Australian music has always been a bloke’s world, it’s time to celebrate the women

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Jen Cloher explains how and why she chose to celebrate the musical contributions of Australian women.

Last year, director, writer and producer Jill Soloway (Transparent) examined the gender disparity in film making with her keynote address The Female Gaze.

“We would need the next 100 years of almost EVERY SINGLE MOVIE to be produced, written and directed by women [to achieve gender parity],” she noted. “Like, let’s check in again in 2116, people.”

She went on to implore “white cis men to please: STOP MAKING THINGS.”

Humorous, yes. But if we were to balance the scales, sadly Soloway is telling it straight.

In compiling my list of 100 Songs By Australian Women That You Need To Know as Double J’s Artist In Residence for September, I continued to think about why women weren’t a bigger part of our music story.

Check out the full list of 100 songs by Australian women you need to hear

It’s worth acknowledging first and foremost, that I’m talking about the commercial rise of rock, pop, country, hip hop, jazz, folk, blues and roots music. The first Australians and traditional owners of the land have been passing their creation story songlines from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years.

A festival booker recently told me he’d noticed a shift in the way younger women were attending live shows over the past five years.

He’d observed them turning up in large groups, without boyfriends, heading to the front of the stage and fully participating as audience members.

This was the same whether the band were fronted by a woman or a man. They weren’t fainting or hysterical, just there, front and centre, showing their support as music fans.

He said most of the youth market were female and yet the proportion of women headlining these bills were outnumbered by men 10 to 1.

It’s a point Brodie Lancaster covers so well in her book No Way! Okay Fine. A lot of the music industry is marketed to women and relies on their financial investment – in sales of records, tickets and merchandise – without actually including them.

Why are women celebrated less than men in music?

Why don’t they top the All-Time Greatest Songs and Classic Albums lists trotted out by magazines at the end of each year?

Why don’t we celebrate a woman songwriter in Australia with the same reverence and hushed tones as Paul Kelly and Nick Cave? And don’t say Chrissy Amphlett in defence, because we really only gave her ‘legend status’ after her death.

Festival bookers will tell you that female artists don’t sell tickets. But why?

My friend Susan O’Doherty, a painter and sculptor, thinks it is as simple as this, “Men hold the monopoly of the worlds wealth and so the market (arts or any industry) is dominated by men, their interests, needs and stories.”

The music industry in Australia has always been a bloke’s world. Men on the road. Musicians, roadies, managers and technical engineers.

Watching the Molly Meldrum miniseries will attest to that. There’s no female Gudinski or Chugg, just a cameo from an actor playing the part of Kylie, who makes it onto my list, just in case you think I’m minimising her contribution to Australian pop music.

The only thing all these songs have in common is that they are great songs.

Jen Cloher

Australian women were still struggling to break the mould of wife and mother in the ‘60s, so it’s no surprise they weren’t encouraged to pursue a living from the arts, let alone songwriting.

Still, where was Australia’s Joni Mitchell or Carole King?

It’s also worth remembering that the rise of the singer-songwriter only hit the mainstream in the ‘60s, until then and for many years to come, it was almost expected that songwriter and singer were two separate entities. One person wrote the hit, the other used their talent as a performer to sell it.

For anyone who has lived the touring life, you’ll know it’s an extremely difficult undertaking with a baby in tow. Babies who need routine feeding and sleep don’t adapt well to flight delays or the noisy back room of pubs.

There is nothing about touring music that is child or mother friendly and yet touring is such a big part of keeping your profile in the public eye each time you release an album.

No surprises then, that women struggle to maintain that profile. Patti Smith took 16 years away from her music career to raise her children. It’s a miracle and a great gift to us all that she managed to return.

A month ago NPR’s top music critic Ann Powers published a list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women, curated by some of America’s most respected women music critics and journalists.

The importance of seeing women music critics contributing to this list wasn’t lost on me. In the accompanying article A New Canon, In Pop Music Women Belong At The Center Of The Story, Powers poses this question.

“Why was the importance of women so often recognized as a trend instead of a source of lasting impact? We came to a conclusion that, in 2017, will likely strike no one as a surprise: that the general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.”

In the same piece, Powers notes that “lists have their limitations” and that they are “also arguably anti-feminist”, going on to quote author Robin Morgan’s game-changing ‘70s anthology Sisterhood is Powerful.

“The women’s movement is a non-hierarchical one. It does things collectively and experimentally.”

The concept of a classic album is a strange one. Classic in whose eyes?

Jen Cloher

In compiling my (non-hierarchical) list as Artist in Residence, I began with the album concept as modelled by NPR.

But it soon became apparent that too many important women would be left off the list. Some of them had not yet made albums or made an album that would be deemed as classic.

It also occurred to me that the concept of a classic album was a strange one. Classic in whose eyes? If only through the eyes of predominantly male music critics, then that criteria would be fatally flawed.

In the spirit of being able to show off the incredible contribution women have made to Australian music, I decided instead to go with 100 Songs By Australian Women That You Need To Know.

From Helen Reddy’s ‘70s feminist anthem ‘I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar)’ to Ruby Hunter who wrote ‘Down City Streets’ on Archie Roach’s extraordinary album Charcoal Lane. I covered all genres to the best of my ability, noting the lack of women in genres such as hip hop and metal.

Some of the songs on my list are top 10 hits, while others most people may never have heard before. The only thing all these songs have in common is that they are great songs.

 

Some delve into the social politics of their time like Judy Small’s ‘Mothers Daughters Wives’ or Laura Jean’s ‘Australia’, while others are pop masterpieces like Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’ or Sia’s ‘Chandelier’.

Some herald the beginning of Australian rock fronted by women like the Divinyls and Magic Dirt, whilst others mark a moment where Australian women were finally seen by the mainstream as songwriters in their own right, like Missy Higgins’ ‘Scar’ or Kasey Chambers ‘The Captain’.

As Ann Powers observed, all lists have their limitations. There are easily another 200 Australian women and songs that belong on this list.

For any of you I haven’t been able to include, know it was simply because I ran out of on-air time.

I hope this helps, in part, to document the extraordinarily brilliant, varied and original contribution women and have made to Australian music.

I would like to acknowledge that some of the people on this list are non binary folk. 

Jen Cloher is Double J Artist in Residence for September. Check out the full list of songs she has chosen

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