What has happened to the artists who headlined and toured with Lilith Fair? And why is there such a lack of variety in the current group of popular female singers today? What has happened to the female singer-songwriter? Has she been replaced by the stylized production team-crafted poptart? USA Today examines the situation:
Recent weeks have seen a few such women re-emerge on the Billboard 200 pop albums chart, where hip-hop/folk/world music fusionist Nelly Furtado and neo-soul songstress India Arie are, respectively, at No. 2 and No. 3. Furtado, whose Loose topped that chart previously, also has a No. 1 top 40 single with Promiscuous. But overall, the current Hot 100 boasts fewer women in the top 10, especially women who play dominant roles in crafting their tunes, than the July 20, 1996, top 10, which was led by Alanis Morissette and Tracy Chapman and included other songs by Morissette, Jewel and Mariah Carey.
On the chart for July 22, 2006, Furtado, Beyoncé and Shakira are the only female solo acts also credited as writers in the top 10, and their songs each feature at least three additional co-writers.
Certainly, superstars such as Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani offer strong, singular presences. But their singing and their songwriting — which tends to be heavily collaborative — rely less on idiosyncratic expression than savvy, splashy production, executed with the same high style as their dance routines and fashion statements. Kelly Clarkson, praised as the most independent-minded American Idol grad, also depends on vocal flash and experienced co-writers.
This is the current trend in music in general. Many male acts have also succumbed to the whole “pop process”, where outside writers, producers, and sound engineers do most of the work during the creative process, relegating the singer to belting out the finished product, and keeping up the crafted image, in order to sell, sell, sell.
Some argue that the dilemma of the troubled troubadour isn’t gender-specific. Many allude to the dismantling of artist development at major record companies, and what Rosanne Cash calls “the American Idol consciousness” — an emphasis on culling quick hits from malleable young artists rather than nurturing long-term careers.
“I don’t think women are being singled out,” Cash says. “It’s a difficult time in the business. It used to be that a label would sign an artist and stick with them through three or four albums. That so seldom happens now, if at all.”
While many female artists acknowledge the fact that beauty and image are a big part of selling, they also say that the industry is entrenched in a sexist culture, where a female artist’s looks are all a part of marketing strategy from the beginning, and not just an “additional benefit” to a particular artist’s talent and skill.
Artists such as Arie, Furtado, Pink, Michelle Branch, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Shakira and Dido earned significant sales and airplay, though not without confronting some of the same obstacles faced by generations before them.
“Many male producers or executives often brushed me off, or were more concerned with the possibility of a personal relationship than a working one,” Keys recalls. “That’s when I knew I had to write, produce and arrange for myself to even get anywhere.”
Arie notes that her first single, Video, “really was an affirmation I wrote for myself, to introduce myself and to make a lane for myself in the music industry. I knew I didn’t look or sound (like what was) the popular taste, but that I had something very beautiful to offer.” On her new album, Testimony Vol. 1: Life and Relationship, “I have gone even deeper into expressing myself exactly the way I choose.”
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