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Despite Damning New Research, Women In Country Music Have It Better Than Most

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Dolly Parton attends Stella Parton's Red Tent Women's Conference, 2014, Nashville, Tennessee.  (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

The numbers are damning. In country music, only 12 percent of songwriters and 16 percent of artists are women. To make matters worse, while all but one of the genre's top-performing male artists are over 40, not one of the top-performing female artists has reached that milestone, suggesting systemic sexist ageism. Since last week's release of USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research into equality in country music, there has been widespread concern over what it revealed.

The truth of the matter is that the music industry has the same problems, across the board, regardless of genre. Last year, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative's pop results weren't vastly different from the country ones, showing that only 14 percent of songwriters, 22 percent of artists and 2 percent of pop producers were women. And when you shift away from pop and country, things get even worse.

Research into Billboard's end-of-year Top 100 chart between 1960 and 2008 found that 827 out of 1,250 songs were performed by men. When broken down into separate genres, male artists dominated every single one. In hip-hop, men accounted for 93 percent of performers; in rock, it was 78 percent; in the "other" category, it was 71 percent. The only genre even close to parity was R&B, which featured 48 percent female artists.

Country music has actually done a better job than many other genres when it comes to respecting and giving creative space to female artists. For all of its problems, country has allowed women the chance to assert their own voices and, in doing so, empower other women.

That tone was set early on. All the way back in 1968, Jeannie C. Riley called out slut-shaming, sexual harassment and body policing on the amazing "Harper Valley P.T.A." Loretta Lynn made similarly bold moves, most notably with 1975's "The Pill," which spoke in no uncertain terms about the joy of gaining one's own sexual and physical autonomy. Despite a mountain of controversy and several radio station bans, the ode to female contraception made it into the Top 5.


Country music has also been consistently better than a lot of other genres at allowing women to be pissed off, revenge-seeking superwomen. Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert and the Dixie Chicks have all had huge hits with songs about gaining freedom from domestic violence by any means necessary. McBride’s “Independence Day” is about literally burning down a house to escape a violent husband; Lambert’s "Gunpowder and Lead" features a female protagonist waiting for her abusive spouse to get home from jail, loaded shotgun in hand; and Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" poisons a domestic abuser with black-eyed peas, then basically dances on his grave.

In 2014, when Maddie & Tae got frustrated with the increasing prevalence of sexist, so-called "bro-country" dominating their genre, they didn't just get mad, they got even. "Girl in a Country Song" had lyrics that called out country's new direction and a video that put men in the absurd, scantily clad positions women in other videos have routinely been put in. The final results were funny, but the point was well made.

From the dawn of Dolly Parton (who has been making women feel invincible for over half a century now), it's true that country has been inextricably linked with glitz, lace and hyper-femininity. What non-country people often forget though, is that the genre is also partial to celebrating women who refuse to conform. The idea of down-home country gals is so entrenched, both Krista Marie and Miranda Lambert have songs that celebrate "playin' by her own rules" called "Tomboy." And Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" and Jana Kramer's "One Of The Boys" are both about embracing four-wheel-driving, beer-swigging and takin'-care-of-business.

Country music, then, is not the problem. The problem is everywhere. In hip-hop this decade, only three female artists (Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea) have gone platinum. In hard rock, according to research by Pauwke Berkers and Julian Schaap, only three percent of all musicians and vocalists since the 1970s have been women. In EDM, only 9 percent of music is produced by women. In classical, in 2014, only 1.8 percent of composers for the top 22 orchestras in America were women.

Inequality is baked into every corner of the music industry—and a lot of those other genres don't work nearly as hard as country when it comes to empowering women. Because country music is most closely associated with the right-leaning, more traditional states of America, the idea that women are relegated to the backseat within it is an easy one to run with. To pin inequality on that one genre, and that one only, does a disservice to all the other women trying to break down walls everywhere else.

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