March is Women’s History Month, and Monday was International Women’s Day. It was not my plan to celebrate women in this space during this time, but with chivalry being the hot-button topic that it is to me, and with my viewing of the Britney Spears doc last weekend, the blog has taken on a theme of gender issues of its own accord.
The presence and influence of Southern women is undeniable in all aspects of American life, and nowhere has their influence been so fully realized as in popular music. I don’t have any gut-punch social message to deliver this time around, just a lot of individual talking points to support this assertion.
It might not be obvious that Southern women hold such an outsized role in pop music. For instance, when Billboard used the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Hot 100 to rank the Top 60 Female Artists of All Time in 2018, only a couple of names jump out as Southern icons: Brenda Lee and Faith Hill are among the very few. But there’s a lot going on under the surface.
- Country music – country music is one of the cornerstones of rock and folk music, which means that everyone from Janis Joplin to Joan Jett to Wilson Phillips have the musical stylings of the South, and the Southern women who helped shape that sound, to thank for how their music sounds. Not to mention the legends, such as Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire, who remained powerhouses while never overtly extending their reach into pop music.
- Black music – Black music traditions are the other cornerstone of rock music and the precursor of just about every type of popular music that has existed in the last two centuries in the U.S. Whether you are discussing ragtime or jazz or blues or reggae or hip-hop or dance, it’s all pretty much based in Black music. Country music itself is a blend of blues and various folk musics. And the roots of Black music are in the South.
- “Closet” Southerners – although it may be more biographically correct to say that Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston are from New Jersey and that Diana Ross is from Detroit, many of the most influential Black American female singers are only a generation removed from the South. Others, like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, who were both born in Tennessee, achieved such transcendence that their Southern background is not always acknowledged. (Yes, I am familiar with the song “Nutbush City Limits;” I’m just not sure everyone else is.) Britney Spears, as discussed in the last post, also falls in this category.
- Superstars with a Southern pass in their back pockets – speaking of transcendence, Janet Jackson and Beyonce´, two members of the pop and R&B firmament, have registered firm acknowledgments of their Southern roots via their more earthy alter-egos, Damita Jo and Sasha Fierce, respectively. Damita Jo is actually Janet’s middle name (names?), and she created a whole album (the one whose launch was ruined by the blacklisting following the Super Bowl incident) around that identity; her parents were born in Arkansas and Alabama. Beyonce has always shown Houston hometown pride, and with the Lemonade project she explored her Southern roots more explicitly with sonic textures and stunning visual treatments. (“Daddy Lessons” is a jaw-dropper if you haven’t heard it.)
- Adopted Southerners – Linda Ronstadt, Taylor Swift, and Anne Murray are among the non-native women who have inhabited the Southern musical sphere and have sometimes become transplants in Nashville and elsewhere in the South.
- Dolly Freakin’ Parton – Dolly has had a seismic impact of popular music and culture. I will save you the tired recitations of how she has made the world a better place, but yeah… Dolly Freakin’ Parton.
But I’m sure I didn’t need to convince you, dear reader, that Southern women, and Southern women at heart, are pretty darn influential in the music biz. Just make sure you spread the word.
And for all of my friends, you can click your stopwatch now. It took me two weeks and two days to hold out mentioning my girl Janet in the new blog.