BY RYAN MILOWICKI
Has 2014 been a banner year for female artists on the Billboard Hot 100? In several conspicuous ways, absolutely. But in many other ways, the world of popular music is still one ruled mostly by males, despite the convincing façade shown in recent months.
Several statistics would seem to suggest a surge in the success of female artists. Taylor Swift’s first-week sales of 1989 were three times higher than any other weekly total for any album released in 2014 (2nd place was Swift’s second week). Female artists have held the #1 position for 29 of 2014’s 47 weeks thus far, including the last 12 by Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” And perhaps most impressive of all, female artists held each of the top five Hot 100 spots for seven consecutive weeks between September and October. Only six other individual weeks in Hot 100 history have qualified for this feat.
All of this would suggest that 2014 has been a historic year for female artists, bucking a historic trend of male dominance. However, there are a multitude of other statistics from this year which conflict with that picture.
To begin, let’s examine the chart as a whole. On the Hot 100 chart dated November 22, six of the ten songs in the Top 10 are by female artists. That sounds pretty good, but let’s look a little further down. For the Top 20, that number only grows to 9. Now we’re under 50%. Expanding to the Top 40, only 40% of the songs are performed by females. And once you take into account the entire Hot 100, that number is down to a significantly low 31%.
The single biggest reason for this gender disparity is country music. All genres have some extent of male dominance, but none more so than country. On the November 22nd chart, there were 22 country songs that made the top 100, and only four of those were by female artists (or 18%). Yet once again, this stat can easily be overlooked by the fact that Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water” is currently the #1 country song in America.
This top-heavy trend, which I like to call the superstar effect, masks the disparity which exists just underneath the surface. Over the past five years, artists like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus have had multiple #1 hits, and dozens more Top 10 hits. When glancing at the Hot 100 from top to bottom as we all do, it’s easy to see those perennial names there and assume that a similar pattern takes place throughout the entirety of the chart. As we’ve found out, that simply isn’t the case.
Still, this year nonetheless marks a big move in the positive direction. In comparison with recent years, 2014 has been much more gender-equal. So far in 2014, 52 singles have reached the Top 10, of which 25 have at least featured female artists (48%). That figure is up 19 percent from last year, and marks the second-highest percentage of the millennium, trailing only 2009, when Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson all had huge years. In addition, the 29 weeks at #1 by female artists I mentioned earlier are the highest such total since 2011, when Adele and Katy Perry each spent over 10 weeks atop the charts with various Number 1 singles.
These stats admittedly fall victim to the superstar effect as well. But what encourages me most about this year’s crop of hits is that so many of them have come from artists beyond the expected pool of hit-makers. Going into 2014, I doubt very many people were aware of Iggy Azalea, Meghan Trainor or Tove Lo, and certainly no one viewed them as huge pop artists. Yet all of them are responsible for multiple big hits this year, and that’s something which didn’t happen with nearly as much frequency in past years.
So even though there still exists a strong pattern of male dominance on the entirety of the Hot 100, 2014 could be remembered as a year which got the ball rolling back to an even playing field between male and female artists. We haven’t seen an era truly balanced since the mid-1980s when Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Janet Jackson dueled it out with Bon Jovi, George Michael, and Michael Jackson. Perhaps a few years from now, we may see the same landscape in contemporary pop. But for now, a male-dominated pop world still lurks beneath the impressive achievements at the top for female artists.