Over the weekend, the ABC’s youth broadcaster triple j played the top 100 songs from the past 20 years of its ‘Hottest 100’ series, as voted by its listeners via a recent poll.
‘Best of’ lists are by their nature subjective, and will leave some listeners unsatisfied, even outraged. The results of this poll whipped up plenty of passionate debate about the merits of the songs that were included, while disappointed fans took to social media to lament the omission of their favourite tunes and artists. Complaining, debating and celebrating the song choices are all part of the fun of these polls.
During the conversation over the weekend, and as the songs progressively counted down from 100 to one, fans also started calling out a glaring gap in the poll. There were virtually no female artists. Apart from the addition of rare solo artists, including Lana Del Rey and M.I.A., and the occasional band with a female lead such as The Cranberries and Florence + the Machine, women’s voices were noticeably quiet.
The triple j website reports that there were only five songs sung by female leads and fourteen songs played by female musos. That is a total of 19 tracks out of 100 that featured women over the past 20 years of music.
You don’t have to try too hard to name women who have shaped and influenced music over the past two decades. Polly Jean Harvey is a prolific, lauded and much awarded singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Harvey has released eight studio albums and collaborated with singers such as Nick Cave, Bob Dylan and Thom Yorke. Her accolades include being the only artist (male or female) to win two Mercury Prize awards, and two of her albums are included in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Looking closer to home, multiple ARIA award winner Sarah Blasko has also had an impressive musical career. With three studio albums going Platinum, and her Seeker Lover Keeper collaboration with Holly Throsby and Sally Seltman going Gold, Blasko has also contributed to soundtracks and tribute albums, toured extensively, and in 2009 received the J Award for Australian Album of the Year.
These two women have been widely recognised by their peers and the music industry, yet they failed to make the cut in the Hottest 100. They can count themselves among a roll-call of other high profile female artists and female fronted bands who didn’t resonate with voters including Bjork, Amy Winehouse, Martha Wainwright, Missy Elliot, Hole, Feist, Garbage, No Doubt, Luscious Jackson, L7, Veruca Salt, Magic Dirt, The Breeders, Tori Amos, Clare Bowditch, KD Lang, The Waifs, Catpower, The Gossip and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to name just a few.
Why were these women and others so noticeably absent from the list? Close to a million votes were cast in the poll. Without statistics on the gender of voters we can only assume that both male and female voters shunned female artists. Why is it that women who are recognised through awards, accolades and high sales volumes aren’t vote winners with the public? It is hardly a celebration of the past 20 years of music without women’s voices, women’s riff-playing and women’s drum-pounding.
How can we ensure women musicians are represented and heard? We have the Stella Prize promoting women writers in Australia and the Forbes Most Powerful Women List celebrating women in business, society and politics. Maybe we need to take a similar approach with an all-female music poll.
Let’s ask voters for their favourite songs of the past 20 years as sung by female solo artists, all-girl groups, or bands with female leads. Let’s pay tribute to their talent and their important contribution to the soundtrack of the past two decades. Of course, this idea will raise concerns about ghettoising female artists in the same way the Stella Prize is criticised in relation to sidelining women writers. But at least it would allow for female musicians to be heard over the din of their male counterparts.