From Madonna to Rihanna: The Rise of Females in Music

I like lists. I like to read lists and make lists. I like all kinds of lists – well, except perhaps for “honey do” lists, I’m not quite so fond of those. In general, though, show me a list and I feel compelled to read it. One of the best list makers ever is Billboard, the music business magazine that compiles charts for various genres in Billboardnumerous international locales. Billboard has been publishing music charts since the 1930s (its corporate history actually dates to the 1890s) and has long been recognized as the definitive source for data on the popularity of singles and albums. Its main competitors, Cashbox and Record World, came and went in their wake, leaving their own very interesting, but incomplete data.

If I have any problem with Billboard, it’s that their charts are so mesmerizing that every time I look something up in one of their publications, I find that minutes (occasionally hours) later, I’ve completely lost focus on my original query. OK, OK that’s not actually Billboard’s problem, that’s my problem, but if you like lists and love music, that’s a dangerous combination. So, when I recently grabbed The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn to look up one topic, the mesmerizing options of information sidetracked me once again. I found another topic so very interesting that I’ll wait to address the subject of contemporary English female blue-eyed soul singers (and no, I’m not kidding about that subject) on a future occasion. Today, however, I’ll talk about the rise in popularity of female artists in the United States from the nineties to the present.

Billboard started compiling an expanded list of popular songs in 1955, tweaking it again in 1958 to make it more comprehensive. Joel Whitburn founded Record Research Inc. in 1970 and has been assembling Billboard data ever since (Billboard and Record Research are separate entities, but for ease of use, I’m just going to lump them together as Billboard for this post). Tucked far in the back of The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits is a section called “The Record Holders: Top Artist and Record Achievements.” One of the categories in that section is “Top 25 Artists by Decade,” which is solely based on the popularity of an artist’s singles. As a result, you won’t find a mega-band like Led Zeppelin in the 1970s rankings because their success was almost entirely based on album sales and massive touring.  Nevertheless, the rankings provide a worthwhile snapshot of which artists were dominant in various decades.

Looking through the decades, I quickly became aware of one rather surprising fact: female artists rarely found success in equivalent numbers to male artists for much of the Top 40 era. In The Supremesthe fifties (covering `55-`59), only five female artists placed in the Top 25, with the McGuire Sisters the highest at number ten! One mixed gender group, The Platters, comprised of four males and one female (who didn’t sing lead), also made the list. The sixties also featured just five female acts in the rankings, though The Supremes (at three) and Brenda Lee (at five) were in the upper reaches. The seventies were slightly better for female artists, as six solo vocalists made the list, with another three mixed gender groups taking slots in the Top 25. Of the latter, The Carpenters, took high honors at number four, while Olivia Newton-John (at nine) was the highest ranking solo female. Those gains all but disappeared during the eighties. Although Madonna scored the highest ranking ever for a female, placing at number two, only three other women made the list!

Then something dramatic occurred. On the heels of the worst decade for female representation, the nineties exploded with popular female artists! Mariah Carey became the first female to top the decennial rankings, followed in order by Janet Jackson and MadonnaMadonna. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and TLC went five through seven, respectively, and Monica was the seventh woman in the top ten by placing at nine. All told, twelve female acts were in the Top 25. Along with the mixed gender group Ace of Base, females had achieved absolute parity with male artists. The first decade of the new millennium nearly matched the previous one as eleven female artists and one mixed gender act found slots in the rankings. Beyonce became the second female to top the chart and, separately, with Destiny’s Child, was also at ten. Rihanna and P!nk also placed in the top ten at seven and nine, respectively.

The current decade is now one third over and female artists are proving more popular than ever. I don’t have any comprehensive up-to-the-minute data to share, but I do have a bit of raw data (through 4/6/13) from which to draw some suppositions. For Rihannainstance, four artists have had three or more number one hits so far this decade, with Rihanna leading the pack with seven and Katy Perry right behind her with six. Adele is fourth with three. In terms of cumulative weeks by the primary artist at number one, Rihanna again leads with a whopping twenty-eight weeks, Katy Perry follows in second with an also impressive twenty weeks, and Adele maintains the fourth position with fourteen weeks. In addition to those stars, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Britney Spears, P!nk, Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson have all had considerable chart success in this decade (some for much longer). It’s still early in the decade, but this may become the first in which females dominate Billboard’s Top 25 rankings.

Frankly, I don’t have a definitive explanation as to why female artists have become so much more popular in recent times. Actually, I’m sure that there are several contributing factors at play here. If I had to make one guess, however, I suspect it has a lot P!nkto do with the liberation of women in our culture generally over the past fifty years. That personal freedom has afforded increasing opportunities for females to pursue their interests in fields previously dominated by men. Quite obviously, musical talent is not gender specific, so we are now blessed with a greater pool of female musicians, many of whom have risen to the top of the field. That’s just one theory. If you have another, please add a comment to this post. I’ll happily share the best ones with my readers.

Remember, Des Moines Public Library patrons have access to thousands of CDs, all at no charge and with a very generous checkout limit! Come in and browse the CD racks at any of our six locations, or hop online and search our catalog. We have titles for virtually any musical interest! 

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Marvel Is Marvelous. Will The Man of Steel Be Super?

I admit it, I was never a comic book kid growing up (nor am I a graphic novel guy now). I did, however, Superman Imagewatch Adventures of Superman, the hokey 1950s TV series starring George Reeves as The Man of Steel, and Batman, the campy 1960s TV show with Adam West as The Caped Crusader. I even remember seeing random episodes of Spider-Man and Fantastic 4, two late-sixties Saturday morning cartoons. The production values for all of those shows were marginal, at best, but they were products of  their less technologically savvy times. That and the fact that superhero stuff wasn’t exactly big time then, so producers just weren’t willing to throw a lot of money at them, let alone attempt to make them cutting edge. Perhaps as a result, I was never more than a fair-weather fan of all things superhero.

 A few weeks ago I went to see Iron Man 3. Frankly, it was a blast! In Iron Mancontrast to the superhero shows of my childhood, Iron Man 3 is probably as cutting edge as it can be. Imaginative special effects and quality sets in the service of an engaging story with clever acting adds up to a great time. You know, I’ve really come to enjoy many of these page to screen adaptations of superhero stories that are so popular currently. It seems as though the honchos at Marvel Studios have really figured out the formula, with wildly successful versions of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, as well as the X-Men. First Class and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots, all coming in just the past five years. There’s always a lot of fan boy talk about which of the two major comic book empires – Marvel, or DC – is the better of the two. For movies, at least right now, it’s no contest.  Marvel is at the top of the comic book-turned-silver screen superhero heap!

And then there’s DC Comics. This weekend, DC (through Warner Bros.) releases Superman ReturnsMan of Steel, the second reboot of the Superman series since the glory days of the franchise when it starred the late Christopher Reeve. The last entry, 2006’s Superman Returns was a complete dud. The last five DC Comics creations to reach the big screen were (in reverse chronological order) The Dark Knight Rises, Green Lantern, Red, Jonah Hex, and The Losers. OK, I’ll admit that The Dark Knight Rises was a very good, if not great, film, while Red was just successful enough to warrant its upcoming sequel. Along with the others, however, they don’t exactly constitute a winning streak. It’s clear that DC has not had the same run of success that Marvel has had since they created their own production companies several years ago.

Before DC and Marvel ventured into film production themselves, other companies purchased screen rights from them to produce movies based on their properties. The first superhero movies, however, were few and far between. Not surprisingly, the first comic book stars to get the Hollywood treatment were the two biggest of the period – Superman and Batman – and there are many parallels between their transitions to film. Superman first popped up on the big screen in a pair of serials: 1948’s Superman and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman. His first feature-length appearance came in 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men, starring the cast of the concurrently-running TV series. That was it until Reeve starred as the refugee from planet Krypton in four films released between 1978 and 1987: Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Likewise, Batman first graced theater screens in the serials Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin Batman & Robin(1949), while his first feature-length appearance was in 1966’s Batman, also starring the cast of the concurrently-running TV series. He didn’t re-emerge from the Batcave until Michael Keaton assumed the role for 1989’s Batman, and again in 1992’s Batman Returns. Those were followed by 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin, starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney, respectively. Some were more successful than others, but all were big hits and DC clearly held the upper hand.

In 2005, Christopher Nolan revived the Batman franchise with a vengeance, co-writing and directing the highly-acclaimed and mega-lucrative trilogy starring Christian Bale. Batman Begins was followed by 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately for DC Comics, however, they’ve never been able to establish any characters beyond Superman and Batman as big screen stars, not Swamp Thing, Supergirl, SteelCatwoman, Constantine, or The Spirit.

Marvel is doing marvelously well now, but it too has more than its share of The Punishersuperhero skeletons in its Hollywood closet.  It took until 1998’s Blade that they had a hit movie and until 2000’s X-Men that they had a bona fide blockbuster. Among the Marvel properties that were unsuccessfully transferred to the screen were 1986’s Howard the Duck, about a cigar-chomping alien humanoid duck; a barely released 1990 version of Captain America; an un-released 1994 version of The Fantastic Four; and three (count `em, three) attempts to establish The Punisher as a silver screen star, in 1989 (which went direct-to-video in North America), 2004, and 2008.

As last year’s The Dark Knight Rises brought that Batman trilogy to a close, it’s now up to British-born actor Henry Cavill (best known for the TV series The Tudors) to help resurrect DC’s fortunes as the Man of Steel. On July 19, Red 2, based, as was the original, on a limited comic book series, will open on U.S. screens. The original was a mid-level hit, so the sequel isn’t really expected to do blockbuster business, that is, certainly not Marvel-level business. After that, the next DC production isn’t expected until 2015, when Justice League should arrive in theaters.

In the meantime, Marvel still has Kick-Ass 2, The Wolverine, and Thor: The Dark World all still coming The Amazing Spider-Manthis year. What’s more, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy are all expected next year. As if those aren’t enough, Ant-Man, as well as an Avengers sequel, plus a reboot of The Fantastic Four are all slated for 2015. I hate to say it, but Marvel isn’t just beating DC, they’re crushing them like the Hulk crushes a cockroach.

The Des Moines Public Library invites you to select your superheroes of choice from our wide collection of DVDs and graphic novels. Then use the superpowers contained in your library card to check them out through the wonders of modern technology, because at the DMPL, we’re cutting edge, too!

Country Rock… In the Beginning

According to the Recording Industry Association of America – the organization that awards gold and platinum certifications based on the number of albums and singles sold through retail and other ancillary markets in the United States – the best-selling album of all-time is EaglesTheir Greatest Hits Eagles(1971–1975). That title, originally released in 1976, has sold over 29 million copies. In addition, the career retrospective follow-up album, Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, from 1982, has sold more than 11 million copies. Simply put, on the basis of just those two albums alone, Eagles are among the top-selling American artists ever!

….I interrupt this blog to present a syntax service announcement: the past paragraph appears to missing the word “The” in three places, all preceding “Eagles.” It has always struck me as particularly awkward that the band was named Eagles, not The Eagles, as in The Beatles, just Eagles (trust me, you can look it up). That’s weird, right? Anyway, it’s their name and they can call themselves anything they like, so Eagles it is. I now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog….

Eagles were the primary purveyors of what is commonly known as country rock. “What’s country rock,” you may ask? Or, “Is country rock, a category of country, or of rock?” Or even, “How does country rock differ from southern rock, which also shares a number of similarities with country music?” Definitions certainly vary from one source to the next, but I’ll take a quick stab. Country rock was, for the most part, a west coast phenomenon in which rock musicians began incorporating elements of country into their music. Their audience was primarily made up of rockers, but there certainly was crossover appeal to fans of other genres, such as country (naturally), pop, and easy listening (now known as adult contemporary). Unlike southern rock, which generally had a hard edge, country rock tended to be more on the mellow side.

Many claim that country rock was born when Bob Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding in October-November 1967 (released December 27, 1967). The Dylan connection grows Bob Dylanstronger when considering that one of the first country rock bands, The Byrds, a California-based band, had their first big hit with a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965. At that time, however, The Byrds were known as the foremost progenitor of the new folk rock genre. The Byrds didn’t move into country rock until the short-lived addition of Gram Parsons in early 1968, though founding member Chris Hillman also had a background in, and love for, country music. Further Dylan influence can be seen in his relationship to a group of Canadian musicians who served as his backing band in the mid-sixties. When those musicians struck out on their own in 1967, they tried on various names before eventually becoming known simply as The Band. Like The Byrds, The Band was adding country accents to their rock and folk The Bandmix.

The first country rock album, however, may have been The International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home, which was recorded in July 1967, but not released until the following March. ISB was led by the aforementioned Parsons, an unknown singer-songwriter-guitarist whose group disbanded before their album ever hit store shelves. Safe at Home quickly became an occupant of bargain bins in the few places it was ever stocked in the first place. In the meantime, The Band finished work on Music from Big Pink, released on July 1, 1968, while The Byrds completed Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released on August 30 of the same year. Both of those albums The Byrdsreceived initial critical approval, but very sluggish sales, though they are now considered seminal albums in the country rock genre and are consistent selling back catalog titles.

After a power struggle within The Byrds between acknowledged leader Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and Parsons, the latter left the band in mid-1968, again before his latest album hit store shelves. Parsons immediately formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, and within a few weeks was joined by Hillman. Together they wrote most of the songs for The Gilded Palace of Sin, another key album in the country rock canon, released in February 1969. In mid-1969, Hillman invited singer-songwriter-multi-The Flying Burrito Brothersinstrumentalist Bernie Leadon (pronounced Led-un) to join the band. Hillman and Leadon had played together briefly in the bluegrass band The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers in the early sixties. After two albums – the first of which was the classic Burrito Deluxe; it was also the last to feature Parsons – Leadon, disappointed by the general lack of commercial interest in the group’s product, decided to leave.

Leadon, however, didn’t depart without prospects. Moonlighting from The Flying Burrito Brothers, he had fallen in with three musicians who were serving as the backing band for folk rocker Linda Ronstadt’s 1971 summer tour. Their names were Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, and Don Henley. Together, the four decided to push out on their own. It was allegedly Leadon who proposed the name Eagles. Leadon was instrumental in helping to define the early sound of Eagles as a country rock group, and they immediately clicked with the public. He was prominently featured on their first four albums, the ones covered by Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975). By 1975, Leadon was becoming disgruntled with what he felt was a move away from country rock toward arena rock and voluntarily left the band. Eagles would continue for several years (not counting the periodic reunions), more in the mainstream of rock, but never totally abandoning their country rock roots.

After leaving The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons recorded two solo albums before dying of a drug overdose September 19, 1973; he was just 26 years old. Hillman stayed with the Brothers for four albums Gram Parsonsbefore stints in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, and The Desert Rose Band among others. Parsons and Hillman, as much, or more so than Dylan, were the architects of country rock. Actually, I could make a pretty nearly equal case for several other artists who were active in the California music scene during that same period; you’ll see a few of those listed later.

Based on what I’ve written above, the emergence of the country rock subgenre probably seems fairly convoluted. That, I can assure you, is just the tip of the iceberg. The number of configurations, entries and exits, and start-ups, revivals and reunions among country rock bands and their personnel is nearly mind-blowing! When it comes to country rock bands, there are about two-degrees of separation, as nearly every possible permutation seems to have been tried at one time, or another.

In addition to the various groups mentioned above, there were (in some cases, still are) a number of other notable west coast-based country rock bands, including Buffalo Springfield, Firefall, Little Feat, Moby Grape, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Poco. Two female artists are also commonly associated with the movement: Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. The Des Moines Public Library can get you up to snuff when it comes to country rock, so visit us at any of our six locations, or online, and hear what you’ve been missing!