Curated by Minadi Gunawardena
Content warning: disordered eating, size shaming, sexist slurs.
All music is political. It brings together rituals, sentiments, and movements. It holds up a mirror to our lives, beliefs, and norms, and this is perhaps especially true of the relationship between women and music.
This list will offer reading material, playlists, and other media which we hope will provide insight into this relationship, discussing how it shapes culture and society while also shaping each other.
“Femininity as Performance”
“As girls at school, as women at work, we are used to performing.”
— Valerie Walkerdine in “Femininity as Performance” (1989)
Walkerdine writes in “Femininity as Performance” (1989) that “life [for women] is a performance in which we do nothing but act out roles…” I think this speaks volumes about the traditional roles created for women in music, with a continuous need to behave in ways which fit into conventional norms of entertainment. In Sri Lanka, there have been female singers from the early 1930s. However, what was typically expected of them was to be feminine, sari-clad, and to be performing classical music. Singers like Rukmani Devi created their own phenomenal legacies while working within these expectations. Examples of this lie in how she presented herself as an artist/actress embodying the classic Sri lankan beauty, and for instance, changing her name from Daisy Rasammah Daniels, reportedly after pressure from industry professionals to adopt a name to suit her public profile.
However, in 1969, The Three Sisters, widely regarded as Sri Lanka’s first all-female vocal pop group, broke into the scene and paved the way for female musicians to step away from being expected to be pillars of tradition and culture. With songs like “Akkala Nangila” and “Kalu Kella Mamai”, Indrani, Mallika, and Iranganie Perera sang songs that celebrated sisterhood and love, all in bell bottoms, short skirts, and sparkly dresses.
Kalu Kella Mamai (transl:I am that dark skinned girl) is an amazing video to watch because of its distinctiveness from other performances by female artists of that era, with their personalities shining through their style and voices. It is also interesting to note how other Sri Lankan female artists like Corrine Almedia, Yohani de Silva, Umaria Sinhawansa and Ashanthi De Silva defied traditional expectations and created their own independent identities, ones which were unique from what had been done before. I love Corrine’s performance of Rasa Piruna Katha in 2022 because she embodies this independence, she is so undeniably herself. I also especially loved her choice of clothing, and vibrant, confident energy on stage.
Hanthane by Ashanthi is also a reminder of what it means for female artists in Sri Lanka to stay true to who they are, especially in how they present themselves. Everything from camo pants to the “Ashanthi” engraved snapbacks screams individuality. I also love Raja Kumari (Svetha Rao), particularly how she merges her Indian roots with her contemporary American background in her style. Like Ashanthi, she is fierce in how she presents herself, shattering every stereotype that shadows the hip-hop and the Indian music industry. As Raja Kumari, Songwriter Svetha Rao Is Bridging East and West in Hip Hop is a look into her work and style.
Appearance and perception: bodies, beauty, BTS.
There is undoubtedly a strong correlation between how a woman artist presents themselves physically, and their popularity and public opinion of them. There is an unquestionable pressure to remain thin and conventionally “attractive”, and whether it is discussed widely or not, it is an influential factor in how well a female singer may succeed. Mind Over Body: Is There Pressure on Female Artists to Look a Certain Way and Have an ‘Ideal’ Body Size? is a look into how physical appearance affects streams, and to what level an artist may be celebrated.
An example of this is the public reaction to Doja Cat’s style revamp in August 2022. Her transition from a “sexy and feminine” pop star to a more experimental and unconventional artist was criticized intensely, prompting one of my favourite songs of the year, Attention. Her “conventional attractiveness” is what garnered a large proportion of her fans, male and female alike. The moment she decided to step away from this was when she was ostracised and criticised as an artist the most.
“In order for me to meet my goals, I’m limiting myself to no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol-and I’m hungry.”
— Beyoncé in “Homecoming”
A crucial part of this is also the pressure to have a “perfect body”. Beyoncé’s documentary “Homecoming” is a must-watch on this reading list. It is a celebration of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, motherhood, and community. However, the documentary also captures the intense dietary restrictions Beyoncé placed herself in an attempt to lose weight post-pregnancy. As candid as she was, her conflicts with her body demonstrate how the world has grown to expect dangerous and unsustainable ideals for women, even women like Beyonce, who we are used to thinking of as powerful and pathbreaking. If Queen Bey herself can’t escape the dangerous and detrimental pursuit of “perfection” as set out by a patriarchal and misogynistic society and media, what hope is there for us mere mortals?
It is crucial to understand that this sexualization and persistent need to present themselves as desirable is directly influenced by (perhaps even dictated by) how the music industry has built the ways in which artists market themselves. I recommend Music Videos: Through the lens of the male gaze, which offers insight into how the creative direction of many music videos has been shaped around emphasising the sex appeal or allure of a woman. Music producers, artists, male and female alike, from approximately the 1980s have only gone on to build this concept further.
For instance, one of my early memories of watching a music video produced in Sri Lanka was of Iraj’s A Hitha (ඒ හිත) Iraj ft. Delon | Shani. The song was undoubtedly one of the benchmarks for hip-hop/rap for local artists, however, the music video captures the very essence of reducing young women to their bodies (which he continues to do, while also being a general all round terrible fellow). This is not the first, most major music videos in the 2000s from Sri Lanka all featured this questionable style. This sexualization of women in other music videos is explored in Representation of Women in Iraj’s Music Videos: Special Reference To Ashawari, Wassane Heene, And Cleopatra. Producers are aware of the views and attention the public will grant if this particular concept is followed.
It is also necessary to consider how influential female musicians are in setting beauty standards. How they perform, how they shoot or produce their music videos, for instance, may change the trajectory of pop culture in ways that fundamentally alter how other women see themselves. This is mapped out well in Has Music Videos Set New Standards of Beauty for Women?
The Power of Fangirls
While we’ve discussed how women can be used as marketing tools in music, we must also note the power they have in driving the industry as a collective forward. Women, young girls, in particular, play critical roles in developing fanbases and the career of many artists. Consider Beatlemania and Bieber Fever. For years, girls have been able to decide what hits the shelves, what concerts will sell out, and who will go down in history as celebrated. Why is it then that fan bases consisting predominantly of girls are often laughed at or ridiculed? This is explained well in Opinion: Female Fans can make a musician’s career, and it’s time they were taken seriously.
Not only are fangirls categorised as hysterical and childish, but artists who have a large female following are also looked down on significantly. This stigma is discussed in The stigma around artists with predominantly female fanbases — Bell Magazine. I also highly recommend Fan Girls Cartoon by Vulga Comics. The influence women have in music is understated and the more we examine the roles they play through critical and feminist lenses, we are able to build safe and inclusive spaces to enjoy art in its multiple forms.
Misogyny in Lyrics
One of the most popular genres in the world (and also one of my personal favourites) is Hip-Hop/Rap. It has its own history of artists reclaiming their self-identity, with rappers speaking on the political and personal battles of Black people/African-Americans. However, more often than not, the content produced is notoriously misogynistic. Consider the 1980s and 1990s: rap dominated the charts, and songs which objectified, critiqued, and insulted women were popular without much consideration to its content. (For example, see Straight Outta Compton (Official Music Video).
There is little to no reason for young girls (regardless of their background or ethnicity) to connect with what they hear on the radio, and yet, I myself among others have found Hip-Hop/Rap to resonate on levels that other genres have failed to. When I was younger, I discovered so much raw and purposeful emotion in my favourite rappers’ music, which often meant that the misogyny that lurked in the core messages of their work escaped my attention. It was only when I had gotten older that I was able to notice the potential it has in normalising and triggering aggression and violence towards women in impressionable boys.
Terri M. Adams and Douglas B. Fuller from the Journal of Black Studies breaks down this misogyny in “gangsta rap” as “the promotion, glamorisation, support, humorization, justification or normalisation of oppressive ideas about women”.
Unfortunately, despite newer conversations on the topic, rap continues to uphold many of the same ideas. To understand the glorification of physical/verbal abuse of women, read more in The Words Have Changed But the Ideology Remains the Same: Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music by Terri M. Adams, and Douglas B. Fuller from the Journal of Black Studies. This is also explained well in Are You Listening? Misogyny in Rap Music and What It Means for Women in Society by the Berkeley Political Review. Women are still reduced to objects, merely shrunk to things to be ridiculed, existing for sexual gratification or pleasure. Female rappers are still disrespected, snubbed, and uncelebrated.
With this discussion comes the importance of how artists and producers could move away from harmful lyricism, especially by drawing on examples of resistance from female artists. For instance, in 1990, Dionne Warwick, one of the pioneers of American Soul and Female Ballads, staged her own gathering of the top rappers of the 90s in her home. She asked critical questions -“You’re going to have children. You’re going to have little girls, and one day that little girl is going to look at you and say, ‘Daddy, did you really say that? Is that really you?’ What are you going to say?” This article refers to the incident where some of the greatest rappers of our time were put in their place and confronted (“out-gangstered,” says Snoop Dogg): Snoop Dogg Says Dionne Warwick Confronted Him Over Misogynistic Lyrics by Billboard.
I also love the legacies female rappers have carved to counter this, particularly the lives and work of Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot. Both artists resisted the rampant misogyny of the industry and society of their time in their own musical activism, speaking on the sexual, political, and personal aspects of being an African-American woman. Listen to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and her 1996 performance with the Fugees. Also, read How Lauryn Hill Educated the Music Industry 20 Years Ago | Time.
Missy Elliot similarly made her own mark by speaking on black feminism through her discography. She was the first to use unique adlibs, and sound effects in her music back in the 90s, permanently altering the course of rap. Many in the industry reportedly laughed at her futuristic style, although going on to draw inspiration from her work. Read more of her resistance in Hip Hop Feminism from the Perspective of Missy Elliott and A Brief History of Music and Feminism — Amplify Her Voice.
Resistance & Celebration through Music
Women are also phenomenal in how they employ music to resist and celebrate. This intersection has existed for years, for example, Music in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
“For as long as socially and politically aware citizens have gathered to protest laws and voice dissent, music has served a paramount role; the women’s suffrage movement proves no exception.”
-Music in the Women’s Suffrage Movement
Sri Lankan singers like Rukmani Devi, Latha Walpola, and Nanda Malini are also excellent examples, with each having discographies that touch on themes which are emotional, revolutionary, and deeply political. For instance, Nanda Malini is especially regarded for, in her own words, “fulfilling social purpose through song”. In her interviews, she has expressed her unyielding belief that music must capture or highlight social injustices. One such example of this was her cassette tape/solo concert series “Pavana”, which presented commentaries about the political and social climate of the 1980s. These songs were so powerful and influential, especially in terms of resonating with the youth, that they were banned from the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and Sri Lanka Rupahavini Corporation. People were arrested for having these cassettes, yet, her music was relentless in the face of this silencing, as she continued her activism despite her receiving deaths. Read more of her resistance and political expression through music and art in Social Crusader for Generations and Between romance and revolution: Nanda Malini and Politics of Pavana.
“The social conditions of that time compelled us to come out with “Pavana”. If we hadn’t done it, we would have had to ask ourselves what our purpose in singing was.”
- Nanda Malini (http://www.infolanka.com/org/srilanka/people/19.htm)
Hear Nanda Malini’s story in her own words in Nanda Malini shares her inspiring life story at the AIA Higher Education Scholarship Awards.
One of my favourite examples of resistance is also Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her old albums. Agency, ownership, and maintaining one’s own artistic identity are complex issues in the music industry, particularly for female artists entering the market at young ages. She was just sixteen when she first signed to Big Machine Records in 2005, going on to record six record-breaking albums before her contract ended in 2018. After her switch to Universal Records, her masters were sold by Scooter Braun who had acquired BMR. Later, Taylor Swift responded by recording her own versions of her original albums, all acclaimed and celebrated by critics and fans alike. I especially found this to be a remarkable example of solidarity, as her fanbase asked audiences worldwide to only listen to the re-recorded versions, therefore effectively rendering the originals profitless. I also love how she named them all “Taylor’s Version”, which offers a feeling of nostalgia to her fans, while simultaneously reclaiming her identity, story, and art.
Resistance and celebration also stem from female artists being unapologetically themselves. Singers like Adele have created extraordinary careers, centred around music speaking on topics close to them as individuals. Adele has her own diverse collection of music, with her extraordinary vocals telling stories of love, grief, and motherhood. Her unwavering dedication to her craft is beautifully explored in The Glorious Age of Adele.
Joy is a fundamental component of the kind of music that builds communities and identities. Songs by women have allowed me to find happiness in times of grief or solitude, and reflect critically on my own life experiences. This is also true for many others, which is perhaps why concerts such as The Eras Tour by Taylor Swift resonate with women in particular. Everything from her set design to her costumes exudes the very essence of girls having the space to enjoy themselves, singing along to music which speaks on relatable experiences. Another example of this is Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour, which is centred around the celebration of black joy, dance, movement, and togetherness. This is explained well in Beyoncé’s Radical Ode to Pleasure.
Music has been and will continue to be a radical medium of expression for the women who choose to harness it. Whether that is through singing, producing, writing, or even engaging in conversation, the music around us frames who we are, and most importantly, what we want the world to look like — a more feminist, joyful, purposeful world.
- These Are 3 Of The Biggest Drivers Of Gender Inequality In Music: Forbes
- Women’s Roles in Modern Music — The Heroine Collective
- Female Trouble — Underground Music Gives Activism A New Face — Europavox
- Tracing The History And Role Of Music In The Evolution Of Feminist Movements | Feminism in India
- Music as protest | The British Library
- Raising voices: Leadership from women in music benefits all
- Lizzo and Kim Petras Rethink the Gender Ratio in the Music Industry
- Women Music Producers Fighting for Equality: Vice News
- Fleetwood Mac — Silver Springs (Official Live Video) [HD] — electric performance by Stevie Nicks, powerful resistance against her husband
- What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
- Victor/Victoria (1982)
- Britney v Spears
- Ricki and the Flash
- Daisy Jones and the Six