From Madonna to Rihanna: The Rise of Females in Music


I like lists. I like to read lists and make lists. I like all kinds of lists – well, except perhaps for “honey do” lists, I’m not quite so fond of those. In general, though, show me a list and I feel compelled to read it. One of the best list makers ever is Billboard, the music business magazine that compiles charts for various genres in numerous international locales. Billboard has been publishing music charts since the 1930s (its corporate history actually dates to the 1890s) and has long been recognized as the definitive source for data on the popularity of singles and albums. Its main competitors, Cashbox and Record World, came and went in their wake, leaving their own very interesting, but incomplete data.

If I have any problem with Billboard, it’s that their charts are so mesmerizing that every time I look something up in one of their publications, I find that minutes (occasionally hours) later, I’ve completely lost focus on my original query. OK, OK that’s not actually Billboard’s problem, that’s my problem, but if you like lists and love music, that’s a dangerous combination. So, when I recently grabbed The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn to look up one topic, the mesmerizing options of information sidetracked me once again. I found another topic so very interesting that I’ll wait to address the subject of contemporary English female blue-eyed soul singers (and no, I’m not kidding about that subject) on a future occasion. Today, however, I’ll talk about the rise in popularity of female artists in the United States from the nineties to the present.

Billboard started compiling an expanded list of popular songs in 1955, tweaking it again in 1958 to make it more comprehensive. Joel Whitburn founded Record Research Inc. in 1970 and has been assembling Billboard data ever since (Billboard and Record Research are separate entities, but for ease of use, I’m just going to lump them together as Billboard for this post). Tucked far in the back of The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits is a section called “The Record Holders: Top Artist and Record Achievements.” One of the categories in that section is “Top 25 Artists by Decade,” which is solely based on the popularity of an artist’s singles. As a result, you won’t find a mega-band like Led Zeppelin in the 1970s rankings because their success was almost entirely based on album sales and massive touring.  Nevertheless, the rankings provide a worthwhile snapshot of which artists were dominant in various decades.

Looking through the decades, I quickly became aware of one rather surprising fact: female artists rarely found success in equivalent numbers to male artists for much of the Top 40 era. In The Supremesthe fifties (covering `55-`59), only five female artists placed in the Top 25, with the McGuire Sisters the highest at number ten! One mixed gender group, The Platters, comprised of four males and one female (who didn’t sing lead), also made the list. The sixties also featured just five female acts in the rankings, though The Supremes (at three) and Brenda Lee (at five) were in the upper reaches. The seventies were slightly better for female artists, as six solo vocalists made the list, with another three mixed gender groups taking slots in the Top 25. Of the latter, The Carpenters, took high honors at number four, while Olivia Newton-John (at nine) was the highest ranking solo female. Those gains all but disappeared during the eighties. Although Madonna scored the highest ranking ever for a female, placing at number two, only three other women made the list!

Then something dramatic occurred. On the heels of the worst decade for female representation, the nineties exploded with popular female artists! Mariah Carey became the first female to top the decennial rankings, followed in order by Janet Jackson and MadonnaMadonna. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and TLC went five through seven, respectively, and Monica was the seventh woman in the top ten by placing at nine. All told, twelve female acts were in the Top 25. Along with the mixed gender group Ace of Base, females had achieved absolute parity with male artists. The first decade of the new millennium nearly matched the previous one as eleven female artists and one mixed gender act found slots in the rankings. Beyonce became the second female to top the chart and, separately, with Destiny’s Child, was also at ten. Rihanna and P!nk also placed in the top ten at seven and nine, respectively.

The current decade is now one third over and female artists are proving more popular than ever. I don’t have any comprehensive up-to-the-minute data to share, but I do have a bit of raw data (through 4/6/13) from which to draw some suppositions. For instance, four artists have had three or more number one hits so far this decade, with Rihanna leading the pack with seven and Katy Perry right behind her with six. Adele is fourth with three. In terms of cumulative weeks by the primary artist at number one, Rihanna again leads with a whopping twenty-eight weeks, Katy Perry follows in second with an also impressive twenty weeks, and Adele maintains the fourth position with fourteen weeks. In addition to those stars, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Britney Spears, P!nk, Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson have all had considerable chart success in this decade (some for much longer). It’s still early in the decade, but this may become the first in which females dominate Billboard's Top 25 rankings.

Frankly, I don’t have a definitive explanation as to why female artists have become so much more popular in recent times. Actually, I’m sure that there are several contributing factors at play here. If I had to make one guess, however, I suspect it has a lot to do with the liberation of women in our culture generally over the past fifty years. That personal freedom has afforded increasing opportunities for females to pursue their interests in fields previously dominated by men. Quite obviously, musical talent is not gender specific, so we are now blessed with a greater pool of female musicians, many of whom have risen to the top of the field. That’s just one theory. If you have another, please add a comment to this post. I’ll happily share the best ones with my readers.

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