Dear Taylor Swift,
The music industry has a problem. Even though you dominated headlines in 2015, women didn’t dominate the music business. In our analysis of the Top 40 in 2015, we found that women only made up 26% of performers, 13.5% of songwriters, and a measly 3% of producers. The movie industry has a similar problem, and this year, women in Hollywood have been speaking up. But someone needs to take a stand regarding women in pop. It could be you.
In November 2014, you pulled your music from Spotify because you felt that it paid artists poorly for their work. In 2015, you fought Apple Music, and won. You’ve sold out stadiums around the world and invited strong women to stand by your side onstage. This year, you projected an image of yourself as a woman who stands up for women—who believes in girl power.
You could fix this. So could Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Katy Perry, or Adele. But so could you. And you should.
All year, we’ve been looking closely at how women are represented in the Top 40 in 2015. Consistently, women made up a minority of Top 40 performers, songwriters, and producers. So it wasn’t really a surprise when our year-end calculations showed just how bad gender disparity in the Top 40 is. But recognizing a problem and fixing a problem are two different things. We have the power to do the first, but not the second.
This inequality affects you, and it affects your colleagues. In a Rolling Stone profile published earlier this year, Adele touched on this:
She enjoyed working with Sia for her new album, even though the songs didn’t make it (one, “Alive,” became a single for Sia instead). Adele realized she had never collaborated with a woman before. “I actually love the dynamic of us both being in there and just fucking being bossy,” she says with a laugh. “And it’s all these male producers, and they’re all fucking shitting themselves ’cause we’re in there.”
That highlights how rarely women work with women in this industry. It’s a reality you know better than most, because you’ve lived it. Does it bother you that only 3% of producers making Top 40 songs are women? It should!
Harvesting and publishing the data of inequality is the first step of creating a movement for better change. For years, Dr. Stacey Smith at USC Annenberg has been publishing comprehensive data on gender disparity in Hollywood. Her group counts how many women are on and behind the silver screen, and what they’re doing there (whether they are sex symbols, or have real lines, or have full character development). She’s been counting women since 2006.
But it wasn’t until the Sony Hacks, when stars like Jennifer Lawrence realized that they were being paid less than their male counterparts, that tension and frustration began to bubble to the surface. In 2015, the women of hollywood have started fighting back with fury. They’ve mentioned inequality in their interviews. They’ve brought it up when they received Oscars. They stood together on the cover of the New York Times Magazine to talk about the issues they’ve experienced first hand.
Taylor Swift, we need someone to take the lead and start highlighting inequality in music. You can be that someone.
Taylor, as you know, pop stars have made feminism (or at least girl power) a part of what they are selling. In particular, your 1989 tour was a parade of strong women. It was encouraging to see you pair up with brilliant female artists from Alanis Morissette and Mary J. Blige to Lorde and Haim. Those duets illustrated how powerful female collaborations can be.
But Taylor—despite all the women on stage during the 1989 tour— for 1989 the album, almost all of your collaborators were men. According to our analysis of the 1989 liner notes, you worked with Ryan Tedder, Max Martin, Shellback, Ali Payami, Jack Antonoff, Noel Zancanella, Mattman & Robin, Greg Kurtis, Nathan Chapman, and Imogen Heap. Heap was the only woman. That’s 1 woman out of 11 collaborators.
It’s not just you. Almost every album is like this. The whole industry is like this. Our analysis showed that in 2015’s Top 40, only 3.2% of producers and 13.5% of writers were women.
But you have the power to trigger change. Of the 74 songs written at least in part by women in 2015, we counted 66 of them with at least one female performer. That means that women in music are far more likely to bring a woman onto their team than men are—consciously or unconsciously.
What if you did it consciously? What if for your next album you decided to ONLY work with women? Think of how revolutionary it would be: To have the number one song in America written, produced, and performed by a woman. What if Beyoncé did it too? What if Nicki Minaj did? What if the next Max Martin is a woman out there just waiting for her shot?
Female songwriters exist. Female producers exist. Just this year, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” was written by new songwriter Bibi Bourelly, who had never penned a track for a major pop star before, and produced by an 18-year-old producer named WondaGurl. Sia writes music. You write music! So do thousands of other young women in America. They just need a chance.
In an interview with Rachel Syme for Rolling Stone, Claire Boucher, known better by her stage name Grimes, said:
“When I was a teenager, I looked up to Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson because there weren’t women I could relate to, I just wanted to be a producer. I never wanted to be the frontperson. But because I ended up doing it myself, I got in too deep and now this is who I am. It was really hard for me to visualize this career for the longest time, because it didn’t exist.”
Boucher is one of the few women creating pop music that isn’t touched by men. But she’s not alone: QT is collaborating with Sophie. Tokimonsta is working with Kelly Rowland. Taylor, you could call up Holly Herndon, or Ikonika, or Leila. Or find a young female producer who loves your work to help.
“I really think it’s only a matter of time[…] I’d give it five years max till we have a top 10 track made by a female producer,” the producer Caroline Polachek told Fader in 2014.
She could be right even sooner: If you or any of the other major pop stars committed to this, it could happen in 2016.
Social movements need awareness campaigns. Watching Beyoncé stand in front of an illuminated FEMINIST sign at the 2014 VMAs gave me goosebumps. Seeing 12-year old girls change their Instagram bios to a line from “Blank Space” (“Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”) gave me faith in the ability of pop stars to use their voices to distribute a movement—even one as complicated, nuanced and often fraught with disagreements as feminism is.
The women of popular music have done a lot to help gender equality They have written songs about the damage of beauty standards. They have read Maya Angelou poems. They have been sexy and shameless and powerful in front of a world of people who want to beat them down and force them to be “role models,” in the archaic, gendered standard of what that word means.
But if we go one step further, gender inequality in the music industry can be fixed. Stand up for women in music. Take the girl power off the stage and put it to work behind the scenes of your next album. Revolutions have to start somewhere. Make this one start with you.
Correction: a previous version of this post credited the lyric “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” to “Bad Blood.” It is a line from “Blank Space.”