The Women That Changed Music

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Patrick Kelleher looks at some of the women that have changed music over the last few decades.[br]With International Women’s Day just around the corner, it seems like a fitting time to take a step back to look at the trailblazing women that have changed the world of music for the better. Women have always been central to creating music, but it’s not enough for us to just remember the talented female musicians – we must also remember why they’ve been so groundbreaking in their craft.

Kate Bush

[br]Kate Bush burst onto the music scene in 1978 with her bizarre brand of experimental pop music with her debut single ‘Wuthering Heights’. Before long, Bush, who was then only nineteen years old, saw her debut single shoot to number one in the UK, where it remained for four weeks. Her debut album The Kick Inside was easily one of the most exciting albums to make it into the mainstream in the latter part of the seventies. On it, she went from the vivid storytelling of ‘James and the Cold Gun’ to her candid and invigorating approach to female sexuality on ‘Feel It’. In a time when female sexuality was still largely oppressed, Bush sang: ‘Feel your warm hand walking around, I won't pull away. My passion always wins. So keep on a-moving in. So keep on a-tuning in.”This musical ingenuity continued throughout her career. Her 1985 album Hounds of Love still regularly makes lists of the best albums ever recorded for her groundbreaking use of the Fairlight. The second half of the album, titled The Ninth Wave is a concept album that tells the story of a young woman lost at sea. From the eerie ‘Under Ice’ to the Irish trad-influenced ‘Jig of Life’, Bush did things with music that few have done since, and few would want to even attempt for their sheer complexity.

Debbie Harry

[br]Around the same time that Kate Bush was starting to make headlines for her unyieldingly challenging songs, Debbie Harry was performing at the centre of Blondie. As lead singer of a band comprised of a woman and four men, Harry was dominating the airwaves at a time when a woman displaying power and apathy to a society that was so critical of women was unprecedented. Blondie were responsible for genre defying music such as their famed ballad ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Dreaming’ to their punkier, more aggressive ‘Atomic’ and ‘Call Me’. Harry’s punk image and her refusal to play into anybody else’s demands in her music have made her a lasting icon, and her appeal has managed to last well into the 21st century.

Cyndi Lauper

[br]The hit singer of the now famous ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is not often enough seen as a trailblazer of music, but there’s no doubt that Lauper has had quite the impact. Her debut album, She’s So Unusual, was the first debut album by a woman to chart four top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100 – and with good reason too. The album was an enormous success, boasting classics such as ‘Time After Time’ and ‘She Bop’. What was unique about Lauper when her debut was released in 1983 was that she was able to bridge the gap between popular music and genuine innovation in her craft. Her lyrics told stories of love and loss, and even though she wasn’t responsible for writing her most famous feminist anthem ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, the message was incredibly important. Lauper has gone on to have a varied and eclectic career. From LGBT activist to hit-maker and general powerhouse, she’s one of the greats of the music industry.

Joni Mitchell

[br]Joni Mitchell was at the centre of change in the music industry for women when she emerged onto a male dominated scene in the late 1960s. Her music has morphed and changed dramatically over her long and varied career. From her early beginnings in folk to her more recent jazz inspired collections, it seems inadequate to call Mitchell a legend. One of her most famous albums, 1971’s Blue is one of the greatest works of artistry by a musician in the 20th century. The songs on it dealt with issues as severe as her experience of giving up her child for adoption on ‘Little Green’, to her heartrending and frequently covered ‘River’, dealing with dysfunctional love.Lyrically, she has dealt with issues that are both complex and important. Technically, her music has defied logic and reason, and yet has been natural and invigorating. Critics have been discussing her bizarre use of alternative guitar tunings now for decades; Mitchell uses more than fifty different guitar tunings in her songs, tossing the rulebooks aside. Frustratingly, she is often overlooked, despite her extensive musical catalogue and her incisive social critiques. While critics will talk endlessly about the incredible work her contemporary Bob Dylan has done in folk music, considerably fewer are interested in talking about what Mitchell has done. Regardless, she has never let this stop her. Her songwriting prowess and evolving vocals have never been keen to sit on the sidelines. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical talents to grace the music scene.

Florence Welch

[br]Following in the footsteps of the likes of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, Florence Welch has been one of the most innovating and surprising female musicians to emerge in the 21st century. Her debut album Lungs captured the hearts of a generation. From her powerful cover of ‘Girl With One Eye’ – in which she aggressively sings with prowess and power, to the beautiful ‘Cosmic Love’, the album was an enormous success, both critically and commercially. While her second album, Ceremonials, wasn’t quite the same musical achievement for the English singer, her latest effort, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, managed to stun critics. The album bridges the gap between silence and bombastic rock expertly, allowing space for breath and breathlessness. Lyrically, Welch deals with a wide array of emotions and situations. The album as a whole is immensely powerful, and displays one of the strongest women working in music today.Too frequently, women remain overlooked in music. But increasingly, women in music are finding their footing and interrogating a society that sometimes prefers to silence their voices. The women listed above are only a small number of those who are breaking new ground in the music industry. And as time goes by, the prominence of women’s work in the industry will only get stronger.