12 Influential Women Who Have Changed Music & How They Did It
By Nicole Mastrogiannis
March 7, 2018
The spotlight and fight for gender equality in many aspects of this world is at a much-needed, long overdue, all-time high. Over the last year, the conversation about this issue across a multitude of industries, as well as strong women coming together and supporting each other and fighting for change, has grown tremendously.
But even more importantly, moves are being made to bring about change to a gender gap within the music industry that spans from the pop star on stage/the radio, to the producers/songwriters in the studio, to those in the boardroom.
There have been many women who have been leaders in the music industry, and who have stepped up in more ways than one — too many to count. Take a look at just a small handful of powerful females who have changed music, and just how they did it below.
Simply put, Beyoncé is an icon. This woman has had an impact on music in more ways than one, and she continues to raise the bar with everything she does. Once a part of successful R&B/pop girl band Destiny's Child, Queen Bey branched out into her own tremendous solo career. This woman has been nominated for a Grammy over 60 times, taking home 22 of them over the last 17 years, and is the second most-winningest woman (second to bluegrass artist Alison Krauss who has 27 Grammy wins to her name and is the second biggest winner of any gender, tied with Quincy Jones).
But Bey's Grammy wins are only a product of her talent, her drive, her strength as a woman, and her ability to speak the truth and unite fans across the world with her music. In 2013, Beyoncé released her fifth studio album — but her first self-titled — and she did it in a revolutionary way: she dropped it without any warning whatsoever as a true surprise for fans. This album has themes of feminism all throughout its 14 tracks, and a few years later, the superstar outdid herself with her most recent solo album Lemonade. The stunning, visuals and topics covered throughout the album have made an important statement, no doubt influencing so many across the globe.
2. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift has grown from a teen country singer/songwriter into not only one of the biggest international pop superstars in this world, but one of the most influential. As a crossover artist, Taylor proved just what an artist can achieve without being put into the confines of a genre, and in her case, becoming even more successful. She became the first woman to replace herself at No. 1 when "Blank Space" dethroned her first 1989 single "Shake It Off" in 2014 — her big leap into the pop world. And of course, this is only one of the glass ceilings she has shattered with her music.
Aside from her chart success, Taylor has been an advocate for fair compensation in the new world of streaming — how most people consume music today. A few years ago, she removed her music from select services, until they changed their compensation policies ... which actually brought about change. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, she wrote, "Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for."
Speaking of consuming music, Taylor's Swifties have been loyal to her throughout her career, and the pop star hasn't forgotten that. With her last two albums, T-Swift famously held her Secret Sessions, hand-selecting fans to come to her house(s) to hear her new music first, taking fan interaction to a new level.
The cultural impact of Queen of Pop Madonna speaks to how this icon has changed the game over the years. Madonna is an artist who has continually pushed the envelope with her music and her message, and has paved the way for many female artists today. Over the last 35 years, she has steamrolled any boundaries with her lyrics (in terms of pop music), and especially her visuals in music videos and on-stage performances. Think about how many female artists today emulate this same provocative style in their own visuals, and how many are not afraid to write songs that stir the pot.
Aside from leading the way for future generations of female pop stars, Madonna has accomplished so many milestones throughout the course of her career. Among her extensive list of accolades, Guinness World Records acknowledges her as the best-selling female recording artist, and even more impressively the fourth best-selling act of all time, behind The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson.
4. Ella Fitzgerald
Talk about a female leading the way. In her lifetime, Ella Fitzgerald recorded over 200 albums, and with 14 Grammy Awards under her belt, in addition to over 40 million albums sold, she is more than worthy of the title, "First Lady of Song." But Ella stands for something more, because as a female, and especially a female of color living through the civil rights movement, she has broken through many barriers. Ella was the first African-American woman to win multiple Grammy Awards — and it happened at the very first Grammy Awards ceremony in 1958. Ella took home two awards for Best Vocal Performance and Female and Best Jazz Performance, Individual. And, in fact, the only other women to win a Grammy that year were opera singer Renata Tebaldi and pop singer Keely Smith.
But that's not all. Today, the Super Bowl Halftime show has become a star-studded spectacle, but it wasn't always that way. And Ella was one of the first stars to headline the mid-way point of the big game. In 1972, Fitzgerald, along with Carol Channing, performed during Super Bowl VI where the Miami Dolphins faced off against the Dallas Cowboys in New Orleans. They performed a tribute to Louis Armstrong, who had passed away the year before. This also made Fitzgerald the first African-American woman to perform during Super Bowl Halftime.
5. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin. This is a woman that DEMANDS respect ... and so she recorded a song about it. And even though the original was written and recorded by Otis Redding, it's Aretha that people associate this iconic tune with the most — she did add in the R-E-S-P-E-C-T after, all.
The awards and honors Aretha has received throughout her career are endless, but perhaps one of the most important came in 1987. It was in this year that Aretha became the first woman, EVER, to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Though most of the Rock Hall inductees are male, Aretha was the first female of the now 44 women who have been inducted in the last 30 years.
6. Mariah Carey
Like the divas that came before her, Mariah Carey has helped influence many of today's biggest superstars including Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. Her impressive vocal range is just one of her many unique qualities. But what's more than that, Mariah has helped set trends that are common in music today. Carey, a pop singer, embraced hip hop in the early stages in her career, teaming up with rappers on many of her songs — something that happens all the time today. It started in 1995 with her "Fantasy" remix featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard, later on introducing Puff Daddy, Snoop Dogg, JAY-Z, and more to her music.
Speaking of songs, Mariah has written many of her own, clearing a path for more females to take pen to paper themselves. In fact, as of a few years ago, Mariah had written the most No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 than any other woman. And it is her songwriting skills that gifted the world with the now classic Christmas song, "All I Want For Christmas."
For many years Kesha went without releasing music because of all that he had endured during her Dr. Luke lawsuit. But, finally, in 2017 she was able to drop a new album — and the most inspiring part of it is, she never gave up. And because she has been brave enough to speak her truth and come forward with her story, not only via her platform but also with her music, she has inspired many to do the same, including many of her fellow pop stars.
Many in the music industry came to Kesha's aid when she needed it, featuring her on music as Zedd did, or banding powerful females together to publicly support her like Lady Gaga, Lorde, Lily Allen, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift. But in addition to their support, these fellow musicians were inspired to use their platform to spread awareness, which is imperative for keeping the conversation going to hopefully achieve change. And in the current landscape, where the conversation surrounding sexual harassment and gender equality are at an all-time high, Kesha's impact on the industry and on people personally has been tremendous.
8. Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton is an American treasure, but even more than that, she is one of the most inspirational females in music. In an extremely male-dominated genre like country music, Dolly is one of the most-honored female country performers of all time. In addition to all of her Gold, Platinum, and Multi-Platinum records, Parton has been inducted into 15 different Hall of Fames, and has been nominated for 46 Grammy Awards, and is tied with Bruce Springsteen for the most Grammy noms overall (they are both in 10th place).
But Dolly has also helped inspired female musicians in several different genres to be the leader of their own careers, Kesha being one of them. In fact, "I Will Always Love You," famously covered by Whitney Houston, came out of a moment of empowerment and taking control when she left syndicated TV program The Porter Wagoner Show where she really got a kickstart, and took her career to the next level. She once told The Tennessean, "'How am I gonna make [Wagoner] understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go?' So I went home, and I thought, 'Well, what do you do best? You write songs.' So I sat down and I wrote this song."
"I Will Always Love You" became one of the best-selling singles of all time after Whitney recorded her version.
Adele has only released three albums, but has broken many records — like becoming the first female artist to have two entries in the top five on both the singles and albums charts at the same time — and has helped changed the music industry. Because what anyone will recognize about Adele the most is her undeniable talent as a singer and a songwriter, and her tremendous voice. There are no gimmicks, there is no flashiness, she has not conformed to any body type or over sexualized herself. When you go to an Adele concert, it's all about her and her voice, in addition to her ability to be raw and real on stage. And that's what you go for. It's that voice, that personality, and that level of being relatable that sells out arenas. It's also all of those qualities that allowed this powerhouse female artist to have the top-selling album of the year
Rihanna is a BOSS. From a teen singing in Barbados, to being discovered after Jay-Z heard her voice, Rihanna has become one of the best-selling artists of all time. She has become influential not only in the music industry, but in pop culture in general, and has used her platform to stand up for what she believes in.
As for the music industry, consider this: over the last few years, the EDM influence has crept its way into pop music, and in fact, collaborations among pop stars and dance music DJs are more common than ever. But six years ago in 2011, it was Rihanna's collaboration with Calvin Harris "We Found Love" (and their many collabs afterwards) that topped the charts that year, and spurred similar collaborations to step into the pop world. Similarly, although other Carribean artists like Sean Paul have found success in pop music, many people believe it's Rihanna that brought her island roots and the dancehall genre to the forefront of popular music, especially with her Drake-assisted single "Work."
It is also Badgalriri's unapologetic nature, which carries over into her music, that make her such a strong female artist. As her 2015 single says ... "B*tch better have my money."
11. Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus is another example of a strong, empowered female who refuses to conform to anyone else's standards. And even more than that, she is vocal about what she believes in and is an advocate of many important movements and groups. She recently did something kind of revolutionary on behalf of all female musicians out there. While being a mentor on The Voice, Miley put together the first-ever all-female team. She had told Yahoo of her group of budding stars, "I'm really proud to say I'm the first one inVoice history to have an all-female team. I want to celebrate females in this industry, because I think sometimes we can get lost, and people can tell you that you have to change who you are to market yourself."
In case you didn't already know, according to a recent study from the University of Southern California, women accounted for only 22.4% of artists and 12.3% of songwriters on the Billboard Hot 100. So with such a gender gap that many female artists are hoping to spread awareness of and bring change to, Miley's efforts on The Voice were more important than people realized. In Miley's words, she made "her-story."
12. Ariana Grande
In times of tragedy, many artists across all genres have come together to help in any way they can. It shows that music is a universal language that really brings people together, and the person who really highlighted that in this last year was Ariana Grande. Following a horrific terror attack that took place at her tour stop in Manchester, where 22 fans were killed and dozens more injured, in just a few short weeks, Ari pulled together one of the most impactful concerts of the entire year with One Love Manchester. Grande used her enormous platform and the power of music to unite people and fearlessly spread a positive message, along with many of her famous friends including Miley Cyrus and Coldplay, among many more. And by the way, Ariana is only 25 years old. Anyone can go on about her many amazing accomplishments, awards, statistics, etc., but you could easily argue that this is maybe the most important thing she's ever done.
Photos: Getty Images