The Extra Hurdle: Women in Music

In 2009, Lady Gaga finished her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards hanging from a rope, bloodiied and bruised. The next morning, images and videos of the performance were everywhere. Parents proclaimed disgust for the performer, and even the young people who Gaga was performing for wrote her off as “weird” or even “scary.” 

Now, in 2019, Lady Gaga has collected numerous prestigious nominations for her role in “A Star Is Born.” In the film, Gaga plays an average 30-something-year-old experiencing love, fame and heartache. Aside from her acting, critics and self-proclaimed critics alike are praising Gaga’s vocal performance and powerhouse moments on songs like “Shallow” and “I’ll Never Love Again.” During one discussion about the film with a family member, I brought up how well Gaga handled these songs, to which she replied, “Right? Who knew she was so talented!” 

The comment, though innocent, stuck with me. Nothing has changed in the 10 years since Lady Gaga first burst on the scene as a pop-renegade—her voice has always remained the same. Why is it that only when she was stripped down to just this undeniably strong voice did people begin to respect Lady Gaga, when it was these same people who forced her to be so out-there in the first place? 

In January of last year, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a report on the data found from its study of inclusion in popular music. The study found that in 2017, women made up only 16.8 percent of performers in the music industry. 

Breaking into the industry as a woman has always been a challenge, and it is only becoming increasingly more difficult. Making it based on pure-talent alone is virtually unheard of—you need to bring with you controversy like Miley Cyrus or a bombastic, over-the-top personality like Cardi B. And you must always—always—dress to impress, or in some cases, shock. 

I once had a conversation with a friend on this topic, citing Katy Perry as our example. We mentioned how during the height of her career (the Teenage Dream era), every performance, big or small, found Perry in flashy, over-the-top outfits, from cupcake bras to peppermint dresses. Though she looked great, we figured it was highly doubtful that she chose to dress like that every time she had to perform. She never looked necessarily comfortable. 

This lead me to ask; why are women in the industry expected to show-out in all aspects—outfit, performance, choreography, vocals—while men can do the bare minimum and be praised? 

This may have something to do with the simple fact that female artists have always had to do more to be recognized. “It’s so easy for them,” said Ariana Grande in her cover-story celebrating her as Billboard’s Woman of the Year last fall. “There are so many unbelievable female artists out there that try so much harder.” 

Since female artists have always had to, in Grande’s words, “try so much harder,” it has become what is expected of them. If you always give 100 percent effort and one day decide to give 90, you will be subject to criticism. At the same time, someone who is consistently giving 50 percent would be hailed for that same 90 percent effort. 

Last year, the double standards in the industry were physically present on stage at the Global Citizen Festival in South Africa, when Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé performed a duet together. The former was dressed casually, in simple jeans and a t-shirt, while the latter was decked out in an over-the-top designer gown. One Twitter user called the performance “very representative of what we expect from men and women at the top of their game.” 

Back on the topic of Lady Gaga, the singer has always been a perfect representation of these double standards. The same fashion, personality traits and artistic choices that have caused Gaga to be written off as “weird” or “crazy” in the past were some of the most beloved traits of performers like Prince, David Bowie and Elton John, three men who are regarded as legends. 

Is it okay for men to be renegades, but not women? Are men allowed to express themselves on stage, but not women? Throughout history, and still today, it certainly feels that way.

Some may argue that these women enjoy, or prefer to dress-up for appearances and performances, which may very well be the case for some—but for all? And what about the performances themselves? Most (not all, but most) performances by male artists consist of a bare stage, a guitar and the artist. No choreography, no visual effects and rarely even incredible vocals. Compare this to the high-quality, high-intensity performances done by female performers in the same industry. 

Obviously, changing these double standards would be a long process, but the first step would be to change the way you think. Expect more of men, have sympathy for women. Understand that, although this is their job and they should be expected to give 100 percent all the time, they are people first and foremost. The music industry is only one brick on the road to gender equality, but as an industry that is so prevalent and impactful, it remains an important one. Maybe one day, Ed Sheeran will wear a suit on stage. Maybe one day, Beyoncé can settle for a pair of jeans.