash Magazine, when she complained: “People will talk to Will [Gregory, other half of duo Goldfrapp] about the music, and to me what a ‘pretty feminine frock’ I have on. It’s really fucking annoying.”

She wasn’t the only one who was fucking annoyed. Being one of the few women working in the office at the time, I felt it acutely. Each week as a music journalist I would file away a comment under B for Banter, shrugging it off as simply part of the job.

There was the time I visited Pentonville Prison to review a charity gig and my colleague playfully warned me to “watch out” for myself as the prisoners “couldn’t wank in their cells”, or the time I intercepted an editorial conversation. The premise was to quiz every female act what she was wearing at Glastonbury. Or how about the time I asked a fellow (married) freelancer for help with a feature I was hoping to pitch for? I arrived with a notepad and he, with his wedding ring removed.

Do I know a little about feeling ‘uncomfortable’ as a minority woman in a male-dominated industry? Yes, I guess I do. And I guess I’m only able to write about it now, like Debbie Harry is only talking about it now, because time gives you the gift of hindsight. I now know that it should have been different.

As it turns out, it now does seem different. The NME office is now a gender-balanced space – something I could only have dreamed about six years earlier. The all-female band Haim regularly command magazine covers, and strong female artists like Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Adele dominate the charts, wholly in command of their music, words, image and brand.

The old Britpop philosophy no longer seems to perpetuate the myth that boys obsess over Blur B-sides whereas girls melt over Damon posters. And yet certain sectors in the music industry are still yet to address a very blatant gender imbalance.

Do we still have some ground to cover? You bet. Is one Haim band enough? No. But is Debbie Harry’s recognition at NME Awards a step in the right direction? Absolutely.

The NME Awards take place tomorrow, Wednesday 26 February.

Kat Lister is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazineand Frankie magazine.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Savile case ignites feminism in music

When I was 9-years-old I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It. My letter never got answered but it horrifies me thinking back that if I’d achieved my goal to be on that show I would have been in the lair of that man.

Almost 30 years later I think it is no coincidence that the outing of Savile as a sexual predator has come at the same time as a massive feminist renaissance, particularly within the music and entertainment industries. In fact, I think the Savile revelations have been an important cultural catalyst for a generation of women who just won’t stay silent anymore.

Like many people of my age who have cherished childhood memories of shows such as Jim’ll Fix It, It’s a Knockout, Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Time, etc. these sordid revelations shocked me to my very core. It makes us question society’s complicit behaviour, our inner child cries out in protest and as adults we feel guilt at such unchecked and accepted behaviour, which was passed off as “what the culture of celebrity was like in the 70’s/80s.”

Why was this behaviour accepted and ignored? Turned a blind eye to? Whichever way you want to look at it everyone was complicit and so the memory of Top Of The Pops is reduced to that of a sexual breeding ground for perverse males, with young girls being treated as no more than objects for the celebrity entourage. Another childhood memory wiped out and tainted.

Reports of sex abuse have soared since these revelations came to light and there have now been 15 people arrested for sex offences as part of the Operation Yewtree investigation. Would these crimes have gone unnoticed if the floodgates hadn’t been opened by the Jimmy Savile case?

In recent months I have witnessed women both in front and behind the scenes of the prehistoric beast that is the music industry speaking out about inequality and sexism. Women are beginning to speak out publicly about the injustice they have suffered throughout their lives and careers. I have never witnessed so many women speaking out in my 15 years in the music industry. Something is afoot, the plates are shifting. It occurred to me that surely this is no coincidence.

Sometimes it takes something so huge and terrible to jolt society from its sleeping state. Women are speaking out about the unchecked misogyny that happens ritually in their day-to-day lives. We have had enough.

The culture of celebrity is in the docks post Jimmy Savile but, perhaps ironically due to the strength of celebrity and the media, we need people to use that power to voice their experience of inequality and sexism.

We need to turn this overwhelming negative into a positive to use to our advantage, not only to prevent anything like this ever happening again, in any way shape or form, but also that we don’t accept any form of misogyny, abuse or victimisation of girls or women. We must speak out, now!

Claire Southwick is a Producer & Artist Manager and spokesperson for women in music with 15 years experience in the Music Industry. Claire is a regular panelist at music conferences around the globe. Follow Claire here @clairesouthwick

Photo: Bad Greeb Records

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