We examine how a new wave of female artists are challenging the music business patriarchy by choosing collaboration over catfighting
Doing it together: How women (finally) took over the music charts in 2018
It’s no great creative secret that conflict is an essential ingredient of any good narrative – and it seems that, at some point, the male-dominated media got together and decided that in the world of pop music, nothing sells like a catfight. Historically, it sometimes feels hard to find a female star who has avoided being dragged into some kind of ugly, unbecoming feud with a would-be rival.
The headlines are often as legendary as they are petty: from the showdowns between Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez to intergenerational enmity between Madonna and Lady Gaga, right up to the Taylor Swift versus Katy Perry clickbait frenzy and the inevitable hot air of a purported Little Mix-Fifth Harmony girl group rivalry. In almost every case, there’s little doubt that the media has played a role in feeding – and feeding off – supposed grudges, championing conflict over collaboration.
Yet beneath the hunger for headlines, at the bottom of it all sits the tacit assumption that only one woman can prevail – that the pop sphere is big enough to crown just a single reigning queen.
Not only succeeding, but doing it together
Thankfully these retrograde, sexist stereotypes are being firmly and finally laid to rest in 2018, thanks in large part to an increasing number of young, influential female talents eschewing the conventional demand for divadom and drama – and shelving competition for collectivism; who are not just succeeding, but succeeding together.
The sense of fraternity was celebrated recently on Swedish chart troubler Tove Lo’s new single for which she called on the services of female contemporaries Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant and Alma – all artists who might traditionally have been seen as competition. Lo’s love-in comes in the slipstream of an equally utopian fem-fest led by Rita Ora, who less than a month earlier rounded up Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Cardi B for transatlantic smash Girls (perhaps an answer to Charli’s biggest single, Boys).
This one-two punch cannot be chalked up as mere coincidence, with precious few all-girl “event records” on tape – one notable exception being the teaming up of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink on a 2001 cover of Lady Marmalade. But while there is undeniably a powerful symbolism in the arrival of these two high-profile, girl-power singles so close together, they are not without recent precedent – and reflect the cresting, not breaking, of a wave. So loudly heard is the present paradigm shift, that today even the old guard are getting in on the act: in March, Aguilera recruited Demi Lovato for the joint single Fall in Line.
Flying the collaborative flag longest and loudest might be modern pop’s perennial scene-setter Charli XCX, who last year led the pack showcasing Lo and Alma as guests on her hit single Out of My Head. Earlier, after the massive success of Boom Clap, the singer born Charlotte Aitchison invited compatriot Ora to guest on Doing It, a Top 10 hit in the United Kingdom in 2015. Her own career had previously been boosted thanks to a feature on Iggy Azalea’s multi-platinum hit Fancy (2014), while back in 2012, Aitchison broke out after co-writing and lending her vocals to female duo Icona Pop’s smash I Love It.
It feels fitting, then, that Aitchison is the only artist featured on both Ora’s and Lo’s tracks – indeed in many ways, she might be considered the heart and soul of the movement. Rising to fame through her informal, self-produced mixtapes, the British singer has long embraced using technology to champion peers from different corners of the globe: Last year’s ambitious, acclaimed Pop 2 starred a diverse cast of largely female talent, including Denmark’s MØ, Germany’s Kim Petras and Canada’s Carly Rae Jepsen, alongside American rappers Cupcakke and Brooke Candy, as well as Nordic talents Lo and Alma. “I’m really excited to be around all this female energy,” Aitchison told W Magazine at the time.
'Know what you want. Fight for your dreams'
If the movement had a figurative moment, it might have been the Women in Harmony meal that Rexha threw in Los Angeles in February. Mobilised after discovering that female talent accounted for just 16.8 per cent of the American music charts in 2017 – and feeding off the revelatory energy of the post-#MeToo climate – the American star conceived the event as a “celebration and conversation among the strongest female writers, producers and artists in the music business”.
Rexha – a talent who has previously penned songs for Rihanna, Azalea and Tinashe – knows the value of support herself, after getting a leg-up from Nicki Minaj, who served up a guest rap on 2016 single No Broken Hearts. And so it was that some 40 female movers and shakers assembled at a West Hollywood restaurant in late February – among the roll call were Charli XCX, Petras, Avril Lavigne, Kelsea Ballerini, Julianne Hough, Lauren Christy, Sevyn Streeter and Erika Ender.
“Be bossy. Know what you want. Fight for your dreams,” she advised attendees. Rexha has plans to expand the concept to include a songwriting boot camp and a mentoring programme for up-and-coming artists. “No wonder why sometimes we get competitive as females because there’s not enough room for us at the table,” Rexha told Billboard following the meal. “And I said: ‘We need to really support each other.’”
Cynics might point out it was well-timed to build excitement for her recent debut album, Expectations – released last month – yet the fact remains that Rexha chose to sell it together, not apart. The other artists present weren’t seen as a threat, but an opportunity to reach new audiences – eventually, it seems, collaboration trumped conflict.
So what's changed?
There are certain commercial motivations at play. Traditionally, women were positioned against one another because it was patronisingly presumed the charts couldn’t accommodate two female high-flyers – based on the commercial reality that record-buyers were generally forced to choose between products. However in the digital age, while omnivorous listeners reach far and wide, perceptive collaborations make tidy business sense – offering an easy way to clock plays and click followers from peers and contemporaries. Airtime is no longer limited, and sharing a never-ending pie can only reap better rewards for all. This simple marketing tactic has been credited with bringing about the recent females first paradigm shift.
But there is another purer technological explanation to consider – many collaborations and supportive friendships are now forged directly between artists via social media. While a few years ago, one star would approach another through a web of overzealous managers and labels, social media allows them to casually offer congratulations and encouragement – and build relationships and networks previously impossible under the music game’s past restrictions.
It seems a fitting symbol that when time was officially called on one of the greatest industry catfights of our time – the day in May that Katy Perry sent Taylor Swift an actual olive branch – the peace was called both publicly, and personally, by Swift simply sharing a snap of that most literal gift on Instagram.