Jul 09

Girl Talk

FT/41 comments • 2,603 views

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.


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  1. 31
    CarsmileSteve on 29 Jul 2009 #

    hmm, are we counting ON-J as UK or Australian? I always think of her as Australian…

  2. 32
    koganbot on 29 Jul 2009 #

    Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Stacey Q, Samantha Fox, early Janet Jackson?

    Yikes! How did I forget the first two, given that I wrote about them? The other three aren’t specifically teen-directed (unless Samantha played differently in the UK), more towards general dance and pop, though Stacey did once have a guest spot on a teen TV show.

  3. 33
    Elsa on 29 Jul 2009 #

    Well, above I counted ON-J as UK in the spirit of inclusion. If we count her as Australian, Aussie women are doing quite well against UK women since 1970 at least… I figure 11 UK #1s vs. 8 Aussie #1s. Granted, Aussie women in this case means ON-J and Helen Reddy exclusively. Samantha Sang had a top 5, Kylie’s had two top 5’s, and Natalie Imbruglia was robbed of a #1 when “Torn” was not allowed on the Billboard Hot 100 due to not being released in a commercially available format (per Billboard rules at the time).

  4. 34
    The Lurker on 29 Jul 2009 #

    #19,#30 – Green Day and the Killers are both pretty successful here (unless you’re categorising them as something other than “rock”).

    #20 – there’s been some debate about the “loudness war” in recording music, where excessive dynamic range compression is used to make music sound louder on the radio. I’m not well up enough on the science to know if female vocals would be more or less affected by this.

    #18 – it’s interesting that all your examples bar Hole are of female solo artists rather than female fronted bands. There seems to be wider acceptance* of female singer-songwriters with guitars (FSSWG for short)(I guess going back to the folk tradition of Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell/Janis Ian) (although this doesn’t extend to getting to number one – I’m struggling to see any FSSWG in the number ones list) than female fronted guitar bands.

    *to what extent the charts are determined by the acceptance of the audience vs the acceptance of the music industry vs even acceptance of the female artists themselves is another debate, of course.

  5. 35
    Tom on 30 Jul 2009 #

    I’m struggling to see any FSSWG in the number ones list

    How soon we forget

  6. 36
    Jonathan Bogart on 30 Jul 2009 #

    @29: “But then, the 80s to 90s drop-off is more stupefying when you look at #1 singles by all UK artists. It’s really something that needs to be explained.”

    I would have thought it was fairly simple, glancing through the lists; the drop-off is actually between the first half of the 80s, when MTV kept British acts in the forefront of American pop consciousness, and the back half of the 80s, when domestic pop took back the airwaves, plus the end of 60s/70s holdovers (Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, ex-Beatles, etc.) having much chart traction.

    Punk was the moment when American and UK pop diverged for good; inertia and MTV obscured that fact for a half-dozen years, and by the time the 90s hit, they were basically different worlds. (To be way, way, too reductive.)

  7. 37
    Elsa on 30 Jul 2009 #

    36: As to your first paragraph, no. The drop-off is between the ’80s and the ’90s.
    Check it out:
    US #1s by UK artists 1986-1989… 30
    US #1s by UK artists 1990-1993… 5

    Your second paragraph seems accurate, though. I also suspect Billboard’s switchover to the Soundscan system in 1991 may have had something to do with it. From that point on R&B and hip-hop have dominated, since from ’91 on those genres could no longer be ghetto-ized.

  8. 38
    Jonathan Bogart on 30 Jul 2009 #

    Counting certainly beats eyeballing it. I retract.

  9. 39
    xyzzzz__ on 31 Jul 2009 #

    “My pet theory: as music becomes more portable (car stereos, boomboxes, Walkmen, MP3 players), music is increasingly experienced with significant amounts of background noise (traffic, airplanes, subways). In such situations, the higher pitches of female vocals gain an advantage, as they can cut through the frequency soup more effectively than lower-pitched (male) vocals. (I think: I don’t remember my amateur studies in acoustics very well.)”

    I like this! Please take it seriously and extend it!

  10. 40
    Steve Mannion on 31 Jul 2009 #

    Hmmm maybe that does sort of explain why much pop seems to be more treble-y and devoid of real low-end or sub-surface detail.

  11. 41
    lex on 31 Jul 2009 #

    ^^very good point, b/c there definitely has been a trend towards overdriven treble of late.

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