Glastonbury is normally an example of progressive Britain. A festival that has never been afraid to bare its political teeth. While showcasing big musical names such as Elton John, it’s also played host to political speakers such as ex-Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This year’s Glastonbury however, revealed a darker side of the music industry that’s often ignored. With no female headliners, the five-decade-old music fest is clearly not as forward-thinking as it would like to appear. Glastonbury 2023 has also revealed that female musicians continue to be more susceptible to the voyeuristic eye of public criticism, creating a larger dialogue about the state of gender equality in the twenty-first century.

A Sexist and Exploitative Industry

It’s well-known that the music industry is exploitative when it comes to female singers. Still, it would be reductive to say that this exploitation only affects women. Prominent male artists have been vocal in the past about being overworked and misinterpreted. In 1983, the singer Prince stopped taking media interviews altogether as he felt disengaged by the media’s fascination with his sex life. In 1997 he commented that: People hear the sex in my songs much more than I ever write it.’ The growth of mass media has undoubtedly fostered a sense of entitlement when it comes to us and our relationship with celebrities. This year, when Lewis Capaldi was not able to finish his set at Glastonbury due to Tourette’s, the moment was instantly shared on social media gaining 912K views on YouTube alone. As consumers, we feel entitled to the lives of our favourite artists and ultimately partake in the endless cycle of exploitation. 

But despite these prominent examples of males getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop, it is still women who are disproportionately mocked and picked apart. Even if a woman can manage to escape the ever-present incel gaze of the internet, she may be less likely to reap the financial benefits of her work. This problem has been highlighted by pop superstar Rina Sawayma at this year’s Glastonbury. Rina Sawayama is impressive: she studied at Cambridge and has since gone on to have a successful pop career, winning the 2022 NME award for ‘Best Live Act.’  Her Glastonbury speech, however, revealed that she does not have full autonomy over her music. Her words were largely directed at the 1975’s lead singer and labelmate Matty Healy following his racially and sexually charged comments on an American podcast in February. Despite apologising and claiming that his words were ‘misconstrued,’ Sawayma summed up the mood of quite a few fellow female vocalists when she said she has ‘had enough.’

A Dangerous Method of Appropriation

Numbers speak louder than words. An annual report highlights that only 5 per cent of music producers are women. We can’t pretend that these pop star squabbles exist in a vacuum, as Sawayama is not alone. In 2020, Taylor Swift entered the public eye as the master rights to her first six albums were sold for a reported $300 million by entrepreneur and music executive Scooter Braun. When it comes to women, the music industry offers clear insights into a world where the fruits of one’s labour become subordinated to men’s desire for profit. The pattern of men piggybacking off women’s labour has a long history. Whether it’s Rosalind Franklin having her discovery of the double helix stolen in 1953, or African American woman Katherine Johnson failing to be credited for her calculations that helped launch America into space in the 1960s, women have always had to fight tooth and nail to be recognised. Against this historical backdrop of theft and exploitation, Sawayama’s speech marks a spark of bravery in a male-dominated industry. It shows that women, and especially women of colour, will no longer stand aside and tolerate being suppressed into silence.

Demystifying the Myth

The idea of the ‘female performer,’ if by that we mean a woman who is in charge of her image and musical output, is largely a myth. Across the music industry, women continue to perform to suit male ideals — a standard that can never be fully satisfied. Should a woman speaks out, she risks becoming the subject of rife criticism. Take Swift whose public image has forever been tainted after speaking up against Kayne West. The rules of the game differ if one happens to be female.

Being subordinate to men has given female performers little choice but to use sex appeal as currency. Take Little Mix. 2019 Brits presenter Jack Whitehall faced criticism for suggesting that the girl group’s performance would result in, … Dads up and down the country awkwardly fumbling for a scatter cushion.’ The hyper-sexualisation destroys any opportunity for meaningful artistry. This also partially explains why so few female vocalists fail to be taken seriously by fans and producers alike.

The negligence also results in heavy scrutiny at every opportunity. For instance, in 2015 Ariana Grande had to apologise on live TV for licking a doughnut. The prejudices of men are accepted as a mere flaw of character, whereas the mistakes of women are hyper-scrutinised. Women are not given the same freedom to ‘make mistakes,’ and their career prospects are often inextricably tied to not making any wrong moves.

When women are allowed slots at festivals, their performances act as window displays to the inherent inequalities within the music industry. However, the chances of a woman gaining such an opportunity are slim. In 2022 only 13 per cent of UK festival headliners were women.  Women are just not given the same financial opportunities as men, so they have to be creative — often at a cost to their artistry — and work harder to be taken seriously.  

Glastonbury 2023 signals a deeper problem: women are still not given the chance to compete with men on an equal playing field. The financial and social subordination of many female artists reflects this reality.

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