Like most walks of life, being a female in the music industry has unfortunately never been a fair roll of the dice. Women constantly have to face obstacles that their male peers simply don’t see. There can be no doubt that the music industry is still a boys club and breaking through requires both precision and power.
The difficulties women face come in various forms, from the treatment they receive from those behind the scenes solely because of their sex or even the societal stereotypes that they are forced to maintain. All in all, their experiences of being a musician is simply incomparable with their contemporaries from the opposite sex.
In recent years, it feels like the tides are changing, if a little too slowly. While true equality is still societal miles from being achieved in any practical sense, there is reason to be optimistic that the utopian dream isn’t too far away in the distance.
For female musicians, songwriting is a powerful tool that allows them to take pride and ownership of their unique version of femininity, which is moulded by the experiences they have encountered across their journey.
Below, we celebrate ten tracks that champion womanhood.
The best songs about celebrating female identity
Courtney Barnett – ‘Nameless, Faceless’
Melbourne singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett shared her brutal honest experience of what an ordinary day is like for a woman on the haunting ‘Nameless, Faceless’, where she pleads that all she wants to do is walk in the park in the dark.
She speaks about her fears for her mortality and sings, “Women are scared that men will kill them, I hold my keys, Between my fingers.” Barnett later admitted the track was inspired by articles she’d read on domestic violence across Australia and the “song just grew around” these harrowing accounts she’d absorbed on the subject.
It’s a powerful effort, and the singer deserves high praise for using her platform to shine a light on a horrific battle that women face every day around the globe.
Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu – ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’
Janelle Monae announced her second album, The Electric Lady, in style with the mammoth lead single, ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, featuring Erykah Badu. Monae reverts many gender stereotypes, most notably, the way she dresses, and on this track, she takes pride in that as she sings, “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”
Speaking about the track to Billboard, Monae said: “With ‘Q.U.E.E.N.,’ I feel like there are constant parallels with me as a woman, being an African-American woman, to what it means for the community that people consider to be queer, the community of immigrants and the Negroid-the combination between the ‘N’ and the android.”
She added: “All of us have very similar fights with society and oppressors, with those who are not about love, who are more about judging.”
Sleater-Kinney – ‘Modern Girl’
Musically, Sleater-Kinney’s ‘Modern Girl’ is nothing short of beautiful and acts as a sugary missile of hope that will sweeten even the worst of days. However, underneath the track’s surface from 2005’s The Woods, you’ll find a nuanced take about the perils of coming of age and entering womanhood.
Throughout the track, singer Carrie Brownstein goes through every emotion from ‘happy’ to ‘angry’, and it feels like a whistlestop rollercoaster ride throughout her twenties. In the end, we find Brownstein hankering for the past and yearning for the innocent time when, “My whole life, Looked like a picture of a sunny day.”
Aretha Franklin – ‘Respect’
When Aretha Franklin released ‘Respect’ in 1967, she was a somewhat unknown quantity in the mainstream. However, this song would change everything, and the powerful anthem would define her career.
The track was initially written and performed by Otis Redding two years prior, but Franklin flipped the gender in the lyrics, which transformed it completely, and turned it into a heartfelt cry for feminism.
Speaking of the track in 2014, she said: “Well, I just love it. Of course, that became a mantra for the civil rights movement. ‘Respect’ is just basic to everyone: everybody wants it […] Everybody wants and needs respect. It’s basic to mankind. Perhaps what people could not say, the record said it for them.”
Little Simz – ‘Woman’
Little Simz’s BRIT-nominated fourth album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, is an ode to being proud of her identity with the spirit of the record epitomised by the poignant ‘Woman’.
The moving effort is a letter to her friends of the fairer sex, encouraging them to lead whatever life they desire and live free from the shackles that were once locked in place.
On the track, Simbi upliftingly sings, “Tell ’em you’re nothing without a woman, no, Woman to woman, I just wanna see you glow, Tell ’em what’s up, I love, how you go from zero to one hundred, And leave the dust behind, You’ve got this, All action, no talk.”
Lana Del Rey – ‘Young & Beautiful’
Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young & Beautiful’ is a heartbreaking effort about the fears women face about ageing and that their love will run away once their looks begin to fade.
While the song has been criticised as Del Rey appears to bow down to men’s ideals by asking, “Will you still love me, When I’m no longer young and beautiful?” however, that misses the point of the song, which wasn’t written from the singer’s perspective, but, the lens of Daisy from The Great Gatsby. Moreover, these are women’s genuine worries that she highlighted in the piece.
Explaining the track, she said: “He asked me if I could write a memory cue for Daisy. So I sang him a chorus of ‘Young and Beautiful’ that I had already — just a chorus — and he thought that’d be good for her. I wrote the whole thing after I watched her garden scenes.”
Self Esteem – ‘I Do This All The Time’
Self Esteem’s second album, Prioritise Pleasure, is a no-holds-barred autobiographical account of her life and finds Rebecca Taylor shoving two fingers up at the tiring societal expectations that are in place for women in their 30s.
On ‘I Do This All The Time’, she sings about not being married with children, and Taylor reassuringly says, ‘Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life, All the days that you get to have are big, Be wary of the favours that they do for you.”
The track takes inference from her own life, and the lyric, “All you need to do, darling, is fit in that little dress of yours, If you weren’t doing this, you’d be working in McDonald’s,” is a direct quote from a former tour manager during her Slow Club days.
In an interview with Far Out, Taylor recalled the horrific moment that sparked the lyric, “I was looking around the room at people that I’d been in a band with for ten years, thinking, ‘Can somebody stand up for me here?’ but nobody did.”
M.I.A. – ‘Bad Girls’
The hypnotising ‘Bad Girls’ by M.I.A. does precisely as it says on the tin and is all about celebrating the bad girl lifestyle. For decades in music, songs like this would often be sung by men, and it was liberating to hear a woman in M.I.A. flex on a track in the same bombastic way that’s usually associated with the opposite sex.
On ‘Bad Girls’, she boisterously raps, “Live fast, die young, Bad girls do it well, Live fast, die young, Bad girls do it well, My chain hits my chest, When I’m bangin’ on the dashboard, My chain hits my chest, When I’m bangin’ on the radio.”
First Aid Kit – ‘You Are The Problem Here’
The usually quaint First Aid Kit ditched any niceties for International Women’s Day in 2017 when they released ‘You Are The Problem Here’, which lamented the despicable people who participate in rape culture. The Swedish group expressed their anger in direct terms on the defiant track.
“It’s a song written out of despair,” they said. “After reading about yet another rape case where the perpetrator was handed a sentence which did not at all reflect the severity of his crime we felt upset and vengeful.
“We were, and are, sick of living in a society where the victims of rape are often blamed for the horrible thing that has been done to them. Our message is clear and should not be controversial in the least: if you rape, you are the problem. Alcohol is not the problem. So called ‘youth culture’ is not the problem. You are. And you always have a choice.”
Florence + The Machine – ‘King’
Florence + The Machine’s euphoric 2022 comeback single, ‘King’, begins with the line, “We argue in the kitchen about whether to have children.” The track deals with Welch realising that, unlike her male contemporaries, she has to choose whether she wants to focus on starting a family or her career.
Explaining the track, she said: “Now, thinking about being a woman in my 30s and the future… I suddenly feel this tearing of my identity and my desires. That to be a performer, but also to want a family, might not be as simple for me as it is for my male counterparts.
“I had modelled myself almost exclusively on male performers, and for the first time I felt a wall come down between me and my idols as I have to make decisions they did not.”