Inspired by International Women’s Day 2017’s theme of Be Bold for Change, we’ve shortlisted our favorite examples of the boldest women in music, creating an empowering playlist for those moments when you need a little emboldening. These are women who have changed the expectations of women in the music industry, shown that we can help each other up the ladder and influenced whole generations to be bold and be heard.
Marilyn and Ella Fitzgerald
These BFFs changed music history. When Marilyn demanded Ella be booked at Hollywood’s legendary 50s night spot Mocambo, promising the owner she would sit front row every night, a music legend was born. The press went wild, Ella became a star – known as the Queen of Jazz and the First Lady of Song – but would continue to say that she owed her friend Marilyn “a real debt”.
Oh Bondage Up Yours
X-Ray Spex’s anti-capitalist 1977 debut single was a seminal punk anthem, as well as a prototype for 90s US feminist punk movement Riot Grrl. Lead singer Poly Styrene begins the track by solemnly drawling ‘Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard’ before screaming ‘But I think Oh Bondage Up Yours’ as she implores us all not to be restricted by a materialistic world.
Madonna forever changed the way women would be viewed in popular culture, and was even heralded as the “future of feminism” back in the early 90s by uber feminist academic Camille Paglia – and wasn’t she proved right. Madonna broke taboos, like sex, in the public eye for the first time, she constantly reinvented herself so you never knew what was coming, and has had an icon worthy career spanning decades.
The Spice Girls
These five have made more genuine political impact than they are often given credit for. With debut single Wannabe they stormed into the lives of 90s teen girls in a whirlwind of unapologetic Girl Power, making a whole generation of women proud to be loud and unafraid to speak their minds. That single still resonates so much it was recreated as part of the UN’s 2016 global campaign #WhatIReallyReallyWant to help draw attention to issues that still affect women around the world.
Big girls find it hard in the music industry, and whatever size you are most women are expected to be sexy. Missy tore up the rules when she broke through as a solo artist in the late 90s. She was both big and not dressing like the other pop stars. In fact, her most legendary outfit not only didn’t try to shape her, it purposefully made her look bigger – a massive, blow up, black onesie. She looked amazing AND she changed the possibilities for plus size pop stars of the future.
Text by Deborah Coughlin
Deborah Coughlin is a writer, artist and founding director of the feminist performance group Gaggle, who NME called one of the Top 50 Greatest Innovators ever. She writes about women and culture for The Guardian, ID, Vice and broadcast for BBC Radio 4.
Missy Elliot – Atlantic Records / Wikipedia Commons
Madonna – Chrisweger / Wikipedia Commons
Ella Fitzgerald – Library of Congress / Wikipedia Commons