Women are redefining what it means to be a musician

In a fierce grayscale portrait, rapper and actress Megan Thee Stallion blurs the lines of emotion as she sports three moods in her recently released album cover for Traumazine. With one image superimposed on another, the rapper’s boldly made-up face blends into its neighboring self, merging the angry, respectable, and indifferent expressions into one wild woman.

Leaving little room for misinterpretation, Megan tells listeners exactly what she’s thinking.

“Sick of being humble, because you bitches don’t respect that,” she raps in the song “NDA” from her second album released in August. “And the next one of you wants to get bold, I’ll check that out.”

Spreading messages of resilience and power, Megan and countless other musicians are redefining what it means to make music for women and about women. As women artists continue to challenge stereotypes through a deliberately gendered lens, their roles in the music industry continue a legacy of groundbreaking social change.

A temporary exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History highlights the role of women in creating the soundtracks that have inspired generations of social and political movements. “Music HerStory: Women and the Music of Social Change”, open until February 20, 2024, highlights the women who have preserved culture while influencing it.

From nursery rhymes to anthems to complex social identities, women have had an important place in music, even if their work has not always been recognized. From performing in lyrical, male-voiced tropes to finding new ways to challenge them, women of all genres have used their songs to turn the tide.

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“It wasn’t God who made the honky-tonk angels, like you said in your song lyrics,” sang Kitty Wells, “The Queen of Country Music”, in her 1952 country hit song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made The Honky Tonk Angels”. “Too often married men think they’re still single, which has gotten a lot of good girls wrong.

Written in response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” and other country songs blaming women for the demise of relationships, Wells quickly topped the country music charts despite some radio stations initially banning the song.

Lyrics about women’s needs and wants go back to classic blues in songs like Bessie Smith’s “Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” According to Dr. Nicole Powlison, professor of musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland, there has been a shift to increasingly explicit and unapologetic verses that have broken the sexual taboo and revealed the real consequences that women suffer in a sexually liberated society.

“Women might be protected and/or desired, but they cannot protect themselves or express their desire without fear of ridicule,” Powlison wrote in an email.

As women take more control of their careers and show they can be both tough and soft without losing their identity, their fearless work is empowering a generation of listeners, said sophomore Terriana Jones. year of architecture.

“I may not be doing all that [Megan Thee Stallion is] do or, like, I’m not built like her, but when I listen to her, I feel like I’m big, loud, famous,” Jones said. “I feel like it’s very empowering.”

The unified strength of women characterized a new period in music history – the “sexy girl” era – where women are beginning to profit from the misogyny that has historically sexualized them. For some artists, it’s also a chance to regain their independence, according to Dr. Matthew Valnes, visiting assistant professor of musicology at this university.

“The hypersexualization of black women…has been rife in United States history for a very long time,” he said. “[For Black artists engaging with those tropes,] it’s a way of sort of reclaiming agency and autonomy.

But that sexualization hasn’t stopped artists from continuing to deliver important messages to women, said Kate Cohen, a freshman majoring in arts and science.

“[Nicki Minaj] is very sexualized, but it also has a great message,” Cohen explained. ” She talks about [how] women should go to school and you should get an education, find a good job and support yourself, and you don’t need a man. She talks so much about doing it on your own and as a woman.

Music from a woman’s perspective also appeals to listeners because of its relativity. The punk movement Riot Grrrl In the 1990s, they broke taboos by writing songs about gender harassment, women’s health, self-image and sexual violence.

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Today, indie-rock music from artists such as Mitski, a Japanese-American singer, creates space for those who feel lonely to feel safe.

“A lot of [Mitski’s] the songs were about how she felt out of place in society, whether it was because of her gender or her ethnic background,” Farah Aliab, a first-year psychology student.said adi. “For me, I’m from the Middle East and although I obviously can’t place myself on the same level, there is aIt’s definitely things that I hear in his music that really resonate with me…because you feel like they understand you.

Women in music also support each other beyond the studio. Throughout the 20th century, women rose to become record label executives, music engineers, and industry decision-makers, bringing diverse perspectives, talents, and creativity to the profession.

“Women have been doing this kind of work for centuries,” Powlison wrote. “But when a figurehead-type producer comes to the fore as a contributor to the sound of a genre, it’s almost always a man.”

But as pioneering musicians such as Beyoncé, who started her own record label in 2008, and Janelle Monáe, who leads artist movements such as Wondaland Art Society, are paving the way for other women in music production , the future of female representation in the industry is growing.

“How we’re smart enough to make these millions, smart enough to bear these kids,” Beyoncé sang in her award-winning song “Run the World (Girls).” “So get back to business.”

In front of an all-female army, Beyoncé ferociously rips off her male counterpart’s badge and pins it to her long emerald green slit dress. With fists raised behind her, the army of women is ready to follow in their leader’s footsteps.