Hear that? From Adele to Mantel, 2013 has been played out to the sound of women rising

We have come a long way since days when nobody would buy a girl band's records


Here’s a curiosity. The Sunday Times’s deathlessly vulgar “Rich List” has declared the richest musicians in the country – Paul McCartney, Andrew Lloyd Webber and U2, to no one’s surprise. But, more interestingly, to indicate the direction that things are going in, it compiles a list of the richest performers under 30. A very clear tendency is apparent here. The male members of JLS and One Direction appear around the bottom of the top 10, with estimated fortunes of £5m and £6m. Higher positions, however, are entirely occupied by women. From the top, it runs Adele, Cheryl Cole, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Florence Welch, Charlotte Church, Jessie J, Lily Allen, Nadine Coyle and Duffy. Who is Duffy? Never mind. They have, the journalists estimate, from £6m (Duffy) to £30m (Adele). Good luck to them. But what has happened to male musicians?

It is hard to imagine that no young male performer can get to be as popular as Florence Welch, but that does seem to be the case. We have come a long way since the pre-Spice Girls days, when nobody, it was said, would buy a girl band’s records. Two of this list owe their success to Girls Aloud, and a third, Nicola Roberts, is up there with the JLS boys. In the full list, a Spice Girl is in the top five. There have always been spaces in popular culture for divas like Leona Lewis, but they have always before competed with male singers. Not any more, it seems. The only way for a man to break through is as a member of a band. The audiences of those ubiquitous TV talent shows will vote for a boy to win – think Steve Brookstein, Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry – but will only buy the records of girls. What we say we like, and what we actually like, are two different things.

“Shall we have womanly times?” Ian McEwan wrote in a libretto for Michael Berkeley in the 1980s. “Or shall we die?” McEwan was writing about nuclear annihilation, and had the Greenham women in mind rather than the womanly times which, in 1983, supplied a female monarch and a female prime minister. But perhaps there are more telling, less consciously aware signs that we start to move into womanly times, and one of them might be the money that women can make out of the esteem and enjoyment of the public. You reach for your iPad, thinking “Oh yes, I enjoyed that”, and download something. You are not likely to think “I want to download and listen to a woman’s voice”, but a woman’s voice seems, without your having to consider the matter, altogether more the thing.

People exclusively or predominantly want to hear the voices of young women when they plug in their iPads

The same appears to be true in other areas. Of the generation of Young British Artists from the 1990s, who is the one with genuine staying power? Rachel Whiteread, whose new show at Gagosian opens this week. In the list of bestselling books of 2012, it is true that a minority – 43 out of 100 – are by women. But the proportion changes in the upper echelons, with 14 out of the top 20. Here, prizes and esteem reflect the change in culture. The Women’s Prize was set up as the Orange Prize, to give women novelists a chance. This year, the Costa prizes were won in every category by a woman writer, and Hilary Mantel swept the board elsewhere. This week, the magazine Granta will announce its fourth list of young British novelists since 1983. Previous lists have been made up of 30 per cent or 40 per cent women writers. Times have changed. Will this list be made up of an actual majority of women?

There is no doubt that women still suffer in other areas, such as employment and promotion. It is easier for a woman to get on in human rights and family law than in corporate law, in publishing than in film-making, in singing rather than producing or composing. But these seem to be lagging behind what people actually want, rather than what they appear to think is good for society. If people exclusively or predominantly want to hear the voices of young women when they plug in their iPads, why would they not want to hear the voices of women from the judge’s bench? In the week when Mrs Thatcher died, might we not reflect that the ongoing paucity of women’s voices in politics might not reflect what an electorate might actually want – a woman’s voice speaking with authority and knowledge?

For men, this might be hard to take. They have lost their privilege, their elevated access to an audience, whether in the courtroom, the boardroom, on stage or in the Houses of Parliament. It feels like being disadvantaged, although in reality, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the men are not even being asked to compete on the same grounds as women. Their advantages are merely being mildly examined.

It will take a long time for women to enter the Houses of Parliament, for instance, on equal footing with men, because men realise that so much is at stake. But when no approval is needed – when it is simply a matter of taste, of enjoyment, of what you reach for in a bookshop or on the iTunes menu – then what we feel like is absolutely clear. There is a reason why Adele is so successful, and Steve Brookstein is not, and it goes beyond the mere question of musical taste. On the whole, in 2013, we want to hear from women.

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