An Exploration of the Double Standard of Women in Rock

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

On February 6th, 2021, Phoebe Bridgers smashed a guitar during her SNL performance of one of my favorite songs “I Know the End.” As a female viewer I was quite literally screaming on my couch but the next day I checked Twitter and apparently it was controversial. People called this “extra” and “irresponsible.” I was shocked, to say the least. I couldn't help thinking that the extreme response is partly because she is a woman.


Rock music is dominated by men... Only 8% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame consists of women, and only 21.7% of singers, 12.3% of songwriters, and 2.1% of producers are women. There is no question when it comes to the sexist nature of the industry, sexism and music seem to go together just like rock and roll.

Art by Lauren Corrado

Women have always been at the forefront of the rock industry. Pioneering female artists from the 1940s paved the way for new artists to even have a chance of “making it” today. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the main artists who impacted rock music as a whole, although she is often overlooked today. As a black woman creating music in the 1940s, she had to work harder than her white, male counterparts to make it in the industry. Despite this, Tharpe was fearless and didn’t have any problem addressing gender norms, racial stereotypes, and sexual promiscuity in her lyrics. During this time, the guitar was seen as a masculine instrument, but Tharpe defied those gender roles. Fans gave back-handed compliments saying she “could play like a man,” reducing her success as a musician and overlooking her innovation in using heavy distortion on electric guitar, which helped popularize a new sound of “electric blues.”


Tharpe’s 1945 hit Strange Things Happening Every Day” is considered the first rock and roll record, but she’s rarely talked about or remembered. She was even buried in an unmarked grave. She’s not the only musician that history has failed. Big Momma Thornton, another female black artist, was actually the first person to record “Hound Dog,” which Elvis covered and claimed as his own. Elvis is now a household name regardless of his white-washing of soul music, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Momma Thornton are lost in history.


During the 60s and 70s, there was an explosion of rock music. The Vietnam War, The War on Drugs, and the Civil Rights movement created huge societal shifts. These changes created a counterculture. People were outspoken, and so was their music. Songs became more complex with lyrics that featured overt social commentary, and women managed to gain popularity in the industry. Fleetwood Mac (including Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie), Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, and Heart were just some of the women who made an impact during this time. Despite their talent, they were still held to a toxic double standard. Stevie Nicks fully lived the stereotype of a rock and roll artist, with drugs and a crazy love triangle with her Fleetwood Mac bandmates. But due to Nicks not fitting the norm of traditional femininity, she was disparaged and mocked. People started rumors that she literally practiced witchcraft, to which Nicks responded, “I have no idea what precipitated those rumors … I am not a witch. Get a life!” Nicks was the only one in Fleetwood Mac that seemed to get these crazy remarks. She was eccentric, yes, but the media’s view on her was so vastly different compared to the men in the group. None of them were ever called wizards. But for a woman to live an unconventional life and have creative freedom in how she dresses? She must be a witch. What a ridiculous thought process that is.

Art by Lauren Corrado

As a response to some of the popular music movements during the 70s, punk was born. Punk stripped down rock to its core and mixed it with attitude. A lot of women artists felt connected to punk music's raw nature. They were angry and not represented in the media in the way that they wanted to be. This overall injustice and sexism in society fueled women punk artists to create music that was rooted in anger. Even through all their efforts, they were still shut out of the punk scene. Frank Zappa once said, “I don’t think that there is a woman that would fit into what we do.” Punk female musicians were here to prove Zappa wrong. The punk band Fanny was the first all-female rock group to make the top 100 with their song “Charity Ball.” The Runaways song “Cherry Bomb” disrupted the industry and showed women as sexual beings. Many were disturbed by the idea of women being so open about their sexuality, but the rockstar lifestyle of a man revolved around just that. Men were celebrated for sleeping around, doing drugs, and being constantly on the road. Ozzy Ozbourne literally bit a bat’s head off, shot his cats, drugged a vicar, and many more insane things, and yet is called a crazy badass. I can't even imagine if a woman tried any of those things. The media would eat her alive. It was considered part of the rockstar lifestyle for male artists to go on benders with underage groupies, but women punk artists were called “sluts,” “whores,” and “irresponsible” for even mentioning their sex life in a song. The double standard here is strong and is still prevalent today. Female artists are often asked how they balance touring and parenthood, a question men are rarely asked. Promiscuity is still taboo, and women are still under attack in the press for daring to do anything outside society’s standards.


Okay, now that you have heard my history rant, now I can talk about what you came here for; the double standard of women in rock. Even though women are discouraged from being overtly sexual, they are still expected to be conventionally beautiful. Some men want to objectify women while stripping them of their own agency. Forever, women have been judged in the music industry based upon their appearance rather than talent. If you don't meet beauty standards there is very little room for commercial success. Debbie Harry, the frontwoman of Blondie, was a prime example of this. Though Blondie made incredible music, Debbie Harry’s beauty unfortunately is what got them attention, and kept her from being taken seriously as a musician.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas was ridiculed due to being a plus-size woman, to the point where an urban legend about her death is often talked about more than her incredible vocal talent. Whether a male artist is considered unattractive or not is rarely a topic of conversation. Today the industry is slowly breaking away from that because society is being forced to change. Many years of activism, including activism in art, changed beauty standards. With women speaking out about representation, many industries have started to shift their outlook. The fashion industry is a main point of influence in beauty standards. More brands showcasing women of all skin colors and body types has a huge effect on all creative industries and society as a whole. This change though doesn’t just start within business, it starts with us and they are listening.


Today, the Haim sisters, Fiona Apple, Brittany Howard, St. Vincent, Hayley Williams, Miley Cyrus, and Phoebe Bridgers are just some of the women disrupting the modern-day rock industry. Phoebe Bridgers’ SNL performance is the most recent widely known “controversial” rock performance by a woman. While this rock staple of instrument destruction started in the 1950s with Jerry Lewis smashing his guitar on stage and became a blueprint of rock-n-roll, people seemed to be shocked when Bridgers did this on national television. Musician David Crosby called this “Pathetic” on Twitter and Bridgers responded “little bitch.” An iconic conversation, don't you think? Being a woman with a clear artistic vision and strong voice, Bridgers is clearly viewed as a threat to insecure male musicians. She couldn’t be strong enough or badass enough to smash a guitar, right? Once again showing the bullshit expectation of women fitting a societal mold.

Art by Lauren Corrado

Music and art has always been a huge part of my life. I probably knew every Beatles lyric by the time I was 10 years old (even if I thought it was “Band on the Rug” instead of “Band on the Run” for about 5 years). As I got older, I realized that barely any of the music I was exposed to at a primitive age was female lead. Growing up in the early 2000s, I saw that the industry was full of female artists, but many of them were the face of pop music. Women seem to be at the forefront of pop due to its nature of costume and dance. Not that there's anything wrong with pop music but, it fits the box society puts women into ---- eye candy. Aesthetically pleasing performances and “perfect” bodies are still the formula to create a successful pop star. Pop also seems less respected than other genres of music. The older I got the more I gravitated towards rock music. I was finding my voice and creating my own opinions, and rock music reflects just that. In middle school, I became obsessed with Paramore and Avril Lavigne. I found myself listening to women rock musicians simply because I related to them. As a young girl, to see a woman perform with such power was inspiring. I still feel the same now. Listening to a band that has female representation feels different when you are a woman. It makes me feel seen. Even though it is not me singing, I feel like I am part of it. To this day, listening to Paramore and dancing around in my room pretending to be Hayley Williams always makes me feel like a bad bitch, and that is what we all need.


Though I may see things a little clearer and see the disparities in the industry, there is still always magic seeing a woman perform. I will always be eternally grateful to women in rock. These women are brave, smart, and artistic, basically everything I aspire to be. They taught me that it is important for your voice to be heard and to express yourself regardless of societal norms. There is an empowerment to anger and lashing out, even if it is just screaming lyrics in my bedroom.


 

Listen to Blossom's Women in Rock Playlist to learn more about the badass women we love!


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