Women remain significantly underrepresented in the music industry, with a 10-year study by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her team at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative finding that 97.2% of music producers are male and only 2.8% are female. Therefore, we must continue celebrating women who have made history in the field of music.
This article will focus on some of the most prominent females in the industry in the post-20th century era; however, we must not forget the impacts of women of the centuries lost in history. Although their influence is much lost to time, often uncredited and ignored, their impact on the music industry is invaluable.
Consequently, we must remember their accomplishments and recognize their importance in the history of music, so that their legacy lives on and can inspire future generations of female musicians.
One of the most iconic vocalists of the 20th century, Aretha Franklin has rightfully been dubbed the Queen of Soul. Through her over 100 singles placed on the US Billboard Charts, she has left her mark on many musicians forever. Additionally, Franklin is a top selection of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and has earned 44 Grammy Awards – a true testament to her accomplishment.
In the words of President Obama, “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
Beyoncé is the most-awarded artist at the Grammys, with 32 awards and immense cultural significance in 21st-century pop music.
Furthermore, she is one of the world’s best-selling recording artists alongside Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Taylor Swift, having sold over 200 million records worldwide. Additionally, Beyoncé’s impact on 21st-century pop music and the industry is immense and empowering for young black women and artists.
Often dubbed the “Punk Poet Laureate”, Patti Smith’s fusion of poetry and rock music made her a prominent figure in the NYC punk rock movement. Despite few mainstream awards, she was 47th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. Madonna, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Courtney Love have credited Smith as a major influence. Smith further makes her mark on literature, receiving the National Book Award for her 2010 memoir “Just Kids”. She also gained the PEN America Literary Service Award in 2020.
Whitney Houston is iconic in the music industry, holding the Guinness World Record for being the Highest Awarded Female Artist of all time. She has achieved over 400 awards, including Album of the Year at the 28th Grammy Awards and Favorite Soul/R&B Album and Artist at the 27th American Music Awards.
Music Critic Andy Gill wrote, “…Whitney, more than any other single artist – Michael Jackson included – effectively mapped out the course of modern R&B, setting the bar for standards of soul vocalese and creating the original template for what we now routinely address as the ‘soul diva’.” And we couldn’t agree more- her influence and prowess have landed her a well-deserved spot in music history.
We couldn’t leave out the incomparable Sister Rosetta Tharpe, widely known as the “Godmother of rock and roll”. She is truly iconic for numerous reasons, including her flamboyancy in swing and blues and her role in pushing spiritual music into the mainstream. As a result, we have Sister Rosetta Tharpe to thank for the rise of the pop gospel.
Tharpe’s collaboration “Strange Things Happening Every Day” with jazz and blues musician, Sammy Price, became the first gospel record to hit no.2 on Billboard’s “race records” chart. Tharpe never lived to receive numerous awards. However, her cultural significance is irreplaceable. The path she’s forged for crossovers between gospel and swing has made her a necessary figure in music history.
This list does not do justice to the countless incredible female musicians who have been the powerful voices of those who remain unheard. We must continue celebrating these women in music for now and forever!
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