Jul 09

Girl Talk

FT/41 comments • 2,519 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.


1 2 All
  1. 1
    AJ_ay_it on 28 Jul 2009 #

    I would imagine you got plot similar graphs showing the prominence of women in any of the cultural industries. Obviously there’s not such an easily available metric as ‘Number 1s’ in advertising, painting, sculpture, television etc – but I don’t think the trend would be far different if you could find an equivalent metric of success.

    There are two things I think are interesting here – first how acceptance of the female artist is an extremely recent phenomena. Second, that popular music (and probably the other artforms I’ve mentioned above as well) are still, in the 21s century, dominated by the male voice.

  2. 2
    Tom on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Well, I think it’s dicey to talk about “acceptance of the female artist” based on the graph: a lot of people who’d be happy to ascribe some artistic agency to Elvis would bristle at doing so for Britney.

  3. 3
    fernando on 28 Jul 2009 #

    1991 deserves an explanation!

  4. 4
    AJ_ay_it on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Agreed – I’m not saying the battle is won – see my second point on the continued dominance of the male voice.

    But a clear trend towards increasing popularity of female-led singles is indicative of something – and given all the industry machinations required to create number ones, if nothing else, there’s an increasing realisation that women can sell. So commercially at least there is increasing acceptance.

    Critically, the dominance of men is even more apparent. I once wrote an essay along the Elvis/Britney lines which took two Neptunes produced tracks – one by Snoop and one by Ms Spears – and looked at where the critical focus was on each, the different relationships between producer and artist in each and so on. Quite a stark difference. Amazing what they’ll give you a degree for these days.

  5. 5
    Mark on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Re: 1991

    At least part of the reason is that 16 weeks were swallowed up by Bryan Adams, leaving less time for female vocals to get in there. (There also seem to be quite a few comedy singles and re-issues getting to the top as well.)

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 28 Jul 2009 #

    ‘there’s an increasing realisation that women can sell’

    yeah but their roles seem more limited than ever. there seem to be no all female bands in the charts (as in musicians, not just vocalists) and very few bands comprised of both genders doing well. i’m not sure the charts have ever felt as divided gender-wise in my lifetime despite the increase in female vocals generally. there’s a general empthasis on individuality/solo artists over groups tho which may skew things.

  7. 7
    Matt DC on 28 Jul 2009 #

    1991 was almost entirely dominated by novelty records and nostalgia – plus the behemoth that is Bryan Adams. Death of Freddie Mercury probably didn’t help either. Cher was the only woman with a #1 hit.

  8. 8
    Tom on 28 Jul 2009 #

    1991 was just a very odd year I think.

  9. 9
    Jonathan Bogart on 28 Jul 2009 #

    There are several things besides “greater acceptance of women” that this data could mean: that the pop charts have become unrepresentative of what people actually listen to; that the pop charts have finally become representative of what people actually listen to; that number ones are a capricious and not necessarily useful metric. I too would be interested in a Top Five comparison — and a Top 40 comparison as well!

    I’d also be interested in a more general comparison with (I have no idea how you could possibly tabulate this) the entirety of records released that were aimed at the pop market. Maybe it’s just my bias towards female vocals, but I get the impression that there were always just as many female singers recording material as male singers — it’s just that they weren’t always as popular. (As an aside, American charts might be an interesting comparison here, as there’s more pre-rock data to draw from — it’s pretty clear that rock has always been heavily male-oriented.)

  10. 10
    The Lurker on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Technically “Do the Bartman” was a female fronted hit in 1991 as well, albeit one where the woman is pretending to be a ten-year-old boy.

  11. 11
    Steve Mannion on 28 Jul 2009 #

    re 1991 don’t forget the woman who sings on ‘3AM Eternal’ – joint lead vocals at least!

  12. 12
    Alex on 28 Jul 2009 #

    There’s a huge inflection point in 1975-1976. Clearly, this is the enduring legacy of punk. Further, there seems to be some kind of roughly 5-year cycle; going by that chart, I’d sell female vocalists now and buy back at the end of 2010.

  13. 13
    koganbot on 28 Jul 2009 #

    What I just posted over on the Blue Lines Revisited comment thread:

    By the way, some of this comes real close to matching Frank Kogan’s taste in music, with my late ’80s veering wildly towards the women (thanks to postdisco and freestyle, and the decline in the quality of postpunk) and the mid to late ’00s going even more wildly female (thanks to r&b and teenpop stealing my heart from hip-hop) – but my number is way higher than 50%. In fact, it’s disturbing me how few good songs are fronted by males (obviously that’s comparative, since e.g. The-Dream will likely make my album’s list this year)(but I’m not even sure how good a front man he is, just a maker of good music). Just as disturbing is the lack of great music that’s fronted by people of any sex over forty. I hope that’s not true in the cultures and genres I don’t know much about.

  14. 14
    Tom on 28 Jul 2009 #

    #12 inflection point caused by ABBA mostly!

  15. 15
    AJ_ay_it on 28 Jul 2009 #

    @Jonathan – yeah, there’s not a straightforwards linear relationship between popularity/artistic acceptance and there’s only so much you can infer from a chart like this. But I think it’s safe to assume that buying a record implies acceptance/endorsement of the artist on some level or another (even is that is a level as simple as enjoyment).

    And if you’re right and the same number of female and males singers have always been around (which I reckon probably isn’t the case actually – but as you say, would be very hard to check!), just the men have been more successful commercially (at least on the basis of number 1 records) – then why is that and why is that picture apparently changing in such a consistent way over time?

    Somewhere in the process there must be a shift in perceptions of female artists to bring this about – on the industry side in the signing, distributing and marketing of the female voice, or on the consumer side with the seeking out and purchasing of it, or most likely a combination of the two.

    And I think the comparison with other cultural industries is pretty valid. How many current eminent artists are female? Compare that even with the eminent artists of the sixties, I reckon a similar chart could be made.

  16. 16
    The Lurker on 28 Jul 2009 #

    #6 – “there seem to be no all female bands in the charts”

    When have there been? After a quick glance through the list of number ones the only female-fronted guitar-based rock bands I can see are the Pretenders and Blondie (you could make a case for the Bangles but “Eternal Flame” wasn’t one of their rockier hits). Obviously there are many many male-fronted guitar-based rock bands in all decades.

    From which I conclude that the movement in the proportion of female-fronted singles at number one is less to do with acceptance of the female voice and more to do with shifts in the acceptance of genres. When rock is in, women are out; when disco/pop/soul/dance are in, women are in.

  17. 17
    koganbot on 28 Jul 2009 #

    A trend that I don’t think has directly turned up in the UK number ones, but may be playing a subterranean role anyway: two decades ago and earlier, teenybopper girls were buying music with boys singing lead, now they’re buying music with girls singing lead. At least that’s obvious in the U.S. Of course, “teenybopper girls” hardly represents all girls, and what I just said isn’t quite as emphatic as it seems: though I don’t think there were any specifically teenybopper-oriented female performers more than two decades ago (I may be wrong about that; was early Kylie Minogue aimed primarily at the teenies? she only had a couple hits here in the U.S. and never became an established act), but even if the obviously teen-directed acts (David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, Bay City Rollers, Jackson 5, New Edition, New Kids On The Block) were all male, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t female acts with strong teenybopper appeal – Paula Abdul, for instance. But the ’90s brought TLC and the Spice Girls with obvious mega girl appeal, and a whole slew of teen r&b singers. I don’t know sales data, and none of these singers were exclusively aimed at the teenyboppers (the Disney enclave starts with Hilary in 2004 but doesn’t really take hold until 2006), but I think they were getting a lot of teen and pre-teen girl dollars anyway, at least among blacks; and the breakthroughs of TLC and, later, Destiny’s Child, got the white girl dollars too. You had Backstreet Boys and *NSync getting big bucks at the turn of the millennium, and now Chris Brown up until The Incident, and the Jonas Brothers, and some lesser-known guys holding on, Jesse McCartney never giving up, but they’re dwarfed by the number of female acts. New Disney movie Bandslam has three stars: two young women playing singers/musicians (Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka), and a young man playing their manager (Gaelan Connell). And of course it’s a girl – Taylor Swift – who’s keeping country relevant to youth. Again, this doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of girls buying male artists in emo and rock, just as there were a lot of girls buying Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses back in the day. Still, you’ve got a whole market that seems to have switched what gender it’s buying. And though this may not show directly on the UK number one slot, I don’t think it hurts Rihanna’s sales, for instance.

  18. 18
    koganbot on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Lurker, more or less that’s right, that the popularity of rock will bring male-fronted performers, but there are a lot of female acts with rock sounds, even if they don’t get to number one – in the ’90s there’s Hole and Alanis and Sheryl, and this has a direct impact on the teen ’00s with Michelle and Avril and Ashlee and Lindsay and Kelly, who work sometimes with producers who’d worked with Alanis and Sheryl. So while this doesn’t directly show up in the number ones, it means that some listeners who were going for rock sounds from rock guys are now getting rock sounds from pop gals, which may cut the sales numbers for the rock guys.

  19. 19
    koganbot on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Are any North American rock bands doing much on the UK singles chart other than Kings Of Leon? Maybe there’s someone obvious I’m not noticing. Daughtry and Nickelback are the big ones here. Country is sounding more and more like the previous decades’ mainstream rock, which won’t have a direct effect on the UK charts but could mean that some U.S. rock energy is veering country and there are simply fewer than before of the sort of mainstream U.S. rock bands that the UK buyers would buy in large quantities – country not scoring big UK singles – hence less chance for a rock song to go number one.

  20. 20
    Michael Daddino on 28 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.)

    The thing is, if that’s true, we would likely be seeing more males in pop singing in higher pitches. I suspect for many pop genres (like post-grunge) the opposite is true.

  21. 21
    koganbot on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Who’s the lead singer of “Boom Boom Pow”?

  22. 22
    koganbot on 28 Jul 2009 #

    (I’m hoping it counts as a shared male-female lead, since without Fergie I don’t think the thing would have worked.)

  23. 23
    Tom on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Yup, I think I somewhat generously counted Where Is The Love as M/F too though she’s hardly on it.

  24. 24
    Alan on 28 Jul 2009 #

    “we would likely be seeing more males in pop singing in higher pitches”

    i can’t take your main point too seriously, but there does seem to be a trend at the mo for a specific variety of falsetto male voice on a number of tracks in the indie ‘electrodribble’ genre. passion pit, mgmt, metronomy, midnight juggernaughts, presets and empire of the sun.

    does the general trend (not the smaller cycles) spring from the same cultural well that leads to the prominence of women on eg the covers of both men’s magazines and women’s magazines. it’s an easier sell. men don’t appeal to (most) men. so it’s a more visual than acoustic thing?

  25. 25
    Michael Daddino on 28 Jul 2009 #

    i can’t take your main point too seriously

    Oh don’t worry, I’m not taking it terribly serious either. It’s just an idea I toy with now and then.

  26. 26
    Jonathan Bogart on 29 Jul 2009 #

    @17: “though I don’t think there were any specifically teenybopper-oriented female performers more than two decades ago”

    Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Stacey Q, Samantha Fox, early Janet Jackson? You’re right that this isn’t the deluge of the last decade-plus — the industry has become a lot better at targeting what its audience wants, as opposed to what 40-year-old A&R guys want — but it’s not nothing.

  27. 27
    swanstep on 29 Jul 2009 #

    Wow, will need to think about this data! First thought: I feel a little incriminated (I have a y chromosome) by the fact that the period of music I actually love the most and deeply feel is *really* the best (1970-1973: Bowie, Led Zep, Who, Stones, Reed, Eno, Floyd all in their pomp) looks like a male apex of some kind. Did the overt, floating sexuality of the period which energizes the music really just boil down to a takeover of female space in the charts by the glam boys?

  28. 28
    Erithian on 29 Jul 2009 #

    And the one solo female lead vocal of 1973 was by a rock-chick who was pretty much one of the glam boys herself!

  29. 29
    Elsa on 29 Jul 2009 #

    US #1 Hits with UK female lead vocals

    60s 3
    70s 5 (including 3 by Olivia Newton-John)
    80s 9 (including 2 by Olivia Newton-John)
    90s 1
    00s 1

    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.

  30. 30
    CarsmileSteve on 29 Jul 2009 #

    koganbot @ 19. rock star was in the charts FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER(partly due to it being in an ad for, i kid you not, SOFAS), but i don’t think we’ve been blighted by daughtry, yet…

    KoL definitely the biggest US rock band at the mo, though, yes.

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page