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Pop Charts Still Dominated by Men

New research finds predictions made in the late 1990s that women were nearing equality in pop music have failed to materialize.
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In 1997, Rolling Stone magazine famously celebrated the rise of the female pop star, boldly declaring that “Women are ruling the roost.”

It took less than a decade for that dominance to decisively shift back to men.

That’s the key finding of a newly published study, which concludes that “gender inequality continues to characterize the world of popular music.” A Canadian research team led by Concordia University sociologist Marc Lafrance reports male artists continue to dominate the Top 40 sales charts, and the gender gap is even wider in terms of airplay.

Lafrance and his colleagues Lara Worcester and Lori Burns analyzed the top 40 songs of each year from 1997 to 2007. They used two sets of data from Billboard magazine: the singles sales chart and the airplay chart, which measures the songs heard most often on key radio stations across the country.

In terms of sales, “male artists had 238 hit songs (54.1 percent) and female artists had 182 (41.4 percent),” they report. But in terms of airplay, “male artists had 271 hit songs (61.6 percent) and female artists had only 151 (34.3 percent).”

Looked at another way, the number of hits by male artists exceeded the number of female hits in seven out of the 11 years in question, according to sales figures. But when you look at the songs played most often on the radio, men dominated in nine of the 11 years.

“What individuals choose to listen to is less homogeneous than what is chosen for them by mainstream radio stations,” the researchers report in the journal Popular Music and Society.

“The years 2004 and 2005 appear to be important in terms of gender-related trends,” Lafrance and his colleagues write. “Here we see the number of hits by men increase dramatically, from 19 in 2004 to 25 in 2005. Leading the pack in 2004 was American Idol’s Clay Aiken, followed by Eamon and Outkast.

“In contrast, we see the number of hits by women decrease dramatically, from 20 in 2004 to 14 in 205. This dramatic decrease … continues over the course of both 2006 and 2007,” the most recent years studied.

Female pop stars can claim one distinction: “Women chart less often than men, but when they do chart, they chart closer to the number one rank.” The researchers call that finding intriguing, in that it suggests “women occupy the charts in ways that are not only quantitatively but qualitatively different form men.”

“Much more than male artists,” they note, “the female artists who do well on the charts are an increasingly important part of the celebrity tabloid culture — a culture that, as we know, scrutinizes and sensationalized many aspects of their brand both on and off the stage.”

(Indeed, a study published earlier this year, looking at Rolling Stone covers, concluded female pop stars are increasingly sexualized and presented as sex objects.)

“It could be argued, then,” Lafrance and his colleagues conclude, “that while men can survive and thrive as musicians and musicians alone, women are often expected to be sexy consumer brands.” It’s enough to drive anyone hoping for true gender equality gaga.

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