By Anjali Nayak
From searingly honest songwriters to rock icons that put men in their place, female musicians have continued to kick down doors and inspire change. Blazing trails for others to follow, so many stars have established powerful legacies, forever securing their places among the most influential musicians of all time.
Cherry-picking influences from jazz and blues, early soul singers were noted for their purity of tone, phrasing, and improvisational abilities. From Ella Fitzgerald’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” to Nina Simone’s breathtakingly emotional, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” early female figures sang with powerful voices, often having a three-octave range. Of course, no one can excuse the undeniable brilliance of Motown Records’ legendary output. Motown residents Diana Ross and The Supremes come together for “Someday We’ll Be Together,” a groovy, hopeful, and uplifting staple of the period. However, Motown’s true star was Mary Wells. While Wells’ career mostly went unnoticed, her breakthrough Mary Wells Sings My Guy is cohesive and thoughtful, during a time when albums were simply a collection of songs.
Further aiding the transfer from blues to rock, Janis Joplin’s wailing, raspy, supercharged emotional delivery shot her to stardom. Joplin did much to redefine the role of women in rock from wholesome, polished and petite, to assertive, sexually forthright and raunchy, complete with an electrifying on-stage presence. As well, Patti Smith aka The Godmother of Punk, was a new kind of artist in music, and in her wake came punk, grunge, alternative rock and indie. Patti Smith’s 1975 debut album Horses, which she once called “three-chord rock merged with the power of the word,” was far ahead of its time for seeing an explosion in DIY music-making and also the targeting of songs to the disenfranchised.
In the 1980s, Madonna changed the trajectory of popular music forever. Fusing post-disco dance with effervescent pop, as well as creating promiscuous, stylish clips during the dawn of the MTV era, Madonna established what it meant to be a modern female pop star. Madonna recorded many of the pop anthems that defined that decade—“Vogue,” “Material Girl,” and “La Isla Bonita.” Although never reaching the commercial success of Madonna, Kate Bush is forever recognized as one of the most talented female acts ever. Her debut single “Wuthering Heights” was the first female artist to achieve a UK number one with a self-written song. Hounds of Love is quite literally one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever released, perfectly straddling the cheesy and artistic qualities of 80s music.
The 1990s – 2000s brought an incredibly mixed bag of female artists. While one can easily cite Bjork, Mazzy Star, and Dolores O’Riordan and other women of grunge and shoegaze, one can’t forget the progressions in pop and rnb. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera became household names, following the enormous success of Madonna. On the other hand, Lauryn Hill, Salt – N – Pepa, and Mary J. Blige brought a female perspective of rap to the mainstream.
In the present day, female figures have definitely shifted tones. Rather than loud, anthemic, songs proclaiming the luxuries of life, “sad girls” have entered the public sphere, inviting moody, hazy, and melodramatic tracks, the most notable of which being Billie Eilish, Lana Del Ray, and Lorde.
Listen to these groovy girls here:
- “Dream a Little Dream of Me” – Ella Fitzgerald
- “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” – Nina Simone
- “Someday We’ll Be Together” – Diana Ross and the Supremes
- “My Guy” – Mary Wells
- “Mercedes Benz” – Janis Joplin
- “Redondo Beach” – Patti Smith
- “Vogue” – Madonna
- “Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush
- “Unravel” – Bjork
- “Fade Into You” – Mazzy Star
- “Linger” – Dolores O’ Riordan
- “Oops!…I Did It Again” – Britney Spears
- “Genie in a Bottle” – Christina Aguilera
- “I Used to Love Him” – Lauryn Hill
- “Family Affairs” – Mary J. Blige
- “bad guy” – Billie Eillish
- “Video Games” – Lana Del Ray
- “Royals” – Lorde