Here’s something I did for fun yesterday: a graph showing the % of UK #1 hits with female lead vocals, year by year. (Shared male/female leads counted half)*.
(Click on it if you want it a bit clearer).
The red bars are the percentage of female leads for each year. The line is a trendline – a rolling 5-year average (so it lags behind the red bar peaks).**
What does this all say? I’ll tell you what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say anything about female musicianship. It doesn’t say anything about women songwriters and their relative success. It doesn’t say anything about the role a female singer played in the song – Beyonce counted for the same as the sampled Loleatta Holloway on “Ride On Time”. All it is, is a chart slicing the #1s data*** to show the relative popular acceptance of the female voice. And you can argue whether that is down to public tastes, shifting demographics, or changing industry perceptions of saleability. Probably some mix of all three.
What does seem obvious is that there have been changes. This in itself surprised me: I expected the graph to be flatter, running at maybe 25-30% most years. Instead what’s apparent is that the proportion of female voices at the top of the charts has been growing since the beginning of the 60s. Looked at decade-by-decade this is stark:
Looking at the main chart we see that, behind this overall growth, female-voiced pop cycles in and out of fashion. In the early 50s, before the rock’n’roll era, it wasn’t uncommon. For most of the 60s and early 70s women’s voices at the top of the charts were a lot rarer. After that four separate waves account for the rise of female vocals.
- Disco in the second half of the 70s, though the proportion fell back again in the “new pop” era.
- Club pop and SAW-style teenpop at the end of the 80s.
- The Spice Girls: 1998 – the Spices’ heyday and the year the impact of post-Spice signings was really felt – was the first year female-voiced singles accounted for over half of Britain’s #1 hits. US teenpop and R&B kept the momentum up and the trendline hasn’t dropped below 30% since 1998 (after only being above it for 6 of the previous 40 years).
- The current wave of retro stylists and “quirky girls”, which is too much of a grab-bag to credibly designate as a “trend” to be honest, and is probably just a function of the previous upswings moving the needle.
Is any of this stuff significant? I don’t know. It’s an interesting bit of chartwatching porn and I make no greater claims. It would be interesting to map these figures onto an index of critical interest in chart music – but alas no such index exists…
*I’m making NO claims to total consistency or accuracy here: I got some things wrong I’m sure, so some years will be a little out. The broad shape of the graphs will be the same I think. But DO NOT take this data as gospel and reprint any of it without caveats, please.
**Of course, not all singles without female leads have male leads – in the early years of the chart a proportion of hits were instrumentals.
***I’d love to do the Top 5 – currently the decade-on-decade changes feel statistically robust (not tested them) but the year on year ones obviously aren’t.