// by Devon Armstrong //
Who are the most influential women in music? Throughout history, women have shaped the world of music – against adversity – and, even now, women are pioneering genre-expanding, thought-provoking music, proving that it isn’t just a man’s world.
Why don’t you give our playlist a listen while you read our top female artist picks?
1. Billie Holiday: Billie changed not only jazz music, but utilised music as a platform for women of colour. Her life was an empowering story of a young girl with a turbulent childhood who rose from depression and poverty to stardom and success. She made political statements with her songs, such as ‘Strange Fruit’, which criticises segregation and lynching in the Deep South. Such statements were rare in music at the time and she set a precedent for marginalised women speaking their minds through music, something which paved the way for many of the other women on this list.
2. Aretha Franklin: Aretha is known for creating an entire genre: soul. Her music builds on influences from her upbringing in a Baptist church choir and since then she has become the first female artist in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and the winner of 18 Grammys. Becoming a mother at 15, she has overcome adversity and annihilated false stereotypes. Her voice has defined a genre and her empowering persona as the Queen of Soul continues to inspire artists and fans alike in both their creative and personal lives.
3. Carole King: Carole was a childhood protégé, learning piano at 4. Despite becoming pregnant at 17, she developed her song-writing with husband Gerry Goffin, and together they wrote a series of classic songs that have made history. Carole rereleased her 1983 song ‘One Small Voice’ after the historic Women’s March on Washington in January of this year, demonstrating the power of music in changing attitudes.
4. Joni Mitchell: Joni Mitchell has not only pioneered the folk genre, but experimented with jazz, pop and other influences from world music. Her creativity is expansive – she not only is a talented guitarist and pianist but designs her own album art. She has been regarded as a symbol of 1970s hippie culture, being associated with activism, protest and iconic festivals like Woodstock, and the emotional honesty of her songs is regarded as many by unparalleled. The vocal, musical and emotional range of her work has left her hailed by critics as one of the greatest song writers of all time.
5. Nina Simone: Nina has been deemed one of the most important musical and cultural voices in American history. With origins in classical piano, she was already defying stereotypes as ayoung black girl, succeeding in a way that society refused to accept. She, too, pioneered the fusion of many genres such as soul, jazz, blues and gospel, as well as fusing the cultural sounds of African music with American genres. She raised her voice at a time when black women weren’t given a voice, and her fearless activism and refusal to be silenced speaks volumes about the truth of her music. It is clear the musical rebellion of genres like jazz and soul mirrored her call for a civil rights revolution.
6. Joan Jett: Feminist hero Joan Jett broke the glass ceiling for women in a male-dominated genre, paving the way for later androgynous artists like Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders and subsequent rock goddesses who have refused to be sexualised in the way that the genre historically demanded. Joan Jett also provided a spark of hope for rebellious teen runaways, showing young people that passion and hard work can change perceptions of the burnout, waste-of-space stigma, and that women can make something of themselves, against all odds.
7. Madonna: Madonna has changed the whole arena for female artists and entertainers. She advocates romantic, stylistic and financial independence and her business-mindedness is part of the reason for her success. Refusing to be played by the increasingly treacherous machine that is the music industry, she has carved a niche for women who refuse to bow to the industry mould. Although her initial hits were fairly mainstream, she continued to evolve as an artist and increasingly push boundaries with her music and fashion. Though she is undoubtedly controversial, many would argue the best artists are.
8. Missy Elliot: Missy Elliot is yet another example of someone who has faced an abusive and troubled family life and risen from it to success and celebrity status. She, too, has tread the path forwomen in rap, inspiring the work of modern female rappers like Nicki Minaj. She has won five Grammys in a genre that historically has seen misogyny abound. Many have claimed that Missy Elliot was decades ahead of her time, being hugely influential to the body positivity movement, as well as advocating unity and solidarity between women, amidst the rivalry and politics of the hip hop world.
9. M.I.A.: Another example of a genre-fusing artist, MIA has taken influence from world-music and mashed it together with punk, dance, rap and techno, creating a sound that is like nothing else. Not without controversy, she is known for her unapologetically opinionated activism regarding refugees and racism. Her style is equally revolutionary, and she is the perfect anti-pop star, championing individuality, fearless self-expression and doing things like nobody else has ever done. Unafraid to speak her mind at all times, she must be praised for her use of the pop platform as a way to change attitudes.
10. Lady Gaga: Lady Gaga shook up popular music and popular culture with her debut album in the late 2000s, despite having written pop hits years before her success as a performer in her own right. Although her music is firmly in the pop genre, she is unafraid to break the mould and has released a jazz album in collaboration with the legendary Tony Bennett. Her fashion has shocked the Western world and her live performances are uniquely transfixing. She continues to unleash her creative genius on every medium she can, encouraging and inspiring women to reach further and fearlessly ignore boundaries imposed on them.
11. Beyoncé: Do I even need to write anything? Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last fifteen years, Queen B has been almost universally known within popular culture for her game-changing visual albums, heavenly vocals and cultural influence on music, fashion and politics. As a mother, wife, artist, performer, businesswoman and many other things, she gives the impression that there is nothing she can’t do, while remaining a real human being who everyone can relate to. She does actually run the world.