One of the first lessons we are taught as children is that to gain respect, we must first earn it. Yet for women in music, the question of how to earn respect in an industry that is still overwhelmingly dominated by men still lingers. It is undeniable that icons such as Beyoncé and Ariana Grande have conquered the charts with game changing girl-power anthems. Yet studies such as the USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative show that between 2012-2018, only 21.7% of Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart songs were created by women artists, with even fewer women taking up producer roles. These findings, combined with the release of controversial hits such as Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines,’ suggest that women are still being represented in music through a primarily male lens: a focalisation that often isn’t concerned with being respectful.
In 2016, Kanye released the now-infamous ‘Famous,’ which gained notoriety for containing his boasts “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex // Why? I made that bitch famous.” The fallout feud between the Kardashians and Taylor Swift may have left fans divided, however perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the drama was the impact it had on Swift’s own branding. Her entire ‘Reputation’ era – from the album and music videos to the concert staging and costumes – built itself around the image of the ‘snake,’ an insult which Kardashian had branded Swift in what she referred to as an “online hate campaign.” By referencing the snake in the room (so to speak), Swift not only reclaimed the insult, but transformed it into a massively profitable brand for her music. Sure enough, ‘Reputation’ became the US’s best-selling album in 2017.
Reclamation as a form of empowerment isn’t a new concept, but it does have deeply significant implications for women within the music industry. One such example is Cardi B, who rocketed from stripping to becoming one of the most acclaimed rappers in the business (and indeed dethroning Swift’s place on the Billboard chart). Her mastery of a genre that has been repeatedly critiqued for its misogyny and objectification of women rests in part on her reclamation of the same misogynistic labels used against her, particularly in relation to her stripping past. From the outset, songs such as ‘Trick’ and ‘Lil Thot’ on her debut 2016 mixtape established dominance not only over her past clientele, but on the ‘thot’ label hurled against her, setting the trend for her music and proving herself to be just as valid a competitor as her overwhelmingly male peers. In challenging male lyrics that, as she has said herself, “let us know that they use us,” Cardi B rises to their level by returning fire on their violence and objectification.
But there is a debate to be had about the effectiveness of engaging with such misogyny. Whilst it is undeniable that Cardi B has succeeded in levelling her genre’s playing field, at what point does the reclamation of sexist and violent slurs cease to be empowering, and instead normalise the use of derogatory language? To be respected as both a rapper and a woman, she must prove herself to be capable of beating her male rivals at their own game by using their own lyrical style against them. Yet surely this denies her the ability to simply rap within her own right, independent of her past and her competitors. To what lengths must one artist go to empower themselves before this goal defines their entire career? Whilst reclamation certainly has been a crucial part of her personal success and empowerment, the extent to which it can be branded a success for the feminist movement as a whole is far more ambiguous. The ‘feminist’ label is one that Cardi B has hesitated in assigning herself in past interviews, a narrative that social media has exacerbated further in exposing her past posts online evidencing transphobia. Whilst reclamation can be powerful, it also can also create a gateway to a far more slippery slope of normalisation, which in turn certain groups can use as justification for using such language maliciously. When listening to music, it can become very easy to simply blindly sing along to lyrics without truly considering what they mean and what they stand for: where one person may find them empowering, another may find them incredibly offensive.
But regardless of your personal views on the implications of reclamation or an individual artist’s controversies, the impact of a woman conquering a male dominated field, topping charts, and continuing to do so even throughout a pregnancy is undeniably liberating. What the likes of Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and even controversial stars such as Cardi B stand for is the simple fact that women should not have to earn respect within the music industry because of their gender, but that they should earn it on their merits as an artist. And that is pretty empowering.