For those paying attention, it’s no secret that most of the best rock music these days is being made by women.
St. Vincent’s Masseduction placed third on the 2017 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and pushed the longtime critical favorite closer to the mainstream than ever before. Haim was the final act on the Coachella main stage before Beyoncé’s insta-legend performance last weekend. And the New York Times recently devoted a print feature (and immersive online package) to the righteous racket of DIY and punk trendsetters like Downtown Boys and War on Women with the titular proclamation, “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women.” This is veritably true across most spaces, save for the one that (still) holds the most sway in what becomes a hit: radio.
Listen to your local alternative station or glance through Billboard‘s corresponding chart, and there’s a sense you’re getting a transmission from a bygone era. Or at least one completely divorced from the reality outlined above. Only five songs in this week’s Alternative Songs top 40 feature female singers. You don’t see a single one until CHVRCHES’ “Get Out” at the 15th spot. When Alice Merton’s “No Roots” — the first track by a female lead artist to lead Alternative Songs since Elle King in 2015 — slid out of the top five a month ago, the upper reaches re-populated with usuals like Imagine Dragons, Walk the Moon, Muse, and the Killers.
The format still matters, though. Despite the well-documented rise of How Much The Kids Love Their Streaming, radio play remains the key factor in which alt hits cross over into Top 40 ubiquity (see, “Royals,” “Feel It Still,” the ongoing ascent of Foster the People’s “Sit Next To Me”) and with it, the juice to snag those main stage festival slots and break beyond theater tours and Internet fame.
So why is radio so stuck in the past?
“I honestly don’t have a logical explanation for that,” Merton admits, still acclimating herself to the world of commercial radio after singing with Mom + Pop Records last year. “In the beginning, I was told it would never work because it’s not the kind of song you’d hear on radio.”
Daunting feedback, but not exactly inaccurate. Within the radio world, there’s a sense this current reality — five women out of 40 — is far better than what it was several years ago. “We actually consider this chart right now as like, ‘Oh my god it’s so female-friendly!’” says Risa Matsuki, vice president of promotion at Beggars Group, who’s worked artists from respected indies like Matador and XL to radio for the past six years. “We have to say that now because we’ve never had this many at one time.”
So what’s to blame for this snail’s pace of progress? “With what’s going on in the music industry in regards to gender, you kind of have to take a Marxist standpoint,” says growing alt-radio standby K.Flay, whose ferocious single “Blood in the Cut” went top five at the format early last year. “Who controls the means of production?” Rita Houston, program director and DJ at New York City’s WFUV, has seen the answer played out frequently over her 24 years at the influential AAA station: “There are not enough female programmers in decision-making positions,” she insists. “That’s the all-boys world that’s still very much the music biz. On Instagram, a record label won’t think twice about posting a photo with just six dudes.”
Billboard introduced the Alternative Songs chart in 1988 to track the rise of left-of-center rock styles, a companion to the more traditional Mainstream Rock tally. It’s ebbed and flowed between college rock, grunge, rap-metal, and the increasingly guitar-less rock sounds of today, but a glance at who’s topped it the most puts that gender disparity on full display: the Red Hot Chili Peppers (13 No. 1s), followed by Linkin Park and Green Day (11 each), the Foo Fighters (10), and U2 (8).
And because today’s alt radio relies so heavily on old hits, this past is kind of inescapable. Last week, so-called “gold” songs — tracks approximately at last two years old — made up 53 percent of spins across U.S. alternative stations. Of the top 100, only three feature female vocalists: Bishop Briggs’ “River,” Of Monsters & Men’s “Little Talks,” and Paramore’s “Misery Business.” This version of alt-rock’s history is so skewed, it neglects even the genre’s few legitimate commercial stars. “They don’t play Alanis Morissette, they don’t play Garbage, they don’t play Fiona Apple,” says K.Flay. “They play Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.”
If program directors are fixated on the ‘90s — in all their white, male flannel-clad glory — it’s partially due to their listeners. As Millennials and Gen Z flock to streaming services for music discovery, alternative radio listeners are more likely to be old enough to remember all of those RHCP hits from the first time around. “If there was a younger demo, if there were more females, the way a station sounds would probably change,” Matsuki says. “This is just what I think — females listening to alternative stations tend to speak up less than the male audience… If you look at a typical station website, it’s catered more towards men: dark background, dark colors, some kind of horrible, sexist advertisement on the side. I rarely see a website that looks like something a girl would go to.”
Stations have ratings to maintain, and that means focus-grouping potential new singles and taking listener feedback into consideration. “[Diversity numbers] haven’t come up yet,” says Mason Brazelle, program director at Columbus, Ohio alt station WWCD. “I’m not going to put something in power [heavy rotation] just because we need a female artist. It’s gotta be something really good. Alice Merton, for example, she’s in power because it’s a great record and it’s doing really well for us.” He outlines how weekly staff meetings cut to the chase: “We’ll listen to 90 seconds of a song and rate it between one and 10. A song could be a 7.48 or whatever, and we’ll go from there.”
Sometimes it works out. Brazelle works regularly with Matsuki’s Beggars artists, and WWCD’s weekly logs tend to include more female artists than most competitors. He recalls listening to “No Roots” in its trial stage not just as a fan, but as “the radio guy, because you have to separate yourself,” he admits. “When we added it, I was a little hesitant — not because it was a woman — but was it going to catch on? For whatever reason it just took off much faster than I expected it to.”
But for someone like Matsuki, working with typical program directors can lead to some awkward conversations. “The general gist in any radio meeting I’ve been to in the past six years is as soon as I bring a female artist to the table — Grimes, Tune-Yards, Cat Power — it’s like a switch goes off where they just go, ‘Oh, okay,’ instead of being excited. We have to over-prove what the female artist is gonna do, as opposed to a band with a bunch of dudes.”
The discussions are often indicative of what’s holding back the format from reaching a wider audience. “It’s like, ‘Can she shred on guitar?’ Really? Is that even a thing?” Matsuki remembers in disillusioned laughter. Listening to her describe promoting Grimes’ 2015 opus Art Angels, one gets a sense why Claire Boucher’s wildly innovative, genre-blurring album — the essence of the word alternative — never had a chance against Cold War Kids and Cage the Elephant:
“We tried to take ‘California’ to radio because it was her guitar song and there’s a hook, there’s a melody. It was met with such disdain. People were like, ‘Who is this? We have no idea who she is. She’s weird. What’s with these weird videos? Why is she dressed like that? What’s with the white eyes?’ There was so much to critique about her and nothing about the music.”
It’s especially frustrating to see an artist like Grimes rejected by radio gatekeepers. Art Angels defied old industry stereotypes not simply because it was produced entirely by Boucher, but because it was so rife with themes of feminine agency; “California” is a post-apocalyptic, guitar-strumming attack on deceitful blog posts over a sample from Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay.” Boucher comes from a DIY background similar in many ways to the female bandleaders outlined in the New York Times package, but it’s worth noting none of them record for major labels. Celebrated as they are in some circles, there remains a distinct chasm between them and the mainstream industry ecosystem.
It’s tempting, though, to imagine their progressive ethos shaking up a sheltered radio audience through the shreddy salvos of Sheer Mag or the sugary, pep squad hooks of Charly Bliss. At this point, contemporary punk doesn’t have much reason to give the industry the time of day, but the industry has much to learn from punk’s leaders. “I think it’s the responsibility of the gatekeepers of any cultural industry to reflect culture,” K.Flay says. “It’s important in a big way because a lot of people’s understanding of music and rock is through radio. They’re not being exposed to the spectrum and wealth of what’s happening in that realm.”
Artists like K.Flay, St. Vincent, and Alice Merton are, whether they realize it or not, supporting numerous potential up-and-comers on their shoulders. “There’s something so artistic and adventurous about St. Vincent,” says Houston, whose realm of AAA radio championed her before others caught on. “The alternative guys get scared away: ‘Oh, that’s too much art for us!’” Her swaggering single “Los Ageless” did catch on this year, spending 15 weeks on Alternative Songs, a rare encouraging sign in a format where getting played depends on the success of soundalikes. However, there was still a ceiling for the track, as it topped out at No. 23.
Merton’s crossover prospects look better, though. With alternative conquered, “No Roots” has taken hold on Top 40 stations around the country. Nine weeks into its run, it’s still climbing Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, at a peak of No. 27 this week. It could become an inescapable song, a ubiquitous hit. “With radio, it’s like gambling,” Merton says. “It’s a really hard decision, picking my second single.”
And her choice really is important: does she vault towards here-to-stay star status or get left as a one-hit wonder? Her groove-rock follow-up “Lash Out” debuted at No. 39 on the Alternative Songs chart this week, and garnered early support at stations throughout the country, including Sirius XM’s tastemaking Alt Nation and Brazelle’s WWCD Columbus. When Merton plays festivals like Governors Ball, Firefly, and Shakey Knees this summer, there’s a decent chance she’ll have at least two songs most attendees can sing along to.
But when lineups drop each festival season, the same question still emerges, like clockwork: Why aren’t there more female headliners? When you’re working a crowd of 200,000 people, having numerous iconic songs, songs everyone knows, is a virtual pre-requisite. Those 13 No. 1s mean Red Hot Chili Peppers get headline offers year after year. Those 10 No. 1s mean the same for Foo Fighters. Conversely impactful: those male-dominated label hangouts, the condescending feedback, that 5 of 40 figure on this week’s Alternative chart.
Consider the means of production.