In his book on masculinity, Grayson Perry wrote that in order to find happiness and success in the scary modern world, "men need to learn to equip themselves for peace". Now we’re living in a world without elbowing to get to the bar, to buy a beer and chuck it over-excitedly across a crowd at a rowdy gig; you could say we’re living in a time of unprecedented ‘peace’, if you wanted to take a wildly optimistic angle.
But looking at the music industry, now reduced to a landscape of livestream gigs, IGTV sessions and homemade releases; it’s eerily peaceful. For months, our experience of music has been stripped back to something wholly personal, all coming out of our own speakers and attending something like a gig in our dressing gowns.
Reduced to something soft and vulnerable, far from the chaotic crowds and shouting that reeks of testosterone, it’s no wonder that 2020 has seen female musicians thrive.
For the past eight months, I can’t say I’ve been itching to press play on anything too rowdy. Sure, the new Fontaines D.C record was great, and for a week or so I was all over Declan McKenna’s newest release, but they’re not the albums I’ll think back on when the year is done.
Dominating my top played list just as they dominated the Grammy nominations this week, musicians like Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift, Laura Marling and the leagues of guitar-wielding women have been repeating over and over on my speakers. Feeling like the most natural and obvious soundtrack to increasingly dark nights at home, punctuated with shop-bought wine, finished books and talking to yourself, the shock at seeing women come up on top of a tough year feels odd, because of course they would.
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Beyond the obvious point that historically women are better at adapting in intense situations, and are generally raised to be more emotionally intelligent and therefore more self-motivated and self-comforting etc, this strange year has created something of a perfect little bubble for female artists to create free from all the toxic parts of the industry they’d previously had to deal with.
As studios worldwide shut and offices relocated to homes, you could almost hear a chorus of sighs of relief from female musicians now free from the pressure to justify their every creative move.
Seeing Taylor Swift huddled under a duvet recording in the corner of her bedroom in her new documentary, you realise that 2020 slammed musicians back to their origin stories, making music in their room for the love of it.
Physically removed from male-dominated spaces like label boardrooms and studios, it seems natural that female musicians would be able to create their best work. Releasing whole records written in their basement or performing better than they ever have over zoom, in an optimistic view, the musician’s version of WFH has let female musicians finally truly prioritise their process.
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Just as COVID has let us all rejig our priorities to put ourselves to the top for a little while, musicians have got to do the same. Finally being in control of their own schedules, free to write without execs demanding evidence or enforcing deadlines, no longer having the worry of adapting to big live shows or dealing with intense press junkets; female musicians can set their own boundaries, write when they want, collab with who they want.
And on records like 'Folklore', which sees Taylor Swift work with an eclectic group of collaborators from indie royalty Justin Vernon to her actor boyfriend, or in gut-wrenchingly beautiful sessions like Angel Olsen’s NPR home gig, you realise that something is going very right here.
Bringing us all to the realisation that maybe outside of the confines of the male-dominated music industry machine that is littered with tiny abuses and aggressions, no longer feeling the need to justify their decisions or feel bashful over their most emotional lyrics, or live up to the stereotypes and male-written rules and expectations of the genre their music is placed in, all rules written by men, women have the time, space and control to make their greatest work.
Maybe you could argue it all comes down to passion. Not only has 2020 been a year of insanely high-quality releases from female artists, but the quantity is staggering.
Not content with releasing just one album, we saw Phoebe Bridgers double up with an orchestral EP, we’ve had whole surprise albums written, recorded and released within a couple of months of being created ‘accidentally’ in the case of Taylor Swift, female acts also really led the way with livestream gigs, while Laura Marling was quick to the post with IGTV sessions and guitar lessons.
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Meanwhile, the male rock acts that we’d usually see dominate those Grammy categories have been noticeably silent, or did one live stream back in May and called it a day. Bands that seem to thrive almost entirely off big live shows and loud crowds that scream the words for them seem to have deflated to nothing, empty without the fuel of live hype to power them.
Suddenly thrown back to being a teenager in a garage band, not only have women come out on top with a classic female resilience, but with what feels like a rejuvenated passion. Back to being able to create how things should be created; authentically and in the moment, fuelled by the love of the craft and not contract pressure or overlooking eyes from an assigned producer or manager, great female artists are making real art while it seems like their male counterparts are still too busy reposting old live photos with heartbroken emoji captions.
OK but yeah, it’s not all men. Male artists that have adapted to the situation just as well, taking their live power and reinventing it as something suitable for our humble speakers on a weeknight. have thrived just the same. Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer live stream gig and subsequent live album gained overwhelmingly positive reviews as the artist who is usually accompanied by a small army of a band took to the stage solo.
The mutual strain here is that peace Grayson Perry was talking about, being open to vulnerability, stripping things back to lyric-focussed, headphone friendly, great cry soundtrack songs that won’t feel stupid being played in your kitchen while you drink alone, again.
In 2020, we’re demanding something totally different for our music. Overwhelmingly we want something that’s comforting, a voice that feels like it’s there with you, wrapping round you like a nice blanket or a hug that isn’t illegal, so it’s really no wonder that women, who are raised with that vulnerability and tender resilience in-built, have thrived.
So in 2020, rock looks like Phoebe Bridgers making you cry. It looks like Laura Marling and Marika Hackman teaching each other songs on IGTV. It looks like Adrianne Lenker doing an NPR session from her camper trailer, the HAIM sisters making an album in their front room, because of course it does.
When the industry crumbles, offices close and all the men in suits head home, I don’t know who else you expected to stand strong as a foundation other than all the women who have been creating from their bedrooms all along, ignored under the sound of showmen with loud crowds who are now left still scratching their head, struggling to reconnect to what makes an artist in the first place.
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Words: Lucy Harbron
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