Queens All ’round: Reflecting on Women in Music in 2016

The year is wrapping up, which means a few things. The weather is heating up, family we might not have seen for a while are descending upon us for the holidays and it’s time to get a bit retrospective. Overall, 2016 has been a bit of a shit-kicker and not just for all all the talent we’ve lost.

Over the past week, Triple J and listeners have copped a flack for the disappointingly abysmal representation (or rather, lack thereof) of people in their Top Ten Albums who weren’t male. For the sake of accountability, it must be noted that here at Howl & Echoes, while there was a fairly diverse spread across our individual picks, the overall top albums for 2016 only featured one female artist (Solange) – though it must also be observed that only two of the artists on the list were white. Festival lineups remained the Caucasian-male-dominated affairs they always have been and it was found that 80% of record labels registered in Australia are headed up by men while women, trans and non-white diverse artists still struggle for recognition, respect, understanding and paid work.

With all the bullshit all of that in mind, there’s still a fair bit to celebrate. Taking a leaf out of the Her Sound, Her Story book, here’s a look at a few things worth celebrating (that series is also one, if you feel so inclined to check it out) that happened in 2016!

Queens All Around

If ever a Holy Trinity existed, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Solange would be it and 2016 blessed us with albums from all members. In the very first month, we received ANTI, the long-awaited album from hardworking hit machine – the true princess of modern pop, Rihanna. After a four year wait and a whole lot of lead up, Rihanna broke with convention for ANTI, presenting perhaps her most surprising album for its tempered back, hazed vibe and down-to-earth lyricism, matched with a delightfully unashamed confidence. Needed Me and its accompanying video alone was enough to send fans and commentators into a tail spin and confirmed ANTI as one of the most surprising, but enduring pop releases of the year, just one month in to 2016.

ANTI represents the deconstruction of the manufactured pop star and the reassembling of Rihanna as a living, breathing personality that vibes with bands like Tame Impala, and alternative hip-hop stars like SZA and deals with self deprecating thoughts and is terrified of love. She’s human now. She’s not the hit machine she was in the Umbrella era. “Rihanna the pop star” is now “Rihanna the person” – Emma Jones for Howl & Echoes

The theme of 2016 seemed to be that everything kind of happened at once. It just kept getting faster, more full on, and it was no exception when Beyoncé dropped Formation in February. The song and accompanying video, was masterful and gave foresight into what was to come. Powerful, sensual, celebratory while also rife with social commentary, it was perhaps the single most disruptive song of the entire year for all the conversation and polarising reactions it caused.

The visual album that followed in April, Lemonade, has since climbed to the top end of Best Of 2016 lists, earned the singer 9 Grammy nominations, and caused a whole storm of debate. Her appearance with The Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards sparked controversy when the show removed all traces of the performance online and removed the collaboration from the official list of performers despite the fact that their mere presence boosted ratings to an all time high. Beyoncé remains, as always, a force to be reckoned with, having become the first artist to ever receive Grammy nominations across the pop, rock, R&B and rap categories in one year.

In September, it became clear that both Knowles sisters were coming for institutionalised racism, social injustice and issues of inequality in 2016. Announced on a Monday and released that Friday, Solange wasted no time in promoting her new album, an ethereal, arresting piece of art. Accompanied by a series of music videos both haunting and inspiring, A Seat At The Table was altogether surprising, subtly powerful and a thing of beauty. It has solidified Solange’s place as an truly individual artist, putting her money where her mouth is in terms of her personal ethics and ideals and artistic endeavours. It also sees her catapulting her into Best Albums lists alongside her sister, without either overshadowing the other, for they are both so uniquely themselves in their art. Nominated for a Grammy (Best R&B Performance) A Seat At The Table is the gift that keeps on giving, with some of the most memorable live television performances – perhaps none better than that on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon earlier this month. Pure. Living. Breathing. Art.

Music videos, as clearly displayed by Rihanna, Beyoncé and Solange this year, are an art form in themselves and sometimes a song or concept isn’t quite complete without them. Another one that struck this year, though perhaps on a more personal than world-wide phenomenon level, was for Colombian electro outfit Bomba Estéreo’s single Soy Yo. It is the kind of thing I would have loved to see as a young, mixed, latina girl growing up. Though the song itself (which has some great self-love lyrics about the importance of what is inside rather than what everyone else sees) was released last year, the video came out in September this year and it’s everything I didn’t even know I needed. It’s a celebration of confidence and loudness, of taking up space and being one’s true self. When I first stumbled across the clip, I watched it on a loop for an entire morning: I smiled, I laughed, I felt like I might start crying with all the familiar feelings it provoked – good and bad.

Young girls, especially of colour, are so often taught, be it by our parents or more often our teachers and peers, to not be overbearing. Sometimes, when you’re loud and opinionated and dare I say it, don’t quite look like the people around you, it can start to feel like you’re not doing things right. This video takes that notion of ‘being good’ and behaving (read: being quite, overlooked or brushed aside) and shoves it into the gutter where it belongs. We follow 11-year-old Sarai Isaura Gonzalez (who gave some great life advice in a follow-up video) out of the salon where she’s just been given a new look she’s clearly pleased with, and rides around urban New York. She runs into two other girl, who try to stare her down to little avail. She demands attention on the basketball court despite perhaps not being very skilled at the game. She dances and moves the way she wants to and that’s the entire point. A beautiful, vibrant video that is worthy of a lot more buzz and hype than it ever did get.

Back on home soil, one of the most powerful, beautifully crafted releases of the year came from  the alluring Ngaiire. The power in her voice and her knack for crafting pulsating, enthralling, winding pieces of electro-tinged indie pop is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Live, she is perhaps one of the country’s most astounding performers; on stage with two other musicians, she fills entire theatres – a soulful, arresting talent to be reckoned with.

For all the self-reflection and criticism thrown the way of the country’s taste-maker radio station, Triple J and listeners as of late about the lack of women at the top of of album selections, there were two stand out occurrences this year and they both involved Unearthed. In August, the honey-voiced, Gretta Ray was announced as the winner of Unearthed High, her country-tinged indie pop capturing the hearts of the nation through her songs Drive and Unwind. Fast-forward to November and the utterly captivating, magnetic Tash Sultana was unveiled as the recipient of the 2016 Unearthed J Award.

In Victoria, the results of the Women in the Victorian Contemporary Music Industry survey and paper prompted the creation of a new gender diversity policy. The survey, which was conducted mid-last year noted that instances of pay inequality between male and female performers were frequent and damaging. It also found there to be an imbalance in access to opportunities, a significant confidence gap, the major undervaluing of music made by women and perhaps the most unsurprisingly, that sexual harassment and assault are experienced by women in the industry on a frighteningly large scale.

The policy, which was unveiled in May, means that the state’s key body, Music Victoria is committed to promoting gender diversity across the industry (“Music Victoria acknowledges that gender is a diverse spectrum and when referring to women and men it includes those who identify as female and male, and those who are gender non-conforming.”) while encouraging “others in the industry to adopt a gender diversity policy for their organisations.There’s still work to be done, which is outlined in the policy – but we have one, voices have been and are being heard. There’s a wealth more awareness out there and now with an official piece of literature to stand with, there is a way to hold people (punters, venue owners, industry heads, other musicians, every single one of us), accountable. Hopefully, it also prompts similar outcomes in other states. 

Overall, 2016 has been a bit of a shit-kicker and for all the hopes we had coming into the new year, a lot of them were kind of dashed. But sometimes it’s good to remember the small victories alongside the huge triumphs and perhaps set the tone for the coming 12 months – one not just of positivity but of action rather than idle commentary about what more we ‘should be doing’. 

Image: newnownext