by Jada E. Watson
“With all the changes country has gone through, it’s still about life. I think it’s gotten to where now it’s not a male-female issue anymore.’ – Chet Flippo
In a 1997 article in Billboard magazine entitled “Women’s Work”, Chet Flippo outlined the slow rise of female artists in country music. He stated that the “women’s revolution has been gradual” throughout the history of country music, and identified Maybelle Carter, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn as pioneering women. He positioned Reba McEntire and The Judds as a bridge between the Parton and Lynn and the new generation of artists Martina McBride, Faith Hill and Shania Twain (to name a few) who he states had “significantly identifiable voices, a problem that has wracked the dwindling surge of male hat acts who seem indistinguishable from each other.” For Flippo, the mid-1990s marked a decisive change in both the tone and number of female artists in country music. He points specifically to the Billboard charts as a marker for evaluating this cultural shift.
As this final blog post of the Marching for Women Series will discuss, this moment was the beginning of the end. In the years following Flippo’s proclamation, there has been a swift and steady decrease in the number of songs by women appearing on the chart, and in the number of women charting.
The lack of diversity and near erasure of women at the top of the chart discussed in the Part 1 of this final blog post in the Marching for Women series needs to be considered within two contexts. First, we need to consider changes to the Hot Country Songs methodology, and second, we need to take the broader context of sexism in industry practices into consideration.
Billboard’s changing methodologies
Some of the results can be explained by changes to the HCS chart. The HCS dates back to 1944, when it was known as the Most Played Juke Box Folk Records chart. The chart underwent several changes in name and size throughout its history, but for the period in question, the chart had three different methodologies:
- 1996-2004: the chart was based on total detections of songs spins throughout a 24/hr cycle, as tabulated by Nielsen SoundScan;
- 2005-2012: the chart was based on audience impressions, a method that cross-referenced Nielsen airplay data with audience information compiled by Arbitron ratings to determine approximate size of audience; and
- 2012-present: the chart was based on the comprehensive Hot 100 formula which determined song popularity through a mingling of digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan), with streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS) and radio airplay from all radio formats. This final element is a significant change, as it means that airplay on non-country format stations now directly impact a country song’s performance on the HCS song – including songs that have been edited to service those stations. This means that a “pop” or “rap” edit/remix counts on the HCS chart and cross-over artists are rewarded for non-country airplay activity.
In addition to changing methodologies, the chart size has changed throughout the 1996-2016 study period. In 1996 the chart tabulated 75 weekly positions, dropping down to 60 as of January 2001, and to 50 with the most recent change in methodology. These changes results in a natural decline in the number of songs charting with each tightening of the chart.
‘In a world where popularity charts influence radio programming, the results of the first 4 years of this new methodology have the power to justify a practice of limiting women in a station’s rotation.’
Perhaps the most startling finding was the impact of the new hybrid-methodology on the chart’s #1 position. The results show a tendency toward greater turnover in the top spot, from 20 #1 songs between 1996 and 2005 and increasing to 28 songs by 2012. Following the implementation of the hybrid-methodology in October 2012, an average of 9 songs have reached #1 each year–with the majority of the year dominated by just 3 tracks. Not only has this method significantly reduced the number of songs reaching #1, in general, but it has also not benefitted female artists. Instead, it has nearly erased women from the top of the chart. Since the methodological change, only four songs by female artists reached #1 between October 2012 and December 2016: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift, “Somethin’ Bad” by Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water” by Underwood, and “Peter Pan” by Kelsea Ballerini. What is more, these four artists held the #1 position for a combined total of 11 weeks. Male acts, the study shows, dominated the remaining 181 weeks of this period—90 of which were held by Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan alone. “In a world where popularity charts influence radio programming,” the study states, “the results of the first 4 years of this new methodology have the power to justify a practice of limiting women in a station’s rotation.”
The restrictions placed on women at the level of radio programming have created an environment in which fewer women can succeed. We typically remember late 1990s as a period of strength for women in country music–with artists like Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Lee Anne Womack, and Jo Dee Messina (to name just a few) racking up hits on the chart. Even though men outperform women, the late 1990s emerges in this study as a period of significant activity for female artists in comparison to the years that follow. Women debut an average of 77 songs each year between 1996 and 2000, and perform very well in the chart’s #1 position—with more #1 songs than men in 1998.
Women entered the new millennium with a strong showing on the charts in 2000. But in the years that follow, the gap between men and women increased, and women gradually disappeared from the top of the chart. These results align with what we now know about programming quotas and ratings. In the late 1990s, radio stations programmed women in the high-teens to as much as 25-27% of a playlist, percentages that are reflected in this study through the high number of women charting in this period. It was reported that radio ratings declined in 1996/1997 and again in 2008. The results of the study show a decline in female activity from 2001 to 2004 and 2009 to 2016—following these low-ratings years. This suggests that stronger restrictions were placed on female artists from 2001 onward–and then further limited by the rising popularity of male-female ensembles in 2009.
‘[Radio’s] programming quota system has placed women in a vulnerable position within the industry on artistic, professional, and personal levels.’
More critically, while Billboard’s charts quantify gender inequality in country music, they have also become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the industry: they have served to justify the claims of radio programmers that audiences prefer male artists, allowing them to maintain an outdated rotation practice that segregates music into distinct gender-defined patterns that favour male artists. These statistics and practices then impact how labels sign, produce and promote artists. Even more disconcerting is that these practices have contributed to a culture of harassment and misconduct, revealed in a critically important piece by Marissa Moss for RollingStone Country magazine. As discussed in Marching for Women #2 of this series, this culture has created an environment in which women are made to compete for limited resources, and are often further penalized for releasing songs with too much crossover appeal, for assertive or feminist lyrical messaging, and for their political beliefs. As the study states, “[radio’s] programming quota system has placed women in a vulnerable position within the industry on artistic, professional, and personal levels.”
How are we going to remember the 2000s and 2010s?
One of the initial hopes for this study, particularly in this moment of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movement, is that this data might help us better understand the impact of gender-based programming that has governed the industry so that meaningful conversations may take place about the much-needed change in the genre’s culture and practices. But, in fact, as this study went to press, the situation seemed to have worsened and women hold an even more precarious position in country music today than they did at the end of 2016. In fact, for two weeks in December 2018, the Billboard Country Airplay chart did not feature a single female artist in the Top 20.
The larger problem that has emerged in this broader conversation about equality in country radio is the lack of diversity. By playing mostly men, radio is training listeners to appreciate just one type of voice, one type of sound, one type of narrative subject position. As a result, women’s voices have been marginalized – their achievements minimized and their narrative voice limited. Instead of hearing stories about women by strong female artists, audiences are inundated with songs that glorify partying and beer-drinking while women—called “girls” in the lyrics—ride along silently in pickup trucks or dance at parties and look pretty in cut-off denim shorts and bikini tops, as evidenced in Grady Smith’s video critique of the bro-country movement from 2013.
In their 2014 response to bro-country, female country duo Maddie & Tae sarcastically proclaim that all women appear to be “good for” in a country song is “looking good for [men] and [their] friends on the weekend.” Drawing on all of the hallmarks of bro-country sound, including the slow tempo and bass-heavy beat reminiscent of Florida George Line’s songs, the duo uses satire and parody to critique the male-dominated establishment and women’s marginalized role within country culture.
Although not explicitly addressed in this study, we can clearly see a double-bind in this structure wherein marginalised groups are being denied the wide range of subject positions that dominant groups take for granted. Beyond the dominant male/female binary that has underpinned the genre’s narrative, there is an absence of queer, transgendered, and racialized voices in the industry – issues that will be part of the next SongData study.
In years leading up to the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, women in country music had been struggling to carve out their own space in the country music industry. Like the decades of women before them, they have been culturally disadvantaged by the industry’s practices (especially radio programming and label signing), and their position in the male dominated industry has been limited by its masculinized hegemonic structures.
Yet, something in the air has changed. As 2018 came to a close, Jewly Hight published series of year-end retrospectives for NPR and Slate that consider the variety of ways in which women are navigating gender biases, and carving out new and creative spaces for themselves. No longer interested in playing by Nashville’s rules, young female artists are touring and collaborating with artists outside of the genre, they are embarking on new label relationships outside of Music City, they are drawing on a broad range of stylistic influences, and they are presenting themselves as singer-songwriters “in the classic sense of the term.” These young artists are no longer willing to wait “12 years in a 10 year town” (in the words of Emma White) for a label, publisher, or radio station to take a chance of them. They are creating their own opportunities, collaborating with each other, and using streaming and social media as a way to build new audiences bases—who, by the way, are also desperate for a change. More critically, as the first two blog posts in the Marching for Women series has revealed, women are using their music and their collective voices to challenge the industry’s discriminatory practices and to warn the male gatekeepers that their time is up. Through this process, they are defining their own, unique musical voices and changing the rhetoric of country’s culture one song at a time.