Yesterday, March 8, was international Women’s Day. First off, I’m sorry for being a day late on this. Secondly, what an important day; there have been few times in history where the presence and power of women need to be lifted up and celebrated, as well as encouraged.
Women have long held a crucial spot in the arts; they are painters, actresses, directors and producers. Perhaps most significantly, they are musicians. Music is the universal language, and while I don’t want to speak for women definitively, I think it can be argued that it’s the medium where so many inspiring women have most vividly expressed their independence, power and determination to a mass audience.
This is by no means a complete list, but as a music nerd and supporter of women’s rights, I wanted to highlight some of my absolute favorite female music superstars who continue to inspire both women and men around the world to pick up a guitar, put pen to paper, and sing subtle or blunt ‘fuck you’s’ to anyone who stands in their way.
Without further ado…
The First Lady of Jazz was one of music’s most influential figures and one of its most unique: Holiday did not have a technically sound method of singing nor a conventionally pretty voice, but she defied the odds and became a legend thanks to her emotional deliveries and unique sound. More importantly, perhaps, she sang arguably the first politically charged song to break into the mainstream: her bone chilling version of “Strange Fruit,” a sinister look at the lynchings in the South that were all too common back then.
MOST BADASS SONG: “T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do”
Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald’s soft, breathy soprano and scatting skills are second to no one, and she was also one of the first African American performers to ever do shows in Las Vegas (due to a protest by their biggest draw at the time, Frank Sinatra). While Ella’s skill set isn’t as varied as the others on this list, nor did she really have moments in her music that were aggressive or challenging, her influence and talent alone is enough to warrant her a spot on this list.
MOST BADASS SONG: “The Lady Is A Tramp”
Carole King truly needs no introduction when it comes to groundbreaking women in music. King was hired as a writer in the famous Brill Building when she was just sixteen, met husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin soon after, and the rest is history. As a songwriter, she’s literally written hundreds of music’s most popular songs, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and “The Locomotion.” As a performer herself, she has one of the most successful albums of all time (Tapestry) and her own string of hits, including “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” and “Jazzman.” King was hired as a writer in the famous Brill Building when she was just sixteen, met husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin soon after, and the rest is history. It is not a stretch to say every female musician and songwriter who followed King were directly influenced by both her work and her spirit, as she is a truly towering figure in her field, regardless of gender.
MOST BADASS SONG: “I Feel The Earth Move”
Every artist on this list has faced adversity, be it physical, artistic, or emotional. Perhaps no one’s story is more well known, harrowing, or ultimately triumphant as Tina Turner’s. You can’t talk about Tina’s legacy without her marriage to Ike Turner, who left behind a legacy of addiction and abuse that nearly cost Tina her life more than once. It is her tumultuous relationship, with him, however, that planted the seed from which Tina grew into one of the most dynamic, ‘no holds barred’ performers of any era, one fully in control and focused on every aspect. Already considered a ‘has-been’ by the time she left Ike in 1976, Tina used every ounce of her strength to regain and eclipse her previous success. It took nearly ten years, but 1984’s Private Dancer was a mammoth success, spawning major hits such as “You Better Be Good To Me,” the title song, and her signature hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Tina continued to have hits throughout the 1980s’, as well as growing into an absolutely intense live performer whose shows were often more exhausting for us to watch then her to perform. Tina remained an active force well into her 60s’, and while she’s firmly cemented her retirement as she nears 80, her influence has not withered at all.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Proud Mary”
My girlfriend would kill me if I left Cher off this list. That aside, there’s no argument she belongs here. In terms of both commercial success and general longevity, Cher needs no introduction. She had a Top 10 single in every decade from the 1960s’ to the 2000s’. She’s performed sell-out shows all over the world. She has an Oscar. It would honestly be easier to list what Cher hasn’t accomplished at this point. In her 70s’, she performs with the same energy as she did at 25.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Believe”
The Queen of Soul needs no induction. Mariah, Whitney and numerous others owe a debt to her. She changed the game in how a song could be delivered, what styles and genres could be blended, and the expectation for what topics female singers could handle in songs. During both the race riots of the 1960s’ and the peak of the feminist movement, Aretha was recordings songs like “Respect,” “Think,” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” that asserted her power as both a female and an African American. Her career really never slowed down, scoring Top 40 Hits well into the 1980s’, and being regularly awarded laundry lists of awards and accolades to this day. Long Live the Queen.
Joan Baez is unfortunately best remembered today as the woman whom Bob Dylan had a rather tumultuous relationship with, and indeed, Dylan naturally casts a huge shadow on anyone who associates with him. Still Baez definitely had her own niche, writing incredible songs such as “Diamonds and Rust.” What Baez’s legacy is really defined by is her activism: she’s been at the forefront of everything from racial justice to LGBTQ rights to environmental protection, and she’s been arrested, outcast, banned, investigated and ultimately rewarded for her efforts.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Diamonds And Rust”
In her short life and career, Janis Joplin left a career kill for. As one of, if not the first, major female front women for a rock band (Big Brother and the Holding Company), she immediately became a sensation with her distinct booze and cigarettes-enhanced rasp and powerful, emotional vocals. Once she embarked on a solo career (which included a legendary stint at Woodstock), Joplin cemented her legacy and influence, even though her demons cut her life short at the infamous age of 27.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Piece Of My Heart”
When one thinks of the singer-songwriter movement of the 1960s’, one’s mind jumps to names such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. The Canadian songbird Joni Mitchell proved to the world that female songwriters could be just as thoughtful, provocative and versatile as their male counterparts, penning classic songs such as “A Case of U,” “River,” and “Help Me” as well as dozens of other incredible classics still covered to this day. Beyond her influence on everyone from Madonna to Prince, Joni played by her own rules, defying commercial expectations by dabbling in everything from jazz to R&B to New Wave; while not every experiment produced top shelf albums (her 1980s’ period is quite fallow), it is impossible to not admire Joni’s ambition.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Free Man In Paris”
The 1970s’ were a watershed period for the female songwriter, and it was Carly Simon who led the charge. Her first hit, “That’s The Way I’ve Heard It Should Be,” questioned the idea of traditional female relationship roles, including the idea of settling into marriage and motherhood; the record company was decidedly against initially, but Carly had her way and it became a Top 10 hit. It was her signature song, “You’re So Vain,” that put Carly on the map as the premiere songwriter of her day: a stinging, intelligent and thrilling put-down to a still unnamed Lothario who got his kicks out of being self-absorbed and cold. (It’s been rumored to be about everyone from Warren Beatty to Mick Jagger, the latter of whom provides backing vocals). It shot to the top of the charts, and became one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century. Carly continued to have major hits throughout the 1970s’ and even into the 1980s’, winning an Oscar in 1988 for “Let the River Run.” She’s slowed down her output since the early 1990s’, but her legacy is one of great importance and continued influence.
MOST BADASS SONG: “You’re So Vain.”
ANN & NANCY WILSON
The roles of ‘lead singer’ and ‘lead guitarist’ were almost exclusively male-occupied in the ‘classic rock’ era – Page & Plant, Jagger & Richards, Daltrey & Townshend, Tyler & Perry, and a host of others. The Seattle bred sister due of Ann & Nancy Wilson stormed the gates and changed that perception forever: with Ann’s seismic voice and Nancy’s signature guitar riffs (“Barracuda”), they propelled Heart into a massive success and influenced a generation of females to not only join a band, but know that no role in one was strictly ‘boys only.’
MOST BADASS SONG: “Barracuda”
The lead singer of Blondie looked like the girl next door but sang like she could kick your ass. Using her aggressive sex appeal to her advantage, songs like “One Way or Another,” “Call Me,” and “Rapture” flipped the accepted sexual dynamics of ‘submissive vs. dominant,’ something even few female singers had ever attempted. Debbie’s visual style, which combined 1950s’ glam with punk, was equally influential, inspiring the aesthetic of many female rockers afterward.
MOST BADASS SONG: “One Way Or Another”
If you don’t know who Kate Bush is, you should. The English born singer-songwriter was and is a true original. Bush began regularly writing and recording music when she was 13, and before she was 20 she had already been discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. At age 19, she scored the biggest hit of her career, the majestic and mysterious ballad “Wuthering Heights.” Throughout her career, Bush released a series of masterpiece albums and songs, but struggled to find success in America. Even so, her avant-garde visual style and unique sonic palette – spanning everything from Celtic to New Wave to cabaret – paved away for Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, and numerous other strong female entertainers of a similar vein.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Wuthering Heights”
WENDY & LISA
Prince intentionally formed his groundbreaking backing band, The Revolution, as an extension of the image he presented in his music: a world full of people not bound by religion, race, or gender, only by compassion, talent, and sexual freedom. Wendy & Lisa embodied that goal better than anyone else in the band: they were accomplished musicians, they were prominent women in a band otherwise filled with men, and they were a lesbian couple (they split up in 2001). Well aware of his controlling tendencies and social aloofness, Wendy & Lisa also had no problem putting Prince in his place, both professionally and personally. The film Purple Rain even makes direct acknowledgement of their dynamic, as Prince is constantly at odds with them and their desire to have a more direct contribution to his music, before finally giving in and recording the song they wrote for him (that song was “Purple Rain”). After splitting with Prince in 1986, Wendy & Lisa had a nominally successful solo career before turning to composing, winning Emmys for their score for the show Heroes. Currently, they’re keeping Prince’s legacy alive on tour with the newly reunited Revolution.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Computer Blue” (a Prince song, but it’s Wendy and Lisa’s sapphic intro that gives it its identity).
Sheila E. quite literally has followed the beat of her own drum, and remains an inspiring and active figure in the music world. Her instrument of choice seemed to predetermined by her family background (her father Pete Escovedo is a percussionist himself, and the godson of freaking Tito Puente), but her talent and resilience were and are her own. Her initial meeting with Prince in 1978 led her to become arguably his most well-known protégé; while Prince wrote her biggest hits, it’s Sheila’s charismatic vocals and incredible musicianship that gave them their appeal. In addition to influencing many women to take up what is arguably the most male-oriented musical family of them all, she helped spearheaded the Latino pop movement that came about in the 1990s’, inspiring names such as Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Lopez.
MOST BADASS SONG: “The Glamorous Life’
It’s impossible to do this list without mentioning Madonna. Her impact can’t be overstated: she burst onto the scene with an overt blend of mainstream pop music and dance, a visual component that made people take notice instantly, and a controversial hybrid of the sacred and profane highlighting much of her music. Her biggest songs (“Like a Virgin,” “Vogue, “Like a Prayer” and about 40 or so others) would’ve been hits without their iconic videos, but it was her chameleonic visual persona that made her a pioneer and a living legend. Beyond that, she’s a shrewd businesswoman like few have seen, with an incredible ability to market and reinvent herself hundreds of times over.
Pop music didn’t know what to make of Cyndi Lauper initially, because Lauper was truly an original. Her distinct high voice (one of the most versatile and powerful of any singer), songwriting abilities and colorful, eccentric image made her a worthy opponent to Madonna, as both encouraged a generation of women to express themselves via styles and attitudes they were previously taught to suppress. Her debut album, She’s So Unusual, yielded five Top 10 hits, and bought her instant notoriety. (Among the album’s biggest hits was “She Bop,” a defiant ode to female masturbation that was both controversial and empowering). She had massive hits throughout the 1980s’, and while she sort of fell off the musical A-list by 1990, Cyndi has kept busy: she is a songwriter, actress, producer and forceful advocate of LGBTQ rights. She wrote the music for one of Broadway’s biggest shows, Kinky Boots, and is a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, all while still performing fairly regularly.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”
Amos is America’s version of Kate Bush: a sort of spritely figure whose music and image are impossible to categorize. A grippingly honest songwriter with tremendous piano skills, Amos released a series of incredible albums throughout the 1990s’, the best being Little Earthquakes, which features classics such as “Winter” and “Me and a Gun,” the latter a devastating account of Amos’ very real life rape. Amos’ music isn’t always accessible or catchy, but it’s also some of the best you’ll ever hear in terms of originality and depth.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Crucify”
Also known as the woman who tainted Uncle Joey from Full House forever, Alanis was probably the most memorable and vital female singer of the 1990s’. Her ass kicking debut album, Jagged Little Pill, is a benchmark for any artist’s inaugural release, a strikingly strong collection of aggressive anthems of female independence mixed with sensitivity and vulnerability. She continued to have hits throughout the 1990s’, and even played God in Kevin Smith’s classic religious satire, Dogma. While her commercial prospects dried up by the mid-2000s’, Alanis’s status as both a musical force to be reckoned with as well as a feminist icon are both quite secure.
MOST BADASS SONG: “You Oughtta Know”
Beyonce has solidified herself as a living legend. There is no denying that. Whether it’s her stream of hits, her ever changing visual style, explosive live performances, or controversial political activism, she has already entered an impenetrable realm as an artist, once that not even some of the other women on this list occupy. Like Madonna, Beyonce isn’t just an artist, she’s a cultural phenomenon: women (and men) don’t just aspire to her sing or dance like her, they want to be like her. They want the confidence and power she has, and it’s led to a new wave of artists as well as women of all stripes and colors to empower themselves and take charge.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Sorry”
No one defines word ‘attitude’ like P!nk: you’d be hard pressed to find a song of hers that isn’t built around a ‘spit in your face’ defiance of the barriers put around her, whether it be my the government or an unfaithful lover. Listening to P!nk is like getting hit by a bulldozer in the best way: she sings with more conviction than a court house. Her songs are venomous, humorous and loaded with muscle that men wish they could conjure. Even when she reveals her more vulnerable side, P!nk never loses sight of the ‘blood and guts’ passion and defiance that has won her an extraordinary career.
MOST BADASS SONG: “So What”
It’s hard to believe it hasn’t even been ten years since Lady Gaga released her debut album; she’s engrained herself into the cultural zeitgeist so solidly, you’d think she’s been around for 30 years. That Gaga has cultivated such a legacy in a relatively short period of time is a testament to both her talent and her attitude: Gaga is a ‘take no prisoners’ artist’s artist in the same vein as Madonna, unwilling to compromise or care what the ‘powers that be’ think about her or her image. Barely in her 30s’, Gaga unquestionably will only grow and mature as the years go by, doing what all great icons do and keep us guessing and admiring her staying power.
MOST BADASS SONG: “Born This Way”
This is by no means meant to be the definitive list; there were tons of artists I left off that I wish I could write about more thoroughly and thoughtfully. This is merely a primer guide to show appreciation for the indelible mark these artists have made on pop culture. Not only have they empower women to take charge and be their own boss, they have challenged men to to look deep within, take a step back and reassess our behavior and our place in society.
ARTISTS I WANTED TO INCLUDE BUT HAVEN’T THE KNOWLEDGE OF THEIR OUTPUT TO DO THEM FULL JUSTICE: Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Joan Jett, K.D. Lang, Adele, Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Sarah MacLachlan, Liz Phair, Indigo Girls, and tons more.