The future of rock is female and that might just be what's needed to rejuvenate the fading genre
In a mostly male-dominated scene, a new generation of female artists are adding much needed spice to the stale pot of rock
For the last half century or so, throughout the history of rock music, it could be argued it has mostly been an all-boys-club, with women either propped as a novelty act -- think Smashing Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy Wretzky or Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon -- or left at the uncelebrated fringes of the genre. But in the last half-decade or so, that outlook has been changing rapidly as a steadily increasing number of women are starting to make an impact on an arguably fading genre, at least in its traditional sense.
Even this year, some of the most innovative rock acts have come from women, with artists like St. Vincent, Snail Mail, Mitski, Courtney Barnett and the likes featuring on the "Top Albums" lists of almost all tastemaker music publications (our own included).
Recently, Fender, the legendary guitar makers released a report detailing how women continue to define the emerging guitar market, accounting for "50 percent of all beginner and aspirational players". The steady rise in the number of novice enthusiasts is parallel to the female invasion of the otherwise mostly male arena of rock.
But in spite of all the breakthrough female artists, the fact remains the music industry still remains a largely male-dominated scene. Just look at the many instances in pop culture where we are shown teenage bedrooms plastered with Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead and Pink Floyd posters. How many women do you see on those walls?
One look at the Spotify charts for 2018 will tell you that the top 5 popular artists are all male (Drake, XXXtentacion, Post Malone, Ed Sheeran and J Balvin). Even the top songs all go to male contenders. Most of the upcoming female artists, like the ones mentioned above and several more, are mostly making waves in the underground indie circuits and very few like St. Vincent and Courtney Barnett manage to garner mainstream recognition. Why is this the case?
Part of the reason could just be that the music industry itself - employees at record labels, producers, radio jockeys etc. - are mostly male. As is the case with the panels of major awards like the Grammys. Until this year, which has seen a fair number of female nominations (perhaps a reactionary result to the recent wave of women's empowerment), the Grammy nominations (and winners) are mostly men.
As a result of all this, the music that gets noticed, recirculated on heavy rotation radio playlists, and ultimately recognized by mainstream audiences remains mostly male. Another interesting stat is that the majority of guitar sales driven by women is online. This could be because of the male-dominated music shop culture where girls might have to face undue judgment from mostly male employees while browsing through the collection.
This is not limited to just music shop culture. As mentioned above, most of the music industry leans towards males. Female musicians and industry insiders mostly chalk this up to intimidation and exclusion. Girls are not encouraged to pick up a guitar or pursue a career in music from a very young age. But today, most of the top rock albums are already being made by female artists.
At a time when hip-hop has dethroned rock as the most consumed genre of music, women are resurrecting the genre with a fresh take and originality. It's not like women haven't steered the genre through some of its greatest eras. It could be argued that Sister Rosetta Tharpe laid some of the foundations of what would become rock 'n' roll and eventually just "rock" way back in the 30s and 40s with her gospel crossover style that appealed even to the rhythm and blues crowd.
But her name is barely a whisper in the pages of rock history when compared to male greats of the era like Django Reinhardt and Robert Johnson. In the 60s, we had Janis Joplin, who even today is considered a mother figure in female rock. The 70s gave us Joni Mitchell and the 80s saw Joan Jett and The Runaways, and Stevie Nicks shake up the rock scene.
But even so, the number of female rock idols pale in comparison to the countless male, mostly-white icons of the genre. It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nearly 50 years to finally acknowledge Tharpe's contribution to the genre and it was only last year that she was inducted. It shows how the industry just automatically tends to glorify their male talent over their equally (if not more) deserving female counterparts.
The lack of female role models and mother figures is surely a result of the reflexive male-dominated industry. There's never been a problem marketing female-driven pop because it's conveniently packaged with overt sexuality and other ridiculous gimmicks, but the guitar-driven machismo filled rock scene has been harder to break.
Guitarist and singer-songwriter Laura Marling said, "If you prevent women from seeing any examples of them achieving, then it prevents them from believing they can achieve it." But the current landscape is slowly producing more and more female icons to look up to. Take NYC based rocker Annie Clark aka St. Vincent for instance, who shook up the scene with her ambitiously stylized self-titled fourth studio album, even winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album, making her the first female artist to win the honor in 20 years.
Last year, she followed it up with her magnum opus 'Masseduction', where she continued to innovate by borrowing from elements of electropop, new wave, psychedelic rock and more. The album received universal acclaim and was the fourth-most mentioned in critics' year-end lists for 2017.
This year, Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski made rock critics stop in their tracks and take notice with her near-flawless album 'Be The Cowboy'. Like St. Vincent, she has also risen from the margins of the rock scene in New York and is rapidly scaling to the heights of rock poster girl. The Haim sisters have been doing the same on the West Coast with their refreshing pop-rock crossover aesthetics. Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Natalie Prass, Girlpool, U.S, Girls - the list of female rockers arriving at the frontlines of rock is endless.
And, the one thing they have in common is the constant innovation and fresh perspective that they bring with every new record and live performance. In a scene that is largely male-dominated, just the female voice itself is a pleasant respite to shake things up, and these female ax wielders bring so much more than just that, drawing from a range of influences to produce music that is almost impossible to box into a specific genre.
The internet has also played a large part in this female forward era of rock. Thanks to a level of exposure like never before via platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud, the level of genre-blending and innovation is arguably at its very peak. At the same time, listeners are exposed to a wider variety of artists, allowing lesser known female acts to receive more widespread recognition.
If the future of rock is female, the future is now. After around three decades of enjoying mainstream music, the all-too-common white male quartet just got tiresome and rock is back where it belongs - kicking and screaming in the margins of the underground. And this new wave of girl power might just be what's needed to kick start things all over again.