The Alanis Effect
Female artists have commanded a lot of attention in the alternative music world in recent years.
A diverse group of women, solo artists and band leads, have enjoyed significant airplay, streaming and sales success in the alternative genre over the past decade. The popularity among alternative programmers in recent years of electronic music, dance rock and retro-infused sounds has been a boon for female artists. And even at the male-centric active rock format, dominated by different styles of hard rock, a small group of female-led bands have carved out a hard-won foothold. It’s a significant turnaround from the days of the early/mid-2000s, when rock radio largely turned its back on female voices.
That was the culmination of a variety of trends that picked up steam throughout the 1990s and intersected at the turn of the century. The result was that most rock formats marginalized songs with a female lead or co-lead vocal, if not dispensing with them altogether. For several years afterward, female artists struggled for recognition at rock formats, creating a situation that women in rock still struggle against.
Earlier generations of female rock artists may have had obstacles, including overt sexism, to overcome, but from the outside at least, never seemed to have the game so blatantly fixed against them. The album oriented rock (“AOR”) world of the 1970s and ’80s may not have been paradise, but women in rock at least had a fighting chance. AOR tended to take a much broader stylistic view of what constituted rock and seemed more willing to give a wide variety of artists, including women, a shot at airplay.
The first female-sung #1 on the mainstream rock chart came just nine months into its existence, “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash (December 1981). In October 1983, Pat Benatar became the first female solo artist to notch a #1 on the chart, the iconic “Love Is A Battlefield.” Over the first nine years of Billboard’s mainstream rock chart (the original version of which debuted in March 1981), 14 songs with a female lead or co-lead peaked at #1 (15, if you count Jefferson Starship’s “No Way Out,” which restricted co-lead singer Grace Slick to a background vocal). A dozen different acts were responsible for those hits. But after Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” topped the chart in February 1990, it would be an astounding 23 years before a female-sung single once again reached #1 on the mainstream rock chart. No female solo artist has topped the mainstream chart since Myles.
Modern rock radio of the ’80s and most of the ’90s was even more friendly to female artists, reflecting the broad diversity of styles and artists played by a typical alternative station. The very first #1 single on the modern rock chart, in September 1988, featured a female lead vocal: “Peek-a-Boo” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Kate Bush was the first female solo artist to notch a #1 on that chart, “Love and Anger” in December 1989. Over the course of its first decade, the modern rock chart yielded an impressive 25 #1s with a female lead or co-lead, courtesy of 18 different acts. The longest #1 drought for the alternative chart wasn’t quite as dire: only nine years separated the 2003 #1 “Bring Me To Life” by Evanescence and the 2012 chart-topping Gotye/Kimbra duet “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The lengthiest gap between #1 alternative songs by female solo artists was somewhat longer, with 17 years separating Tracy Bonham’s “Mother, Mother” in 1996 and Lorde’s “Royals” in 2013.
Underlying the uphill battle for female artists in the first decade of the new millennium was an industry prejudice that’s as longstanding and difficult to shake as it is off-base: men make rock, women make…something else. No matter how frequently that’s been disproven, the notion refuses to die. That attitude helped several factors coalesce to mute female rock voices by the year 2000.
AOR stations of the ’70s and ’80s and modern rock stations of the ’80s and early ’90s often were either independently owned or part of smaller media companies. That afforded a station’s management and program director a lot more authority to set overall strategy and construct playlists. AOR stations tended to emphasize albums over individual singles, so when a new LP came out stations would likely play several of its songs, and it was fairly common for an artist to have multiple entries on the rock chart of the ’80s. With less centralized direction, airplay tended to be more diffuse and the charts were more dynamic. While there were exceptions, the average run for a song on the early mainstream and alternative charts tended to be between two to four months and stints at the #1 position tended to be under a month, with many #1s lasting only a week or two. In that era, it was rarer (though not unheard of) for a song to spend most of a year on the charts or to settle in for an epic stay in the top slot.
By the late ’80s and early ’90s, changing government regulations allowed for considerable ownership consolidation within the broadcast space. Radio stations were acquired by larger media groups and became components of bigger families of stations, where overall strategy and many playlist decisions were handed down from the corporate parent. That seriously diminished the discretion in the hands of managers and program directors of individual stations. Rock channels also began shifting to a focus on singles over albums, with songs settling in for longer chart runs, concentrating airplay on a smaller number of tracks. That shift cut down on the turnover that gave many artists, especially developing artists and artists whose sound wasn’t currently in vogue, a chance to make a splash on a rock chart. These trends affected mainstream rock formats first, as they were seen as more commercially vital. But when media conglomerates glommed onto the marketing value of the “alternative” tag in the ’90s, modern rock stations began to go the same way.
Radio station playlist trends began to morph in the late ’80s, as the once dominant AOR format waned. Over the course of several years, the rock radio landscape changed gradually but significantly, as stations began transitioning to different approaches. Many AOR stations retreated from new music, switching to the emerging “classic rock” format, which re-wrote history to de-emphasize hits from women and artists of color. Many stations moved to the newer “active rock” format, constructed on a foundation of hard rock singles from male acts. A smaller number of stations worked a middle ground, becoming “heritage rock” stations, whose playlists were heavily tilted toward past hits, but with a reasonably significant component of current music (which initially was oriented toward new songs from AOR artists, but over time shifted toward active rock singles). And still others adopted the modern rock philosophy, or by the early ’90s, the adult alternative format, a sort of “best of breed” approach that drew from alternative, new material from AOR artists and classic rock (and was more hospitable to female and legacy artists). When Billboard’s Modern Rock chart launched in September 1988, it covered what was a fairly small format, with fewer than 20 stations in the reporting panel. But over the decade that followed, the number of stations identifying as “modern rock” or “alternative” expanded significantly, even as the content of such stations’ playlists gradually (and ironically) shifted closer to those of active rock stations.
By the late ’90s, corporate parents refocused rock radio as a tool to reach an audience that was young, white and male. Any acts deemed not to appeal to that narrow demographic were pushed off of rock stations. As record labels signed numerous male-fronted, guitar-based rock bands, they arbitrarily labeled them “alternative” in an attempt to engage the growing roster of modern rock stations. While several prominent bands had female members in primarily instrumental roles (White Stripes, Smashing Pumpkins, Pop Evil, Sick Puppies), it was difficult for female vocalists (either as soloists or band leads) to overcome ingrained attitudes and get attention in the hard rock landscape.
The Rise of Adult Pop Radio
While the rock radio landscape was transforming significantly in the ’90s, another new format developed that had a significant impact on the crossover fortunes of female rock artists.
Adult pop stations began emerging in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Originally, such stations were pitched as a “hipper” version of the often sleepy soft rock format, aimed at an older audience than typically teen-focused top 40 stations. The format’s early years were drenched in new music from soft rock staples, with a significant component of ‘60s/‘70s vintage Motown and ’70s dance hits. By the mid-90s, however, alternative music began to factor into the adult pop format in a significant way. Numerous acts that were enjoying significant success at modern rock stations found themselves on adult pop playlists, in company with some older AOR artists who were being squeezed out of the changing landscape of mainstream rock outlets.
Several female alternative artists became core acts at late ’90s adult pop stations, enjoying big hits and significant exposure that often led to mainstream pop success. While similar male artists often (though not always) continued to be accepted at various rock formats, by the end of the decade, female artists who had previously scored big alternative and mainstream rock hits found themselves shut out after winning over an adult pop audience. Essentially, female acts were punished for their crossover success, a success which reinforced the prejudice that music made by women was pop and not rock. As corporate radio executives positioned rock radio as a mechanism to reach a young male demographic, female acts were increasingly migrated to pop formats. Some female acts continued to enjoy success at adult pop and other pop outlets, though others found themselves locked out of the American radio scene altogether. It was an invidious double standard that male acts could score crossover pop hits and still be deemed “rock” while female acts who did the same thing were rejected and banished by rock tastemakers.
Jagged Little Pill
Perhaps the most notable example of punishing a female rock artist for crossover success was Alanis Morissette. Jagged Little Pill came out of nowhere to become the biggest selling rock album of the ’90s. When lead single “You Oughta Know” hit the scene in the summer of 1995 it was indisputably a rock phenomenon. It quickly topped the alternative chart and rose as high as #3 at mainstream rock. The next two singles from the album (“Hand in My Pocket” and “Ironic”) likewise peaked at #1 on the alternative chart, while also performing strongly on the mainstream list (#8 and #18, respectively). Morissette’s success seemed to herald a new beginning for female artists at rock radio after several years of diminishing attention. At least for a moment.
Even as alternative and mainstream rock stations were playing her early singles heavily, Morissette began connecting with a larger crossover audience. It started with an embrace by adult pop stations, but in short order Morissette became a mainstream pop success story. Young women bought Jagged Little Pill in droves, relating strongly to its themes and Morissette’s visceral, anguished performances. That dual success with pop audiences and young women inflamed the rock world’s confirmation bias: they’d been “duped” into regarding Morissette as a rock act. The backlash was as nasty as it was predictable, the singer’s success and cultural ubiquity making her an easy target. When her past as a teen dance pop star in Canada emerged, rock snobs practically competed to see who could shun Morissette first.
Only two years after scoring her third alternative #1, Morissette couldn’t crack the modern rock top 20 with her Zeppelin-inspired, award-nominated soundtrack hit “Uninvited.” When follow-up album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie arrived later in 1998, its critical reception was noticeably cooler. Mainstream rock stations ignored it altogether. And while Morissette was able to land the album’s first two singles (“Thank U” and “Joining You”) onto the alternative chart, neither cracked the top 10. After that, Morissette was done at alternative and mainstream rock radio, less than four years after her splashy arrival. Her initial success wasn’t the start of a trend. It was, through no fault of hers, an accelerant that helped burn out the fragile foothold that female artists had eked out with rock formats.
The Success of Lilith Fair
A similar phenomenon that should have solidified the place of female voices at rock radio but instead helped make them an endangered species was the Lilith Fair festival.
The idea for Lilith Fair emerged from Sarah McLachlan’s frustration that tour promoters refused to allow her to take Paula Cole on the road as her opening act. The twisted logic was that rock audiences wouldn’t accept an all-female bill. McLachlan could headline, but “needed” a male opener. In response, McLachlan and her managers dreamed up Lilith Fair, a traveling, summer concert festival with all female acts.
Lilith Fair launched in the summer of 1997 to great fanfare. Its dates sold strongly and shows received mostly positive reviews. Moreover, it became a cultural touchpoint, with various Lilith Fair acts scoring considerable mainstream media attention. From the outset, the festival reached beyond the rock demimonde, also drawing artists from the worlds of folk, country, soul, world music and even hip-hop for some dates.
Again, the backlash was both vitriolic and unsurprising. Detractors sneered at the festival’s peripheral art and cultural elements, deriding them as pretentious, while trad rock purists viewed the significant media attention as “selling out,” so-called “proof” that Lilith Fair was a pop — not a rock — concept. That many of the artists associated with Lilith Fair scored significant success at pop formats hurt their case with rock tastemakers. And more weight than was probably warranted was assigned to a handful of prominent artists (most notably Morissette) declining to participate.
The negative impact on the ability of female artists to engage rock radio was typified by the experience of founder McLachlan. A genuine alternative star in the mid-90s ( “Into the Fire” and “Possession” were both top 5 hits on the alternative chart), McLachlan’s crossover success led to her exile from modern rock radio. Her Surfacing album came out amid the Lilith Fair hype and became a big seller and crossover success. While lead single “Building A Mystery” peaked at #3 on the alternative list in September 1997, follow-up “Sweet Surrender” reached only #14 three months later. It was McLachlan’s final appearance on the chart.
Lilith Fair ran successfully for three summers, going on hiatus after 1999. That moment in many ways represented the last gasp for female rock artists for some time, as the years that followed would prove to be a harsh environment for women in rock to get a fair hearing from either mainstream or alternative stations.
The radio environment of the first decade of the new millennium proved to be difficult for female voices.
Mainstream rock radio had multiple years where no new singles by female artists garnered enough support to crack the rock chart. Modern rock stations also had significant periods where no new music from female voices was featured. Classic rock stations had already successfully re-written history to minimize or erase hits from women. Only the much smaller adult alternative format managed to support new music from female artists on a regular basis (and even there, programmers could become overly enamored of soulful white guys brandishing acoustic guitars to the detriment of female voices).
A handful of female-led bands, most notably Evanescence, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Flyleaf and Paramore, managed to break through the inhospitability in those early years. Alternative radio would prove to be more open to songs from women, especially by the end of the decade as changing trends caused alternative playlists to once again significantly diverge from those of active rock outlets. But the progress stalled at times.
The mainstream rock chart experienced a drought of more than 23 years for female-sang #1 singles. After Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” topped the list in February 1990, it wasn’t until April 2013 that Halestorm, featuring volcanic frontwoman Lzzy Hale, scored a #1 with “Freak Like Me.” No female solo artist has topped the list since Myles. Indeed, after Tracy Bonham peaked at #18 on the mainstream chart in June 1996 (with “Mother, Mother,” a #1 alternative single), it would be over two decades before another female solo artist even cracked the top 20 (K.Flay’s “Blood in the Cut,” also a #18 hit in March 2017). While female solo artists continue to struggle, several female-led bands have achieved hard-won success at active rock outlets. Halestorm and Pretty Reckless each have notched multiple #1s. Co-ed Christian rock band Skillet, with a female second lead, has notched a string of successful hits, including the #1 “Feel Invincible.” Other acts like In This Moment, Dorothy, Stitched-Up Heart, Diamante and New Year’s Day have enjoyed notable success. And recently Evanescence returned from a long hiatus to land their comeback single in the rock top 20.
Since the Gotye/Kimbra duet in 2012, female artists have enjoyed significant success on the alternative chart. A number of groups with female leads or co-leads have topped the list. And since Lorde ended the drought, the number of female solo artists with #1s has doubled (from six to twelve), with multi-format phenomenon Billie Eilish matching Morissette’s record of three. More importantly, Eilish hasn’t been punished for her cross-over success, continuing to land big alternative hits even as pop audiences have embraced her. Several other female solo acts and female-led bands have enjoyed top 10 alternative success recently, indicating that, at least for the moment, alternative radio has once again opened the door for women in rock.
As the traditional broadcast radio model has changed and fans have found new ways to discover, embrace and support music, female rock artists may be poised to enjoy ongoing success. But the example of the late ’90s demonstrates that fans can’t take for granted that a period of high visibility achievement will be sustained. Attitudes need to change. Perhaps as the music landscape continues to evolve, outdated notions about women and rock may finally be tossed onto the scrap heap, where they’ve always belonged.