For every woman donned in a glittery, nude-toned full-body suit “singing” under the spotlight, there’s another woman tearing up the circuit with powerful vocal chops, walking bass lines, and big hair to boot. For decades, women have had to hold their own, musically speaking, in order to be taken seriously amidst the bimbo-esque, sex-saturated mainstream music industry. Many have fallen by the wayside when they refused to prance around on stage carrying a boa constrictor on their shoulders – but women like Janelle Monae, Esperanza Spalding, and Gretchen Parlato prove that they don’t need to flaunt their sexuality to be noticed – true talent will rise to the top no matter what. But, is talent enough for commercial success in the music industry?
It seems like Janelle Monae became a household name overnight, and with good reason. Opening this year’s Toronto Jazz Festival with a bang, Monae gave the crowd just what they came for – sheer, unadulterated entertainment. ‘Tightrope’, the catchy, upbeat single which most people are familiar with from the popular Chevy Cruze commercial, catapulted the 26 year-old to stardom, or maybe it was having Big Boi, of the popular duo OutKast, featured on the track. Whatever it was, people can’t get enough of this exhilarating performer.
Days later, jazz songstress and avid bass player, Esperanza Spalding took to the Toronto Jazz Festival Mainstage at Nathan Phillips Square putting on a clinic on what it means to be a true musician. Two hours of heavy bass lines, complicated vocal runs, and powerful trumpet and sax solos by her 11-piece horn section left the crowd mesmerized. Gretchen Parlato, LA-based jazz and International vocalist, opened for Spalding, setting the perfect tone with her smooth R&B covers and Spanish ballads.
No doubt, all three of these women are beautiful in their own right. Not one of them had to flaunt their sexuality in any explicit way. If you examine the landscape of female artists on the music scene right now, the emphasis appears to be somewhat straying from skimpy showiness, and is more about how much talent you bring to the stage (Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj notwithstanding). Women such as Kimbra and Adele are other examples from across the pond that hold true to this as well. Adele’s smash hit album 21 speaks to the fact that although the sexiest women have sold the most albums, talent is becoming the new sexy – music is about the ears, not the eyes. Monae is often seen performing in a fitted men’s suit, polar opposite of what is traditionally expected from female artists. Spalding wore a floor length cotton dress for her Toronto Jazz Festival set, allowing for maximum movement and comfort as she strapped on a bass and rocked out with her band.
But, are these monumental strides enough? Does image and sexiness still dominate in mainstream music, or are we looking to a beautiful new horizon where women can feel confident that they will succeed in the industry, and still be able to maintain a sense of self-respect and dignity? Is developing a sexier image just a natural part of every grown woman’s life? Is it inevitable for the next kid star, such as Miley Cyrus, to eventually “express herself” by wearing tighter clothes and much more make-up? Despite the onslaught of talent shows such as The Voice and American Idol constantly searching for the next great singer or musician, ultimately, talent currently remains the underdog in the mainstream music industry. For female performers, the equation goes as follows: decreased amount of clothing + increased amount of makeup = more money + more fame. That is, unfortunately, the sad truth of today and yesterday…but it doesn’t have to be the future.
The history of female artists in mainstream music has been less than impressive, and it’s going to take some badass female musicians to break new ground. Women such as Monae, Spalding, and Parlato continue to champion the cause of truly talented female artists. And, for those of us who have ears to hear, their music is sexy.
Octavia Ahsan is a writer/blogger from Brampton, a suburb outside of Toronto, ON. In 2010 she received a Bachelors degree in Science from McMaster University, and founded a charitable organization called CompassionActs. In March 2012 she founded The PODIUM, where she also serves as the Editor-in-Chief. She frequently writes for MilkandHoneyMedia.co.uk, a popular Christian girls blog based out of London, England, as well as her personal blog site OctaviaFaith.com, and WomensPost.ca. In her spare time, she likes to hunt for the best burrito in Toronto (Chipotle Mexican Grill holds the spot so far).