The music industry, more than any other aspect of the entertainment industry, remains male-controlled, and seemingly impervious to a significant reckoning after #MeToo. But that doesn’t mean the matriarchy hasn’t made its mark. For decades, women artists have challenged every sexist assumption about their autonomy, their creativity, their money and, yes, their music. Below are 10 pivotal songs by 10 women who changed music forever – and risked everything to do so.
Lauryn Hill "Doo-Wop (That Thing)"
After accusations that she stole songwriting credit from a musician in her band during the recording of her landmark 1998 LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and on subsequent tours, Hill fought back. She spoke out about taking creative credit and control over her vision -- both issues with which many prominent women in music (including Taylor Swift and Björk in recent years) struggle. “You may be able to make suggestions, but you can’t write FOR me. I am the architect of my creative expression,” Hill wrote in a 2018 rebuttal. “No matter how incredible the musicians who play with me are, MY name is on the marquee.” Turns out some guys are only about “that thing”: taking the glory.
Loretta Lynn “The Pill”
Loretta Lynn became a country pioneer over 50 years ago by writing and singing songs told by a woman narrator — and for courting controversy when she did it. In the 1970s, Lynn had some 14 songs (by her count) banned from play by country radio, including her ode to a woman’s right to use birth control, “The Pill.” Lynn used these bans to highlight the double standard country held with regard to men and women singing about sex. In the process, she also created a new business model: most of her banned singles became bestsellers.
Kesha’s ongoing legal disputes with producer Dr. Luke, in which she has accused him of sexual assault (he denies the accusations) have effectively made her the face of the #MeToo movement in an industry particularly hostile to acknowledging it. Her powerful performance of “Praying” at the 2018 Grammy Awards, in which a slew of fellow famous women performed along with her, was an emotional watershed moment for all survivors.
Joan Jett “Bad Reputation”
After her early, volatile experiences as a teen in the girl band The Runaways, Jett knew she wanted control over her music. With manager Kenny Laguna, Jett established Blackheart Records, her self-run, independent label that has released all her records since the early 1980s. Jett’s model went on to become copied across the DIY music movement — not just for other women but for indie labels from Dischord to Sub Pop — creating the model for how indie rock worked for everyone from riot grrls to Soundcloud rap. One of her first songs released on Blackheart was “Bad Reputation,” a semi-autobiographical and total “haters to the left” anthem.
Taylor Swift “Look What You Made Me Do”
Look what diminished income from streaming revenue made her do. In 2018, Taylor Swift signed a landmark contract with Republic Records and Universal Music – all of this after releasing the most rebellious record of her career, last year’s Reputation, killing the old Taylor on lead single “Look.” After spending her entire career on Big Machine Records, she made a huge jump with a deal that gave her control of all the masters to her music going forward. That’s not all: as part of the contract, the country-turned-pop superstar negotiated for UMG to share sales of their stock in Spotify with all artists signed to the label. That power play follows her open letter to Apple in 2015, which resulted in a policy change that netted more streaming payments for record labels and their artists. In an age when artists struggle to make money from their music, those are serious boss moves.
Sarah McLachlan "Building A Mystery"
In 1997, Sarah McLaughlan dropped one of her career-best albums with Surfacing (as well as a monster single with “Mystery”). She also launched the inaugural Lilith Fair, a tour made up entirely of women artists inspired by the proliferation of Lollapalloza-esque traveling festivals whose lineups were heavily made up of men. “Promoters were saying, ‘You can’t put two women on the same bill. People won’t come,’” McLachlan told Glamour. “I was like, ‘Well, we’ve done it! So you can either support us or get left behind.’” She was proven right when it became the top-grossing festival of 1997.
Yoko Ono “Woman Power”
All the things women have been marching for since the Trump presidency started — equality, respect, safety — are what Yoko Ono has been demanding in songs and manifestos since the ‘70s. Ono recently revisited her early work and premiered a remake of her 1973 song “Woman Power,” which is a stark reminder that perhaps equal rights haven’t come far enough in the decades since.
Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
After coming out, Laura Jane Grace has become an activist for transgender people, working towards visibility for her community. Grace has spoken about how gender dysphoria led to self-destructive behaviours, and the difficulty of transitioning in both her public and private life. Speaking to NPR about her memoir, Tranny, Grace addressed a relatable anxiety: “You decide you're going to transition and then all of a sudden you're like — and now I'm still a public figure and now I face the fear of, ‘Do I look fat in this dress?’”
If you were paying close attention to the logos, you may have seen Parkwood Entertainment start popping up on Bey’s film projects back in 2008 (also the year she released the visionary I Am...Sasha Fierce, which laid the groundwork for later masterpieces Beyoncé and Lemonade). By 2010, the Queen expanded her video production company into a full entertainment complex that would house her imprint record label, the Ivy Park clothing line, and create content for her social feeds, website, and tours. With her own label, Bey has made a point of signing up-and-coming female artists (like Chloe X Halle) to increase representation for women in the industry. You say a diva is the female version of a hustler, as she spits on this grimy Sasha Fierce track? That’s what Bey on her hustle can do.
Lizzo “Good As Hell”
There aren’t a lot of flute players in pop music -- and there aren’t a lot of plus-sized women espousing a message of body positivity. Lizzo is both, and one of the few voices (along with Beth Ditto and CupcakKe) making not only different bodies visible in music but talking about self-love and creating a safe space for Black bodies in music. In hip hop, where women’s contributions are marginalised and the voices of men are exalted, that’s a huge mission.