Then & Now: Groundbreaking female musicians who rocked the status quo
Country: Loretta Lynn to Kacey Musgraves
It’s easy to settle on the likes of Johnny Cash when asked of groundbreaking country artists but, truthfully, this label belongs to Miss Loretta Lynn. Lynn hit the music scene in the ‘60s as one of the first female country singers. This was a time when men dominated the charts in Nashville – but that didn’t stop Lynn from recording chart-topping singles covering issues resonating with women. She sung about being cheating on, the arrival of the birth control pill, the struggles of child rearing and double standards. Radio stations often banned her songs, but that didn’t stop them from spreading throughout the country. Her defiant and fearless spirit shone through her voice, which delivered honesty in a breezy timbre, full of both soul and twang. Lynn certainly blazed a trail for all future women in country, including Kacey Musgraves.
Musgraves released her debut single, “Merry Go ‘Round,” a ballad about suburban acquiescence, in 2012. On her following two albums, she has delivered equally poignant songs about lower class life, elitism, mediocre men, sexism and bullies. She unapologetically and bravely speaks her mind in each of her songs using sarcasm, spunk, sparkles and a steel guitar. She has sparked a fire in Nashville, and the ashes aren’t dying out any time soon. The talented songstress will release her third album, The Golden Hour, later this month. We wouldn’t be surprised if it hits number one on the country charts, just as her first two albums did.
Soul: Aretha Franklin to Solange
When Aretha Franklin first began singing, her name was only known within the church. As a gospel singer, Franklin delivered odes full of grace and power. When she transitioned to a secular singer, that grace and power remained present in her music. She first stunned mainstream listeners with strong female-centric songs like “Think,“ “Respect,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” In these songs, she demanded equality, respect and tenderness in romantic relationships. Better yet, she did so with an effortless and fiery vocal style that sends chills throughout any listeners’ body. Even now at the age of 75, Franklin, aka “Lady Soul,” can shut down a room with her performances.
While her vocal style might be more understated, Solange definitely has some Aretha in her. Solange embraces her roots with unique afro-centric, indie pop melodies and, like Franklin, the ability to stop listeners in their tracks. Soulful songs like, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” address microaggressions that Solange, and other African American women, face on a daily basis. Her voice may bear resemblance to her older sister’s (Beyoncé), but her style is completely different. Solange’s music is more experimental and confrontational. She shines with the glowing essence of black girl magic. Just as Aretha Franklin did.
Rock: Patti Smith to St. Vincent
For those of you who don’t already known, Patti Smith was one of the most influential female rockers of her time. Labeled as a “punk rock poet,” her work combined the lyricism and guitar-centric melodies of folk with the aggression and rebellion of punk-rock. Her work was rooted in a lack of convention, which made it quite challenging for some consumers at the time. She favored artistry over commercialism, and was not afraid to sing about controversial topics such as the Iraq war and Bush administration. Many years later, she is still appreciated for her ambitious work which was ahead of its time.
Nowadays, artists considered ahead of their time are finding their way into the mainstream market. One artist of the sort, St. Vincent, has also managed to blend poetry and rock, as Patti Smith did in the ‘70s. Like her contemporary counterpart, Janelle Monáe, St. Vincent engages in a full spectrum of genre classification and gender identity. Her music is a hybrid of electropop, jazz, funk and indie rock. Her unpredictable and mysterious personality is carried through to her songs which use sophisticated lyrics to convey either ecstatic electronic emotions or slower sad sensations.
Hip Hop: Roxanne Shante to Cardi B
Roxanne Shante started cutting tracks in the 80s at the early age of 15. The confident and confrontational rapper delivered songs that called people out for their questionable antics. She often took hits at men for their particularly bad behavior. Her first rap, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” was created to put down a rap trio, known as U.T.F.O., for their sexist song “Roxanne, Roxanne.” That New York style of bold freestyle Shante perfected in the 80s and 90s has made a return… in the form of Cardi B.
Cardi B reps her roots, rapping about The Bronx in many of her songs. She is also not afraid to take shots at her haters. The former stripper and reality star gained popularity with the masses for her raw one-of-a-kind style that uses absolutely no filter. She speaks her own language which can be quite cryptic for outsiders; but when you know, you know. Cardi B knows how to balance aggression with silliness, using hooks and ad-libs (just like her boo, Offset, from Migos) to tell her story. With millions of listens on Spotify, she is definitely using her “Finesse” to make “money moves.”
Folk/Americana: Emmylou Harris to Brandi Carlile
Emmylou Harris perfectly captures the spirit of the Americana sound. Her music melds aspects of both folk and country to create a sound that is down to earth and warm. Using acoustic instruments, Harris developed a simple sound that earned her 14 Grammy awards over the course of her career. Her voice is full of twang, yet is comes through the speakers with absolute clarity. Her songs are tender and transparent, and always tell a story, thanks in large part to her effortless phrasing and evocative melodies. She truly embodied the spirit of girl power by teaming up with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for a collaborative album. Her wandering spirit makes her the female Willie Nelson of her era. Harris’ style would later inspire a young Brandi Carlile to pick up a guitar.
Brandi Carlile, now a seasoned vet, has a knack for storytelling as well. No matter how many distinct musical influences the Washington native introduces into her music, Carlile’s Americana aesthetic just never seems to leave. She uses her twang, which is oddly similar to Harris’ timbre, to challenge the characters in her songs and advocate for women.
R&B: Diana Ross to Janelle Monáe
Before there was a Fifth Harmony, there were the Supremes. Diana Ross, known for her work as a disco diva in the ‘70s, actually began her career as the leader of the iconic girl-group. The Supremes ruled Motown in the ‘60s with twelve number one hits. Their soulful singles blended R&B and pop aesthetics to create some of the catchiest crossover melodies the world has ever heard. The Temptations might have rocked, but the Supremes completely dominated with consistent chart appearances. When Diana Ross went solo the following decade, she added some spunk to her sugary sweet voice and her uplifting songs rocked the disco decade with funky riffs and danceable rhythms. Her anthem, “I’m Coming Out,” became one of the most empowering tunes for the LGBT community.
Janelle Monáe also has a knack for getting people up on the dance floor. Monáe crafts upbeat songs that are empowering and enlightening. She bring a spunky retro spirit into her contemporary pop jams and, like her mentor, Prince, she also brings a sense of gender fluidity into her performances and persona. She isn’t afraid to rock a coiffed updo and sleek suit among a group full of women donning gowns and long curls. Her funky upbeat tracks are full of messages of female empowerment.