06 April 2008

The British Are Coming: The Rise of The Female UK Invasion

The British Invasion of the 1960s was an important musical movement, giving America such great and timeless bands as The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. That revolution was amazing for the American music scene, but only one female act successfully emerged from that time period--Dusty Springfield. Now, we are on the cusp of another UK explosion, which is less documented, but arguably even more important than the first. Last week, Leona Lewis was the first British woman to have a Number One single on the US Billboard Charts in over twenty years, making history and officially ushering in a new era of British hit makers in the United States. The achievement is laudable not only because they are successfully breaking into an extremely difficult (and fickle) American market, but also because many of these success stories are women of color. It may just seem like music is a short-term form of entertainment or something just to pass the time, but our culture is so saturated with the medium that, subconsciously, change must emerge, and with this diverse group of women currently making a name for themselves, the gender and racial barriers are slowly starting to disappear.

Senegalese rapper Myriam summed it up perfectly when she said, "You are a woman before you are an artist." Women have had to struggle in this industry to obtain a voice since the very beginning. With men controlling a vast majority of the business, it was difficult for women to get a word in edge-wise about their sound, look, or depiction in the media. "Images of women in music are still very chauvinistic." says Joyce Cobb, a music professor. "There is this emphasis on sexism and women have bought that idea. Women tend to feed into the fantasies of men, becoming nothing but sexual objects." For example, an artist like Christina Aguilera, who has an undeniable voice, is forced to skim down to her bare necessities to sell albums. She is not a unique example either-Britney Spears, Fergie, Mariah Carey and countless others have all used sex in some way to sell their music. In the past, it was always about sex and image first with female musicians and talent trailing at distant second, but over the years that archaic system has slowly begun to change, and women are now starting to be seen as strong, intelligent, and meaningful forces within the industry.

Amy Winehouse (pictured right) began leading the pack last year with the breakthrough album, Back To Black. Her voice was reminiscent of the 1950s girl groups, mixed with contemporary beats and rhythms that produced a fresh take on an old, successful standard. Undoubtedly the raven-haired singer's music brought fame and success, but her attitude and unique style made her a star. Winehouse's lyrics were very blunt, straight-forward, and sparked with a candor not often seen in women's music. To make it in the music industry she could not simply be soft and feminine, but strong and audacious like the boys. One music executive describes this take charge trend, stating, "In the '90s, we got into this whole 'lad' thing where men were going to be men again," he says, "but the girls got into that as well, and you sort of had the 'ladette.' The younger girls coming through have sort of emerged out of that kind of fearless, mouthy, post-Oasis, post-lad culture." Winehouse knew she had to physically take charge of her career, or someone else was going to do it for her.

The only thing working against Winehouse, though, is her very public battle with drug abuse. While I am not defending her actions, I do feel as though she has received harsher criticism on the matter than most men would. Equally-outspoken British chanteuse Lily Allen vented her frustrations, stating that "I don't think the press like young women doing well, or having fun. I mean, James Blunt goes out and gets on it and no one cares. We do that and it's all over the papers. It's sad. Those people who write for those gossip magazines, they're not even writers. They can't even punctuate." It is completely unfair, but one cannot forget that a double standard, in this industry and in society, still exists for women. If Winehouse wants to continue her success then she must realize that she is, right now, a very empowering singer. She is the leader of a new generation of British women, and to continue breaking down the cultural barriers between the US and the UK she must lead by example, keeping the focus on what is important- the music.

Winehouse received a lot of criticism for garnering success by performing typically black music, but regardless of the fact, it was talent mixed with her unique sense of style that made her famous, which is something all women (and honestly men as well) need in this fledgling industry right now. America is arguably the toughest critic in the world, holding up a strictly high standard for new acts, and if nothing special or different is being brought to the table then an artist will not even make it through the front door. In addition to Amy Winehouse, a new crop of singers from the UK are women of color. Leona Lewis, Estelle, Corinne Bailey Ray, and others have all achieved individual success in the American market with their music that transcends racial and musical boundaries. The fact that Leona Lewis (pictured left), a Londoner with humble beginnings who gained success on a British reality show, could have the most played record in the United States is astounding. Although extremely beautiful, this is one of only a few times where a singer's looks have taken a backseat to her talent, which is a testament to her and the close management of her image. While Winehouse opened the door for other Brits, and made a lot of positive strides, others also equally learn from her mistakes.

The fact of the matter is, the talent speaks for itself, and maybe the United States is finally beginning to open up and expand its cultural, color, and gender boundaries, recognizing that a good song is universal. American musical legends like Elvis and Johnny Cash achieved success by interpreting the music of other cultures, but very rarely has any sort of world music (i.e. music from other countries outside of the United States) been incorporated successfully into American music or penetrated the US market. The success of these singers lies in their ability to knock down these social limitations and unify them at the same time. Some may call the Female British Invasion a fad, but no one can deny that it is a step toward progress and tolerance, and I for one, take pride in this constantly changing and racially melding landscape.


PAR said...

I found this post to be very interesting and engaging. This topic you have chosen to post on is very interesting and you made it very relevant to the reader since changes in music affect everyone's lives. I completely agree with your views on the fact that talent should speak for an artist rather than their looks and that women, from wherever and of whatever culture, should be taken seriously in the music industry. I would be very curious to see a comparison of how men and women are doing in the record selling ratios. Additionally, I found the title of this post to be very clever and allowed me to immediately take interest in the post. The graphics were also very beautiful and added to the your already aesthetically pleasing page. I wonder, though, if showing a very glamorous picture of Leona Lewis may possibly discredit the claim you made about how her talent has come first before her beauty. Perhaps a different picture may strengthen that argument. However, I can see where this double standard of women being sexy and not wanting to be discriminated for their beauty comes in to play. Moreover, I think adding a few more links within your post would make it slightly more engaging. Overall, I really enjoyed your post and believe it to be very strong and well organized. I have had challenges with these posts and I admire your writing a lot. I now have one more example to look at for the future.

Sen said...

Reading what the rapper Myriam (sp?) said abdout being a woman first, I thought of one comment from the esteemed Jim Jones:

"They got a uphill struggle with roller skates on."


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.