Music is one of the most popular mediums of entertainment and the music industry is one of the most public, popular industries in India and the world. Despite being a creative and commercial space constituted by people from all genders, the notions of patriarchy that are embedded in our social conscience are prevalent in the Indian music industry as well.
This is evident from the number of misogynistic, sexist songs produced every year, and the tokenisation of women at award ceremonies, financial decision making, and participation in other industry activities. The industry is also elitist, and exclusive of the voices of many deserving artists who identify as gender non-binary, as well as artists belonging to the marginalised communities.
Gender and competence: Women are either sidelined or supervised by men
The gendered, patriarchal domination of power relations is prevalent across the globe. The skewed representation of women vis a vis men is visible in the music industry, the film industry, and every workplace we can think of. The music industry is so male dominated everywhere that never once do we stop to think about the absence of a substantial number of women performers from rock concerts and other music related platforms, as well as from the ‘behind the scene’ staff of music events.
Though women are actively stepping into roles traditionally deemed masculine, they constantly come out with accounts of sexism, misogyny and experiences of prejudice. As reported by Youth Ki Awaaz, women who venture into professions such as sound engineering, music production and mix-tape management have to deal with the added stress and anxiety of men deeming them “unfit” for their job.
Often, other male professionals are called upon to review the work done by women or are employed additionally because women are viewed as incompetent.
Additionally, the gender pay gap is yet another problem that plagues the industry. According to the World Economic Forum’s recent report about gender pay gap, India ranks the third lowest among South Asian countries in terms of bridging the gap. Further, India ranks 140 out of the 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2021, slipping down 28 places. Discrimination and sexism directed at women across sectors including the entertainment industry further fuels this gap. It is estimated that women earn one fifth of what their male counterparts earn in the same professional settings.
In the music industry, the pay disparity is further facilitated by the reigning culture of discrimination that is fiercely and religiously upheld in favour of men. The thriving ‘boys clubs’ make it difficult for women to open up about their sexual harassment experiences and build counter narratives about the blatant sexism they face.
Additionally, since women venturing into the music industry and exploring different genres is a relatively new phenomenon, women have difficulty solidifying work relationships and gaining access to better resources and opportunities. Hence, women have to fight harder and are often pitted against each other to avail these resources.
For example, in an interview with The Hindu, Shilpa Natarajan, an independent acoustic singer and songwriter remarked that in Chennai, women are allowed to book gigs in hotels and restaurants only once a month whereas men can avail this opportunity several times and this drastically increases their income.
Sexism, objectification: The need for change in content and execution
The kind of content that is produced also influences the amount of work women get in film music. The production of romantic movies has ensured that there are diverse female playback singers in the forefront. However, their participation seems to be rapidly decreasing from other facets of the music industry. Adding to this is the problematic manner in which the voices of female singers and their presence on screen are presented and amplified.
Once again, the fate of the female singers rests on the individuals (usually men) writing the scripts and songs and deciding the solo and duet songs allocated to each singer. This is where objectification comes into the picture. Not only are the lyrics to ‘item songs’ sexist and misogynistic, they nullify everything the female singers stand for by limiting their voices to erotic, sexualised embodiment.
Songs like ‘Sheila ki Jawani’, ‘Fevicol Se’, ‘Chamma Chamma’ are examples of how women’s bodies, are depicted as sexual objects and is a reflection of the entitlement and decision making power that rests with the producers, song writers and other men in the industry.
Consequently, women are increasingly marginalised and invisibilised in terms of both content and execution when compared to their male counterparts. There is a decrease in the number of songs, especially female oriented songs or solo tracks sung by female playback singers. Apart from this, the duet songs also further push women into the periphery by allocating four or five lines to the female singer, as is evident in songs like ‘Saturday Saturday’ and ‘London Thumakda’.
In times like these, when women are increasingly mustering courage to call people out for objectification and bigotry, the music industry needs to do a better job of advocating equality and making efforts to de-stigmatise the bodies of women.
Many female playback singers feel their voices are missing because of the reduction in female- centric movies. Akriti Kakar and Shibani Kashyap, in an interview with The Bridge Chronicle, explained how even movies with strong women protagonists like ‘Queen’ had no song sung solely by a female singer and the highlight of the movie ‘Tumhari Sulu’ was a song sung by a male singer.
It can generally be noticed that female singers are glamourised and used as props on and off stage. Their work seldom gets its due respect apart from being sensationalised and reduced to their gender and bodies. With increased awareness about the gender disparity in the music industry, certain promising projects have been launched to ensure parity. These projects also aim to strengthen connectivity networks for female singers.
One such project is the initiative of Spotify called AmplifyHer. It brings voices of women across India to the forefront with a variety of opportunities ranging from audio podcast hosting, to singing and song writing. This initiative also profiles regional singers and brings their voice to the spotlight. Women in Music, India Chapter is yet another initiative chaired by Priyanka Khimani, that streamlines equality in the music industry by supporting women artists and equipping them with “knowledge, strategy and solutions”.
The onus of gender equality also falls on every investor in the music industry. Women and other marginalised artists must be given space to grow and own their footing. This requires the intersection of many aspects, including the ideation and marketing of music which currently works in favour of men.
Featured Image Source: Vice