The conversation around adequate female representation in music festivals stands more pertinent now than ever. But how important have female artists been to the industry?
The Woodstock Festival of ‘69 is considered a pioneer in establishing the American counterculture movement. Featuring artists such as Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Grateful Dead and The Incredible String Band, it was, and still remains, one of the most iconic music festivals of our time. In fact, its theme song Woodstock by Joni Mitchell has become eponymous with the festival’s growing legacy. What’s interesting is that the legendary songstress was in fact not even present to perform at the Woodstock edition. And she was forced to pen down the song based on the experience of her boyfriend, rock and roll star Graham Nash.
Quietly, with much effort, women have been a changing face to music festival phenomena as we know it. Despite mainstream media bothering to award them little credit for their contribution. In fact, even musical history has been unkind in their reference to some of the most revolutionising faces of rock music such as Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith, even as present singers such as Britney Spears and Madonna are celebrated for their sugary pop category.
When the year’s major festival released their lineups, music blog Crack in the Road noticed a very disturbing trend. That, in fact, the performers in all the lineups were predominantly male.
This year’s Coachella lineup for instance, which featured acts such as Drake, Jack White and AC/DC, had no female headliners. And only four sub-headliners of the festival were female-fronted bands such as Alabama Shakes, Nero, St. Vincent and Florence + The Machine. The statistic shows that not women musicians did not make it to even one-fourth of the festival’s lineup.
While slightly better than Coachella, a skewed gender statistic can be noticed in the lineups of other major festivals such as Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza and Reading and Leeds. When Foo Fighters had to withdraw from Glastonbury citing Dave Grohl’s injured leg, the festival upped Florence Welch leading band, Florence + The Machine to headlining position, making them only the second act featuring a woman to headline a major UK festival.
When The Guardian’s Alexandra Pollard asked Melvin Benn of Festival Republic, the parent company of Reading and Leeds about this growing disenfranchisement of female artists, this is what he had to say –
“This idea that female bands are sidelined as a suggestion is just not there. The truth is that there has been a historic lack of opportunity for young women to get into bands, and to be in bands, and I think that’s disappeared now.”
The Reading and Leeds 2015 lineup, though, suggests otherwise
Iconic women performances at music festivals
When festivals choose to constantly ignore female performers for top-billed acts, are they suggesting that women musicians don’t have it in them to deliver a set worthy of the attention?
While Lady Gaga has often been credited for her pop albums, who can forget her turn into a punk goddess at Lollapalooza 2010? The skilled singer gave Lollapalooza one of its most iconic moments, by letting her inner rebel loose at the Semi Precious Weapons set, bringing to core punk machinery unlike anything witnessed.
Lady Gaga did not just make it to the stage in barely there clothing, but the set saw her satisfy her every inner punk cravings. At one point, she was everywhere, belting out some serious vocals on the mic, making out with the lead vocalist Justin Tranter, and even banging out her rage on some cymbals. The most epic moment, of course, happened when she decided to take a leap of faith on the crowd and surfed like an absolute pro. She kept at it, returning to the stage, and at one point, taking Justin Tranter for company. And the crowd cheered along happily!
It wasn’t a case of catering to the male gaze as some naysayers will have you believe, but rather an expression of absolute abandon.
Who can also forget this year’s Lollapalooza when music’s biggest icon Paul McCartney invited none other than Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes for a collaborative performance of Get Back?
In fact, musicians like Florence Welsh of Florence + The Machine, HAIM, St. Vincent, and FKA Twigs, have given some iconic performances this year. Yet, the year’s best remembered incident happens to be the moment when Madonna sauntered on to the stage to kiss Drake at Coachella.
Female artists deliver manifold
What often goes discredited is also the amount of effort some of our female performers put into their performances. For instance, Björk who was one of the headlining acts at Governor’s Ball put out a kitschy spectacle of visual and aural brilliance. The songstress, an intended and often accidental inspiration to millions of female performers went all out in her act, a show that went rather unappreciated. On the contrary, the 2015 performances of Drake and Kanye West, which saw the rappers simply perform to music and not much else remained the most talked about shows of the year. Notice the hypocrisy?
What’s alarming is the fact that music festivals continue to disregard female performers, despite their undeniable talent. This disenfranchisement has pushed performers like HAIM to pursue an all-women music festival, as said by HAIM bassist Este Haim
“We talk about this all the time, how there aren’t enough female represented bands and artists at festivals. You don’t see them. And it’s really sad for us. We came up with the idea basically of why can’t we just bring back a festival that’s just ladies – not that we don’t love the boys. Love the men.”
20 years ago, Sarah McLachlan, frustrated with festival promoters and radio programs began an all-female traveling festival that came to be the iconic Lilith Fair. Which, while an exemplary move, needn’t have to happen in today’s time if festival organisers could push for greater gender inclusivity.
But on the same panel, all-female festivals must set an example with their inclusive nature and not resort to prejudices themselves, unlike the Seven Sisters Festival in Australia which turned away a transgender woman. When asking for greater representation, is it only women we fight for, or everyone marginalised by skewed market favouring? Definitely worth thinking about.