When Hathor Sleeps
IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé/PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Pillai for L'Officiel
The Strong Female Idols Who Have Inspired Me
I am not exactly slack when it comes to…
IN THIS PHOTO: St. Vincent (one of many modern female artists who compel me)/PHOTO CREDIT: Shervin Lainez
promoting new female artists and raising a clenched fist against the patriarchy. I find there is an imbalance across music that is not shifting as fast as it should. Radio stations are male-heavy whilst we hear tales of sexism and inequality from gig bookings, festivals through to record labels. I feel the crop of new female artists is incredibly strong and inspiring. I am drawn more to their sound: I find there is more innovation and depth in their sound; something different that digs further and elicits different emotions. From the primal and commanding Hip-Hop artists coming from the U.S.; the more mature and independent Pop artists pushing the genre and dominating; the great Punk and Alternative bands the beautiful Folk artists – there is a wealth of talent coming through that deserve a lot more than they get. Old-school mentalities and habits still rule music. There is that deficit when we see festival line-ups and so many broadcasters promote their men above women. Whilst there is a long way to go to see any real improvements in the industry; I have to look back and explain why classic and modern icons are showing why equality needs to arrive sooner rather than later. Most of my early musical experiences revolved around male bands or whatever was being broadcast on the radio.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush/PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images
Even back in the 1990s, there was a lot of men filling the airwaves and making their way up the charts. A lot of the hits were written by men and look at the so-called greatest albums of that decade – you will find a majority male share. Maybe things have always been bad and unbalanced but the music male and female artists produce differs. Their ambitions and dreams might be (roughly) the same but the tones, lyrical perspective and personalities are different. I know problems in today’s music scene are going to take some genuine attack and dedication but I feel looking back at the music from female artists of the past can inform what we do today. Look at those iconic and inspiring artists who either paved a course for change or released world-class albums. I have spent a lot of time this year looking at artists like Kate Bush and Madonna – they are both sixty this year and have influenced generations of songwriters. Whilst Kate Bush captivated my ears when I was a child and sort of formed my first musical crush; her unique sounds and incredible passion stood out from any other music I was listening to. One reason why Bush stands out to me is her independence and sense of ambition. I am a big fan of male artists/bands from the 1970s/1980s but none of them managed to win my heart as readily and easily as Kate Bush.
She remains a heroine of mine and a songwriter whose beguiling talent, physicality and personality have not been equalled. The industry was sexist when she was starting out – although she has said she never encountered it – but her defiance and belief in the music meant she set her own course and went on to create some of the finest work of her time. Whereas a lot of male artists at the time, and when I was growing up, relied on their masculinity or feudal rebellion; Bush’s instinct, artistic flair and incredible maturity stood aside. It was refreshing then and, forty years after her debut, it remains rare and personally inspiring. Madonna, who turns sixty next week, made an impact on me after Kate Bush. I experienced Bush around about 1988/1989 – when she was quite a few albums in – but Madonna arrived in the 1990s. Earlier albums like True Blue and Like a Prayer were being played in the schoolyard and I was finding her musical at a rather interesting time. Although Madonna is determined to make more music today and aghast at the lack of originality and true leaders; by the time I was becoming familiar with her work, she has transitioned from this normal Popstar who was making her way into the world: she was the Queen of Pop and a global superstar.
Maybe Michael Jackson had that same sort of rise, a lot earlier, but his situation and struggle were different. Whilst fellow icons such as Jackson and Prince conquered the world and established themselves as legends of the time; Madonna was fighting against record labels, judgement and a scene that was not ready for her. She battles and speaks out against sexism now but there was a feeling, back then, she was being controlled by record labels. The more she felt belittled and isolated, the more she pushed to become this world-straddling star that stunned the world with her incredible fashion, music and defiance. She remains a global superstar but it is her work during the 1980s and 1990s that hooked me. Going through school, I was constantly being exposed to chart hits, Britpop and whatever band was trending at the time. Musicians, in a way, teach us about ourselves and present a view of the modern world. During a time of change and discovery in my life, I was blown away by a figure who seemed to defy convention and rebelled against those who felt she was inferior and incapable of success. Later albums such as Ray of Light would elevate and renew my interest in her but the sort of songs that came during that earlier period – from Express Yourself, Papa Don’t Preach and Like a Virgin – changed music and spoke to those looking for something different and bold.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna/ALL OTHER PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images
I was growing up around a lot of good music but there were few artists that really spoke to me and made a lasting impression. Around the same sort of time I was discovering Madonna and Kate Bush; another side of music was presenting itself. Through childhood discovery and flicking through old vinyl, I was becoming acclimatised to incredible singer-songwriters like Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Both have their own sensation and sound but they each take me somewhere special with their voices. Mitchell is a more ‘acquired’ taste to many: a rougher voice that, whilst capable of beauty and desire, is not as instant. The way she wove pictures and presenting such vivid and incredible songs, again, did something to me and opened my eyes to art and literature. I leapt into albums like Blue and Ladies of the Canyon and was presented with these wonderful stories, sensational poetic verses and a spirit that brought so much character to what she sung. A Joni Mitchell song is an experience and linguistic awakening. Maybe my love of poetry and desire to explore the English language is because of Joni Mitchell and the way her music got into my head. I am a big fan of male songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen but I got a new perspective and quality with Mitchell.
She was/is a more emotive performer and someone writing from a very real and honest place. She has said that, at a point, she was exposed and could hide nothing from the public. Her music, especially on Blue, bled with emotion and seemed to strike harder and more durably than anything I had ever heard. Carole King’s Tapestry is one of those albums that, again, taught me a lot about myself and what I could become. I found her whilst I was in middle school and was instantly seduced by her fantastic voice and incredible grace. It seems like the voice and the different tones are the difference between interest and fascination. I love male artists like Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley; bands such as Radiohead, Blur and Led Zeppelin – most of my favourite music is made by men and that will not change anytime soon. Although the majority of my favourite albums and songs are created by men; the deepest, most memorable and transformative musical memories are from female artists. ABBA, a band who can divide opinion, played a big part when I was growing up. I recall being hooked on their hooky and catchy Pop. Although the hits were penned by Benny and Björn; Anni-Frid and Agnetha were at the front and bringing those songs to life.
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell/PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson
Maybe it was their contrasting voices and the way they could harmonise; perhaps it was their affinity for the music or something intuitive…it introduced me to Europe Pop and, against the radio hits of the day, was another breath of fresh ear and sensational vocal realisation. Most of my ABBA upbringing was after their split up. I was getting into them in the 1990s – their final studio album was 1981’s The Visitors - but those incredible vocals and performances still get into my head and bring me happiness. The 1990s was the decade I was discovering existing stars and finding new ones to love. Whereas we do not really have girl bands anymore; I was drawn to the unity, spirit and sassiness that one could find in the music of En Vogue and TLC. I am also a fan of Destiny’s Child but it is Beyoncé’s leadership and talents that seemed to shine. The reason I liked these female groups was their confidence and the incredible connection between the singers. The fact that they are black seemed to be a part of their music. By that, I mean they were not only fighting against no-good men and cheaters but a society that overlooked women and minorities. I often feel the hardest task for an artist is being a black female solo artist or group.
The fact the greatest girl groups of the 1980s and 1990s managed to create sensational music and break down barriers was a huge thing. There were sexism and limitations placed upon them but these groups managed to carve out their own territory and influence legions of artists coming through. I feel the likes of En Vogue and TLC have done so much to bring women’s music to the forefront and create a sense of identity and place for black artists today. Again, male artists have managed this but I look back at those great girl groups and what they managed to achieve. The songs they created not only became anthems for women everywhere but they spoke to everyone and have remained staples. Think about TLC’s Waterfalls and No Scrubs; En Vogue’s Free Your Mind and Don’t Let Go (Love) and you have classics that people still go nuts over today – I cannot think of any male group of that type who managed to make such an impact. I will end with Beyoncé but a few other female artists that compelled me when I was growing up were Björk, Lauryn Hill and Stevie Nicks. Nicks’ involvement with Fleetwood Mac won my young heart.
IN THIS PHOTO: Stevie Nicks
Albums like Rumours and Tusk are among my favourites are part of my regular rotation and a big reason for that is Stevie Nicks. Rumours is a record where she struggled to get attention and fairness – given the tensions in the band and the fact Lindsey Buckingham was calling a lot of the shots. Her contributions, like Dreams and Gold Dust Woman are among my highlights. The fact each song has its own skin and seems completely different is a testament to her endless talent and ability. I Don’t Wanna Know is another great Nicks song - and look at Rhiannon and Landslide (from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac). She is one of the best female songwriters of all-time and her voice is an instrument that brings such strength and cinema to the music. She can be flighty and ethereal but incredibly earthy and revealing. There are contrast and balances that made her a favourite of mine when growing up. I have been a fan of Björk since her debut album (Debut) and feel she, like Kate Bush, is unique and impossible to follow. Each of her albums explores new ground and seems to defy logic. Whether exploring nature or womanhood; inventing her own technology or wrestling with personal demons; you always get something electric and scintillating. I have followed Björk since the start and am always stunned by the way she can project and mutate her voice.
You only need listen to a few of her songs and you realise we have someone very special in music. I cannot imagine any other artist, male or female, matching what she does and having such an amazing impact. It is hard to put into words just what Björk does and how her music makes me feel but I adore the way she bends language and can go from ecstatic and rapturous highs to cooing lows and something more unsettled. As a young man/boy looking for music to guide me and show me new sides of the world, again, it was a female artist that did that. Lauryn Hill’s sole solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was among my first tastes of Hip-Hop. I was familiar with her Fugees work and what she was capable of but was stunned by her command and songwriting talent on the solo album. Gusty songs like Lost Ones were revelations to me. I had not really heard anything as punchy and tough from a female artist. I was listening to this great girl bands but Hill’s spirit and toughness seemed to top them. Doo Wop (That Thing) and Ex-Factor are among my favourite songs of the 1990s and a window into a very inspiration and influential artist.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Bangles
Certain words keep coming up in this piece but it is hard to say how important these artists were. Hill’s brilliant directions and confessions led me back to equally strong and impassioned female artists like Neneh Cherry and Nina Simone. A little earlier still (in the 1980s) I heard The Bangles and their earliest work played a big role in my school life. Maybe it is the beauty in their voices and the emotional effects it uncovers but their music is indelible and transformative. Eternal Flame might not be a critical favourite but it is a song I carried with me and one of my first memories from all of music. A lot of the male bands of that time were coming in rather aggressively or hardly pushing boundaries with their songs. That impatience and desire to uncover something soul-speaking and touching led me to them. If some people feel female bands/girl groups are weaker than male equivalents and produce inferior music; you only need to listen to groups like The Bangles to realise how strong and decades-lasting they are. I will complete with a conclusion and look at the modern artists who are in my thoughts and responsible for my continued interest in female-made music and striking against sexism but, for now, a figure I said I’d mention.
IN THIS PHOTO: Nina Simone
I love the work Beyoncé created when she was a member of Destiny’s Child and the anthems she was a part of. I have mentioned TLC and En Vogue and, alongside them, Destiny’s Child helped push female music (from black artists) into the mainstream. They addressed sexism and defiance; the losers that played them around and promoted a sense of strength and ability that has sparked a fuse for modern female-made music. Whether you feel Survivor or Say My Name is their best song; you cannot deny the impact they made. I was hearing a lot of crappy boybands in the 1990s and was shocked by the basicness of their material and how hollow it all sounded. Destiny’s Child provided access into Pop and R&B; a shot of spirit and independence that seemed so much more vital and impressive than anything that was being represented in music at the time. Beyoncé was the member of the band I followed and continue to watch with great interest. I love albums like Lemonade (2016) and 4 (2011) but it is her self-titled record (2013) and B’Day (2006) that show her at her peak. Although other people help her write her material; it is the way she puts herself into the music and delivers her messages that have moved me. Beyoncé is alive with sexuality and confidence (like Partition and Blow) whilst B’Day has bangers and bellicose anthems like Ring the Alarm and Green Light.
Both albums are supreme works and the fact they are seven years apart should signal a dip in quality or a changed sound. Every album she puts out seems to unite emotional candour with spirited, gutsy works. Destiny’s Child delivered big and hungry numbers like Lose My Breath but Beyoncé, stepping away from her band, gained new impetus and inspiration. She remains one of those female artists that, like Madonna, has spoken up and affected change. Her live performances are sensational and a transcendent experience. The reason she is important to me is due to her addressment of race and gender rights; equality and female strength. She never preaches and shoves things down our throat but there is never any sense of shyness and hesitation. Her complete authority and personal strength have not only influenced many female artists but a lot of current male musicians. In an R&B/Rap scene where the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z (her husband) hold immense sway; she can hold her own and is inferior in no way! This might be a bit of a whistle-stop tour of female artists through my life but they (the ones I have mentioned) have contributed a great deal and changed me as a person. Opening up my mind to new areas and sides of life; giving me instruction and teaching me more about music than I could ever know. I have a lot of affection for male artists but there is something special, different and more compelling about those strong female artists.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lana Del Rey/PHOTO CREDIT: Neil Kru
That interest and captivation continue to this very day. Whilst a lot of the artists I have mentioned have been and gone; modern artists such as Solange, Florence Welch (Florence + the Machine); Laura Marling and Lana Del Rey are among my favourites. Solange, like Beyoncé, is talking about big issues and striking a note for female artists; Lana Del Rey marries cinematic soundscapes and gorgeous strings with some of the dreamiest and most striking vocals around. Florence Welch is that enigma and powerhouse whose career keeps getting stronger and she is one of those artists that provoke such fascination and interest. Laura Marling is one of the most consistent songwriters of this age and, still under thirty, she has produced more starling albums that most have in their entire careers. The twenty-eight-year-old has already released six solo albums and not put a foot wrong yet! The great new breed of Pop artists – like Lorde – are inspiring me; the great Hip-Hop coming from the U.S. is alluring; the great female bands like Goat Girl are doing amazing work. I have not even mentioned Amy Winehouse when speaking of those idols and great artists that changed music and brought something new into my life. I did not want to raise this feature and explore the greatest female artists just to fill some time…
I have spoken about the female artists who inspired and affected me growing up – when writing pieces about International Women’s Day and Memory Tapes – but it seems few other male journalists are. I am always keen to promote female artists but I wonder why male journalists and artists are not writing about the female musicians that mean a lot to them. In my case, I have discovered more about music, life and myself through their music than anything male-made. From the natural world and beauty of the human voice (Kate Bush) to independence, sexism and women’s rights (Madonna); racism, sisterhood and female rights (TLC, Beyoncé and En Vogue) to the power of poetry, words and acoustic music (Joni Mitchell and Carole King). I have not been able to name all of the female artists that have compelled and moved but the fact they have opened my eyes and mind, personally and musically, matters a great deal to me. I know I write a lot about female artist and sexism but this is not a rally against inequalities and what more can be done. My current piece is a nod of the head to those, past and present, that have taught me so much and made me a stronger human being. The legends and incredible artists I grew up with have led to contemporary curiosity and a much broader and exciting musical palette. I will, in the coming weeks, highlight the modern female artists that are turning my head but I thought I would discuss and commemorate those incredible female artists whose impact on me…
IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé/PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Pillai for L'Officiel
CANNOT be easily measured.