The gender gap

The first Band Aid single featured just four women; this year's project represents a considerable improvement on that figure. But, asks Fiona Sturges, have things really changed for women in music in the intervening 20 years?

Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1984 and the group photo that accompanied Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Looking at the sea of shoulder-pads and studiously back-combed hair, the male-female ratio is initially difficult to make out, yet closer inspection reveals a startling fact. Out of 40 artists, a mere four women participated in this supposedly ground-breaking, politically-conscious pop event. Even more dispiriting is that three of them were in Bananarama who, good as they might have looked in Lycra, were hardly flying the flag for female solidarity. The other was Shalamar's Jodie Watley.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1984 and the group photo that accompanied Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Looking at the sea of shoulder-pads and studiously back-combed hair, the male-female ratio is initially difficult to make out, yet closer inspection reveals a startling fact. Out of 40 artists, a mere four women participated in this supposedly ground-breaking, politically-conscious pop event. Even more dispiriting is that three of them were in Bananarama who, good as they might have looked in Lycra, were hardly flying the flag for female solidarity. The other was Shalamar's Jodie Watley.

Considering the list of celebrities (you'd be hard pushed to call them artists) chosen to take part in Band Aid 20, the 21st-century remake of "Do They Know It's Christmas?", the ratio is more respectable but by no means equal. Alongside Chris Martin, Robbie Williams, Bono, Will Young, Justin Hawkins and the singer-turned-tea-boy Damon Albarn, we have a gaggle of contemporary pop divas including Natasha Bedingfield, Jamelia, Katie Melua, Beverley Knight, Dido, Ms Dynamite, Estelle, Sugababes and Joss Stone. There are, in total, 14 women to 26 men. But it's clear from listening to the record that the lead vocals are distinctly biased towards the male singers. While Sugababes, Dido and Jamelia all get solo spots, the rest seem to be relegated to backing. All of which suggests that, within the realms of pop music, the lot of women has improved - but only a bit.

Eighties pop was, of course, an emphatically male-dominated business. With a few exceptions the role of women was principally as eye candy. This was the early days of MTV and the pop video and, within this new promotional medium, the presence of leggy blondes was practically compulsory, completing the picture of rock'n'roll excess for a self-respecting male group. "Girls on Film" by Duran Duran featured hordes of nearly-naked women frolicking on the floor and having pillow fights while Robert Palmer's unforgettable "Addicted To Love" had a bevy of identikit, mini-skirted models pretending to play instruments. The video, which became a hallmark for 1980s silliness, was to plague the Armani-clad singer for the rest of his career and led to endless parodies by the likes of French and Saunders and, even, by that bastion of feminism, Britney Spears. The Human League, the synth-pop band behind "Don't You Want Me?" and "Human" apparently weren't complete without the presence of two comely backing singers in Egyptian eyeliner. Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley were both 17 and had to be ferried by their parents back to school after recording Top of the Pops.

It's worth noting that The Eurythmics' Annie Lennox - a woman who has been awarded more lifetime achievement awards than any other pop artist despite being 15 years away from her pension - had to dress up in a man's suit to get the attention she deserved. Indeed, despite the industry's ingrained sexism, gender-bending was positively de rigueur during the Eighties - perhaps the most feminine influence came from some heavily made-up and conspicuously stylish male stars, among them Culture Club's Boy George, Visage's Steve Strange and Marilyn.

But as the Eighties, the decade that taste forgot, wore on, the music industry gradually woke up to the marketability and malleability of young female singers. Resolving never to work with anyone over 25, the producing/songwriting team Stock, Aitken and Waterman signed up Sonia, Tiffany and Mel and Kim and, in 1986, even turned around Bananarama's flagging career with "Venus". Among their more catastrophic projects was the reinvention of the Page Three girl Samantha Fox as a pop princess - even they couldn't transform her scant talents into anything listenable - though in 1989 they redeemed themselves with Kylie Minogue. The perky Australian soap star proved an instant hit despite being memorably described by one critic as a "prancing, dancing antiseptic swab".

Yet the Eighties was also a time when a stronger, more uncompromising woman began to assert herself, particularly in America. Last week Madonna, who has arguably had a greater impact on the course of feminist culture than any social theorist, was voted by the UK Hall of Fame as the most significant artist of the era, despite the fact that she only made it big in the latter half of the decade. Cyndi Lauper was, for a while at least, unstoppable, using her rag-tag chic and hit song "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" as a call to arms for feminine self-expression and selling five million copies of her debut LP She's So Unusual.

In terms of gender, the billing of the 1985 Live Aid concert may have been as unbalanced as Band Aid but, with the exception of Queen, the stand-out performances on both sides of the Atlantic all came from women - remember Sade's breathless "Your Love is King", Madonna's hyperactive "Holiday" and Tina Turner's rip-roaring duet with Mick Jagger on "It's Only Rock'n'Roll"?

By the Nineties, things were beginning to change. In America, Riot Grrl, the sub-grunge movement that spawned a series of fiercely independent, all-girl rock bands including Babes in Toyland, Bikini Kill and L7, flirted with the mainstream while Lilith Fair, a rolling tour that featured some of the biggest female musicians of the Nineties including Sarah McLachlan, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow and Tracy Chapman, was the highest grossing tour of the decade. Meanwhile Mary J Blige and Missy Elliott defied expectations and conquered the hidebound, ho-hating, male-dominated world of rap. In the UK the Spice Girls invented "girl power" and gave rise to a multitude of all-girl outfits, including All Saints, Misteeq and Sugababes. This shift in emphasis from male to female empowerment had significant repercussions. Oasis and the post-Take-That Robbie Williams were among male artists sticking two fingers up at political correctness and embracing the emergent football-loving, beer-swilling lad culture.

Under the surface, however, it was clear that not much had changed. Male artists still earned the most money, the suits still ran the record business and girl power, it transpired, was invented by the pop impresario Simon Fuller. While you could admire the exuberance of the Spice Girls, in their case feminism was more about manufacturing an image and relieving teenage girls of their pocket money than righteous indignation.

Nowadays, of course, the charts are awash with successful women making great pop music and asserting their own identities. Were it not for her musical forebears - from Madonna to Missy Elliott - the US R&B singer Kelis might never have had the nerve to release the butt-kicking "Caught Out There", a song that started with a sultry voice telling the story of her unfaithful boyfriend, before screeching "I hate you so much right now! Ugh!" It was the voice of blind fury, one that would happily castrate a man while he was sleeping for all the injustices visited on womankind.

Another positive shift in the past 10 years can be seen in how women are being taken seriously as consumers. However much one might despise the woe-is-me, sub-Bridget-Jones whinging of Dido, she has proved that adult women - rather than just impressionable teens - amount to a formidable market, and are to be ignored at the music industry's peril.

It's clear, too, that female artists are more likely to make the major decisions with regard to their career. Ms Dynamite, Amy Winehouse and Jamelia have been able to triumph by virtue of sheer talent and are unlikely to allow themselves to be moulded by their paymasters. Whatever you think of their music, even once-disposable artists such as Kylie and Rachel Stevens have contrived to shake off the controlling influence of managers, producers and publicists and choose their own musical direction. And while rock and indie bands are still dominated by men, women continue to thrive on the alternative circuit. Twelve years ago PJ Harvey was viewed with a mixture of fear and suspicion by the musical establishment, yet three years ago she won the Mercury music prize. Similarly, in the mid-Nineties both Martina Topley-Bird and Alison Goldfrapp were content to lurk in the shadows as Tricky's vocal foils; now they are celebrated recording artists in their own right.

But that's not to suggest that all is finally equal in the music industry. Female acts still only make up 25 per cent of the charts, and have a considerably shorter shelf life than their male counterparts. And, as a rule, where there's a pop princess you can still guarantee that there's a sinister male Svengali lurking in the background. In Fifties and Sixties America it was either Motown's Berry Gordy (The Supremes) or the producer Phil Spector (The Ronettes, The Crystals). In the UK Cilla Black, the second-biggest selling star to emerge from Liverpool, was the protégée of the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Stock, Aitken and Waterman and Simon Fuller pretty much had the monopoly over British pop, overseeing a never-ending production line of girl, boy and girl-boy bands though today it's more likely to be Simon Cowell or "Nasty" Nigel Lythgoe, he of Popstars fame. When it came to Tatu, the Russian teens who had a hit last year with "All The Things She Said", you didn't need to be a genius to work out that the lesbian schoolgirl angle was dreamt up by a man. Even the jazz singer Katie Melua, who was still in the womb when the first Band Aid record came out, turned out to be the brainchild of the producer and former Womble Mike Batt.

When women do finally make it, next comes the problem of staying there. Looking at the various incarnations of, say, Britney Spears - from God-fearing prom queen to platinum-selling sex-bomb to train wreck - you can't help but wonder if it's worth the effort. Christina Aguilera, another ex-Mouseketeer who similarly cast aside her wholesome image in favour of skimpy knickers and chaps, is another singer who has made pop stardom seem such bloody hard work.

For women, today's industry is, if anything, more ruthless than it was 20 years ago. You only need to look at one of the myriad TV talent shows that competition is high and it's as much about looks as talent. You just know that, even with her extraordinarily Joplin-meets-Franklin vocals, 17 year-old Joss Stone - who, in an inspired goof, called Bob Geldof "Gandalf" at the Band Aid recording session last week - wouldn't have got a second look were it not for her translucent West Country complexion and flaxen tresses. Even in the gritty world of punk rock, female artists are likely to be primped and styled within an inch of their lives to ensure the attention of hormonal teenage boys. The enduring popularity of artists like Pink and Avril Lavigne has heralded a new breed of singer - the serious singer-songwriter, troubled teenager and hot babe rolled into one. Which means that it is possible for women to get ahead in pop, just as long as they fulfil a specifically male fantasy. And even then there's a 75-per-cent chance you'll fail. The success of Michelle McManus last year on Pop Idol may have been a small step for women of a larger build (though where is she now?), but the fact remains that if you want to make it in the music business you're better off being sexy, thin and - if you know what's good for you - a man.

Band Aid 20's 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' is out on 29 November

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