Marching for Women #3: Gender Representation in Country Music Culture (part 1)

by Jada E. Watson

Women working in the country music industry hear phrases like these every day. This language is used to describe country music culture, radio programming, and audience preferences. If you’re a country music fan, you need to know these phrases so you can be more aware of the discriminatory language and practices that plague the genre’s culture.

This final blog post n the Marching for Women Series focuses on the first study to come from the SongData project. The study was recently published in Popular Music & Society, and the manuscript is also archived on the SongData website.


Gender has been central to the country music industry since its earliest days. As outlined in SongData’s inaugural “Keepers of the Flame blog” post, a rigid male/female binary underpins the genre’s century-long history. Male artists were associated with the “public work” of performing and management, while women were tucked away in domestic, administrative, and (musically) supporting roles. But, as Kristine M. McCusker has documented, women helped to shape country music—on the air, on records, and onstage—from the beginning. Throughout the twentieth century, women became increasingly successful as solo performers and, by the 1990s, were the genre’s commercial and artistic center. Yet women also endured sexist double standards that guided industry practices; restricted their public conduct, image, and sexuality; and limited on space available to female artists on radio playlists, record label rosters, tours and television programs (see the work of McCusker; Keel; and Heidemann).   

‘[S]ince the 1960s program directors have been telling people not to play two women back-to-back. It has nothing to do with sexism. It has to do with the fact that through the years, you have had very few hits by women, so you want to spread them out a little bit because there are fewer of them.’ – Lon Helton

Country radio program directors have historically blamed the lack of women in the format on a pre-existing gender imbalance on label rosters—arguing that because there are so few women, you have to “spread them out” on a playlist. But the practice of “spreading them out” worsened in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and has resulted in the near erasure of women on country radio today. This is due, in large part, to a decade’s long practice of programming women at 13-15% of a station’s playlist.

With an interest in better understanding gender representation in country music culture and assertions made about women’s marginal status, I turned to Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The longest-running of Billboard’s country singles charts, HCS was the leading airplay chart from January 1990 to 2012. In October 2012, Billboard applied the Hot 100 hybrid methodology to the chart, blending streaming, digital sales, and radio airplay from all genre formats to the chart. I was influenced by similar studies of gender-related trends on Billboard’s Top 40 charts–studies for which I had been a research assistant during my graduate studies.

I defined as my timeframe a two-decade period from 1996 to 2016 to better align the study with those considering other charts, which had complementary time periods. The late 1990s were the last years in which women performed well on the charts. They were by no means equal to men in this period–but this was the era of Lilith Fair, of female empowerment, and a moment in which women across all genres were receiving critical attention in the media. Women fared better on the HCS chart in this period, even if only marginally.

There were two datasets for this study. The first contained the 4,724 songs that debuted on the chart between 1996 and 2016. The second captured the weekly activity of only the 432 songs that peaked at #1 in this period. Both datasets were augmented with attributes describing the ensemble type (solo, duo, trio, or group) and gender of each artist and group. I used three different labels to define the artists’ gender: “male”, “female” and “male-female ensemble”. Interestingly, this coding works in opposition to the system used by country radio programmers, who code artists as “male” and “female” only–applying the latter designation to male-female ensembles. Wanting to better understand how men, women and mixed-gender groups performed on the charts, I chose to keep this three-part division–and I am glad that I did, because one of the interesting findings to emerge from the study highlighted increased activity of male-female ensembles at the moment in which activity of female artists decreased on the charts.

Findings

The study’s results show that men dominate the chart at three levels of inquiry: (1) the number of songs and artists debuting on the chart; (2) the number of songs and artists peaking in the Top 10 and #1 spot; and (3) the weekly activity of the #1 position. 

  1. Although there is an overall decline in the number of songs debuting on the chart throughout the 20-year period (due to changes in chart size), men debut more songs than women every year in this period, expanding from a difference of 52% in 1996 to 67% by 2016. 
  2. They also maintain a stronghold on the #1 position: with the exception of 1998, men have increasingly more #1 songs than women every year, expanding from a difference of 20% in 1996 to 49% by 2016.
  3. And when looking at weeks spent at #1, male artists occupy the majority of this space, expanding from holding the spot for 63% of the year in 1996 to 92% by 2016. Women are nearly erased from the position in the final four years of the period – peaking at #1 with 4 songs for just 11 weeks over a four year period.

The results illustrate a culture of gender inequality in country music. Not only do male artists have more songs on the chart than female artists, but there are also more men than women on the chart both overall and annually in this two-decade period. The results also highlight the impact of coding male-female ensembles as “females” in programming practices. Several of the study’s graphs (archived here) show an increase in male-female ensembles between 2006 and 2014—a point in which female activity declines. By combining male-female ensembles and female artists in the programming quota, solo female artists (and all-female ensembles) account for an even smaller component—just a portion of the suggested 15%—of the playlists. This offers one explanation for the weakening position for women in country music culture. We end up with a picture of the chart that shows a widening gap between men and women at each level of analysis. These results show that women occupy significantly less space than men in country music. 


What does this mean? Part 2 of the final blog post in the Marching for Women series considers the broader socio-cultural implications of these findings.