Women Rock (20 Percent of The Time, That Is)

With Taylor Swift's chart-topping dominance and Beyoncé's headline-making tour, it might seem like women command the music industry. However, a new book by School of Literature, Media, and Communication Professor Philip Auslander shares how that's far from true, even as it celebrates the accomplishments of women in popular music. 

image of a political rocker Skin crowdsurfing at a show

Political rocker Skin crowdsurfing at a show.

"Only about 20% of all musicians in the United States are women," Auslander says. "Pop music is considered to be female-dominated genre, yet women account for only 32% of pop musicians. That's pretty shocking in this day and age. It's disturbing that the situation is as it is, and I don't think many people are aware of it."

Auslander studies performance in popular culture, which can be heavily influenced by gender. He teaches a course on music, culture, and society and writes on topics as varied as Lady Gaga, the Beatles, robotic performance, stand-up comedy, and, of course, good ol’ rock n' roll, where women and men begin to be treated differently from an early age. 


book spread with a picture of Pat Benatar and the opening text of her section

Book spread of Pat Benatar

"It starts with how girls traditionally have been discouraged from playing certain instruments," Auslander says.

For example, girls predominantly choose to play higher-pitched instruments such as flutes, clarinets, or violins. At the same time, boys gravitate toward deeper instruments such as the electric guitar, bass guitar, or drums — a set of instruments much more common in pop music than the other.

"Therefore, there are fewer women playing those instruments, fewer women making that music, etcetera," Auslander explains. "So by the time you reach the radio, there's been all of this winnowing that's already happened."


Left: singer Tracy Chapman performing with an acoustic guitar. Right: Tina Turner on stage

Tracy Chapman and Tina Turner

In his new book, Women Rock! Portraits in Popular Music, Auslander profiles 50 iconic women rock stars and musical artists. Alongside vibrant photos, the coffee-table-style book chronicles the highlights of the women's careers, their influence, and, at times, the obstacles they've had to overcome to gain recognition and success in a male-dominated industry.

From Kate Bush to Joan Jett and Sinead O'Connor to Amy Winehouse, it focuses on women who, "In my opinion, haven't been adequately celebrated to this point," Auslander says.

Take, for example, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a 1940s and 50s gospel and blues singer and guitarist. Her musical style was similar to that of Chuck Berry, Auslander explains, a famous rocker who came on the scene a few years later. However, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Tharpe is celebrated as a precursor to the rock and roll movement rather than an active participant.


Amy Winehouse with a quote from her reading "Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen."

Amy Winehouse

"These figures are often acknowledged in a hedged way, as footnotes," Auslander says. "And I think that situation needs to be addressed. I'm not saying this book will fix the problem, but I hope it’s at least a little step in the right direction."

"Of course, the music business is hard for everybody," Auslander adds. "Nevertheless, there have been and remain obstacles specifically confronted by women. And I would like people to understand that a little bit better."

‘Women Rock! Portraits in Popular Music’ is published by Milan: White Star in 2023. 

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