Photos by Shea Flynn/Da Black Swan; Illustrated by Ji Lim


Is There A Glass Ceiling In The Music Industry?

Perhaps we’re looking at this all wrong

This week, Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" became the highest charting rap song by a solo woman in three years. It stands at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, 12 spots below Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" spot in 2014. How can this be possible, though, when there seem to be an overwhelming number of successful female rappers out there with incredible talent and favorable streaming numbers? Certainly, there has to be a mistake. This year, however, for the first time in 33 years, the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 featured zero female artists. Again, with how saturated the now-super-accessible music scene is today, how could that happen?

Harriet Gibsone at The Guardian explored the idea of there being a glass ceiling within pop music this past July. She wondered, due to the sheer number of new, viral female musicians there are, why none have shot to stardom in the way Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera did in the late '90s and early '00s. Does it have to do with more female musicians feeling empowered to stick to their vision and not concede a certain amount of image control to a record label? If so, why should that impact an artist's success?

Banks cites two types of music artists when I ask her about this at Lollapalooza: those who want "mega mega mega fame" and those who want "to just create art and connect to as many people with [their] art as [they] can naturally in a natural way." What is an artist doing it for? There is no right or wrong answer to that because, as reality television has taught us, seeking fame for fame's sake and the so-called fabulous life that comes with it isn't necessarily going to lead to fulfillment. At the end of the day, it's about finding where success intersects with happiness for you, personally, that will lead to a well-lived life. "It's all about how you do it, what you're doing, and if it's fulfilling you," Banks adds.

Talk about trusting your gut. It's no secret, record labels have had a history of tweaking an artist's image for the sake of sales. Kesha's legal battle with Dr. Luke exposed that particular elephant in the room and revealed the ways female musicians are under pressure to look a certain way and fit their particular brand. (Though I did recently talk to a manager of a male musician who has told his artist to not cut his hair because of his reputation with his female fans.) "For women, there's so much focus on everything else but the music," Tove Lo says. "Like, what we look like, what we wear, who we're in love with... just our general brand." Swedish artist Skott echoes that, saying there's pressure to be a fashion icon and have a large following on Instagram. "It's about so much image and appearance that it takes away from the music making." Learning to say no and trusting your vision is imperative. Skott says, "I think it's very easy to get lost in trying to be someone other people want you to be."

That's where resilience comes into play. "You have to know where you stand and where your boundaries lie because if you don't, people will take advantage of you," Detroit artist Flint Eastwood tells me. Like Banks, Flint Eastwood stresses the importance of knowing the artist you want to be and sticking to it. This, of course, includes those who strive to be a superstar artist. For Zara Larsson, learning to say no to opportunities that come her way took a minute. "I was scared of saying, 'I don't want to do that song' or 'I don't want to sing that,'" she says, citing the pressure to feel grateful for even having the chance to sing and record a song written by so-and-so, with so-and-so. Soon, she stopped doubting her credibility and realized "of course, I have credibility; it's my fucking song." London Grammar's Hannah Reid notes that women are more prone to being labeled as tough to work with when they start asserting themselves. "It's harder to learn how to say no because you can get labeled as being a diva or being bossy or all these other labels," she says. Resilience, then, comes from, as Flint Eastwood says, knowing when to assert your "nos" despite the labels that come with it, and when you assert your "yeses." 

"I don't think we ever want to be in a situation where we feel like we're being talked down to or being directed, because ultimately it's our path," Lady Pills' Poppy says. "It's our art, it's our creativity, it's our expression, it's our truths." There are, of course, those who try to write your truth for you. Larsson shared her experience telling a group of all-male writers that the song they wrote about female friendship missed its mark: "It's weird when middle-aged men write sexy songs for sexy young girls. [I] listened to it, and it was great, but I had some notes and said, 'I probably wouldn't say that to a girl.' They said, 'Yeah, but, I think...' To me, it was very strange that they weren't listening to my critique of the perspective they wanted to write from." Lady Pills' Ella Boissonnault echoes that saying, "Oftentimes, the person you're saying no to wouldn't understand why you're saying no anyway."

Saying no is crucial to maintaining one's artistry, but unfortunately not when it comes to garnering the superstardom music once offered. This is, however, a good thing because it means more people are sticking up for their values, vision, and message. The glass ceiling, then, is perhaps less transparent and more reflective. It's not so much about female artists ever breaking through to get to the level their male peers are at as it is about questioning why that's even considered successful. Of course, the gender presentation imbalance and the threat an assertive woman poses for fragile masculinity are rotten; it's ridiculous to say someone's success rests on how they look and how they maintain their truth. Perhaps redefining what success means is essential; is the artist staying true to their vision and connecting with their audience that is fulfilling for them? There's nothing more inspiring than witnessing an artist achieve their dreams by trusting their gut. That's success, right there. Not compromising. "You can never regret anything if you just trust your gut," Banks says. Flint Eastwood adds, "It's a very freeing thing if you allow it to be."