The female factor in Australian music. Introduction: “I Am Woman”

Before anything else, a note to men potentially reading this now: this post is not meant as a “man-shaming rant”. But I understand there might be some ideas you see differently. I’m still inviting you to get through it with an open mind, though. And I’m happy to receive your feedback afterwards.

8 March is International Women’s Day. But I’m sure you already knew that.

What you might not be aware of is that, despite its formal name, the holiday is not celebrated globally or treated the same way everywhere. In some countries, it is a relict of past political systems which invokes fairly mixed feelings in the society. In others, it’s officially recognised, sometimes even as a day off. In those states, men often show their appreciation to the women in their lives (mothers, sisters, wives, friends or colleagues) with small gifts, like flowers or chocolates. International Women’s Day is also honoured in Australia with various events and initiatives.

Being a blogger girl, I’m really stoked with this year’s theme – #ChooseToChallenge – because “from challenge comes change”. And there’s still so much to change when it comes to women’s rights, acknowledgement or recognition in general. Also in the Australian music business.

In 2020, a movie about one of the most iconic Australian female artists hit the cinemas and streaming platforms. “I Am Woman” tells the story of Helen Reddy whose famous, ground-breaking anthem with courageous lyrics “launched a revolution”. The film’s trailer is a women’s rights manifesto on its own.

The song certainly did bring more awareness to the cause in the 1970s, not only in music but society as a whole. Despite that, 50 years on, there are still way too many vital issues waiting to be resolved or even noticed. Let’s have a look at a few examples, based on the quotes from the trailer.

“If you wanna make it as a singer, America is the place to be”, says the young Helen in the movie as she embarks on a life-changing trip to the Music Business Mecca. Today, the United States still remain the biggest music market in the world. So is it even worth starting your career elsewhere, like Australia, for instance? Naturally, most artists do it for the love of music as opposed to a deliberate pursuit of fame and fortune. On the other hand, it would be awesome if it was a sustainable profession for everyone, everywhere, right?

Look at Iggy Azalea, for instance. She realised early on that she’d gain far more exposure as a female rapper on the other side of the pond than on her home turf. So she jetted off to America at age 16. And whether you think she’s made it in LA or not, she’s been an active hip hop artist for a decade already, collaborating with some of the biggest names in the industry.

“I’m getting paid less than the band” are words that, unfortunately, are still heard here and there nowadays. I’m fully aware that it is a wider societal problem with many different angles, typical of the whole world of entertainment. But I’m also 100% sure it resonates with women in the Australian music industry. Moreover, it doesn’t only impact female musicians Down Under but a wider spectrum of professions that women hold in the business.

One of the female characters in the film’s trailer states as well, “My mother tells me I have to choose between career and marriage. I tell her we can have both”. Is that right, though? Marriage often means having children and other absorbing commitments. Ask any woman how reconciling parenting with a musicians’ lifestyle is working out for her. Think of the late-night gigs, unstable income, loud working environment or being away from home for long periods when on tour.

I’m not saying men notice absolutely no difference at all when they become fathers. But it’s disproportionately harder for women who often choose to take “a career break” because they wouldn’t be able to commit to their profession simultaneously. Check out this informative episode from last year’s “The State of Music” in which three Australian singers, Deborah Conway, Mahalia Barnes and Kate Ceberano talk about being a mother and muso at the same time [skip to 29:13 where the conversation begins].

“Did it ever occur to you men to ask women what they want to listen to?” is another question posed by Helen in the movie. In today’s world where everything is meticulously measured, compared and made into an algorithm by (impartial?) artificial intelligence, it might seem like it’s no longer an issue. But it’s more about the freedom of choice for women in music in general. Trust me, not every girl out there listens to pop or dresses like a princess. Similarly, not every woman might want to record heartbreaking songs only or be forced into playing a sex symbol on stage just because it sells.

Not to mention that women just want to be able to say how they really feel, without being labelled an “angry feminist” or “frustrated spinster” right away. When the record label execs hear Helen’s song for the first time in the movie, their reaction is: “It’s kind of angry. It’s men-hating“. How many times have female artists heard that before?

It seems that women wanting to make a point about their place in the business, be it through their song’s lyrics, video clips or being on the panel at an industry conference, are considered as “having a go at men”. I hate to break it to you, gents, but not everything is about you in this game. What it is about, though, is having an honest and sometimes difficult conversation about the state of things and finding sustainable and feasible ways of changing it for the better.

The Australian music industry paid a beautiful tribute to the late Helen Reddy with a star-studded (female only) performance at the last ARIA Awards in November 2020. And the fact that it was introduced by a former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, shows that conscious and thoughtful efforts are made to recognise women in the business. Things are moving in the right direction. But there’s still a long way to go.

So the point I’m trying to make is this: Nearly half a century after Helen Reddy’s song was released, the global music industry continues to be dominated by white men. It’s not a secret but a troubling fact.

That’s why I’ll be dedicating every Wednesday in March on my blog and every other day on my social media to women and female-identifying individuals in Australian music. For that purpose, I’ve engaged some professionals working in different aspects of the business Down Under, as well as music fans, to open up about their experiences. I can’t wait to share these conversations with you.

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Check out my other posts featuring Australian female musicians:

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