Week 10: Gender, Record Sales, and the Emotion(less) depth of Female Artists

Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You has been at the forefront of the UK singles chart for thirteen weeks and is currently sat down in second place to former One Direction member Harry Style’s debut solo single Sign Of The Times, which was a secret-release dropped last Friday. Style’s has sold 49,996 copies whilst Sheeran has sold 38,597. The closest entry in the mid-weeks featuring a female is at number four in the charts, having sold 34,990 copies. Furthermore, only six entries feature just female artists whilst eight (including Clean Bandit) feature male artists. Lafrance, Worcester & Burns (2011) argue that gender inequality continues to characterise the world of popular music, with their research revealing that female artists have a lower number of hit songs yet higher chart rankings. Building from the notion of a lower number of hit songs and higher chart rankings, I suggest that this, whilst still significantly relevant and in a dire state, has changed for the better in the six years since the research was published due to Little Mix, an all-female girl-group appearing twice in the charts with No More Sad Songs and Touch.

It is interesting to note that scholars (Bauman, 2002; Cowen, 2002; Schellenberg and Scheve, 2012) suggest that popular music is such an inextricable part of human culture, that social and cultural changes that accompany the increasing appreciation of emotionally complex music and ambivalent feelings. Style’s Sign Of The Time is a song which changes emotion through its growing tone which changes from one of desperation to hope, which is perhaps why it has become so successful in its first week compared to Sheeran’s Shape Of You, which is emotionally one-sided and focused more on traditional themes of love and lust. More interesting are the lack of emotional depth among the female output in the midweek charts, with Julia Michaels’ Issues being one of the few that hits a level emotionally like Styles, whilst others like Little Mix’s entries are less emotional and more aimed at a particular target audience – children – and packed with traditional songwriting themes.

Lieb (2013) suggests that few female artists achieve such heights as Lady GaGa and Fergie, and those who do increasingly rely on sex appeal, so much so that female artists who stay the same in this post-MTV world for too long grow stale quickly and disappear from the limelight, if not the industry. What is interesting about this is that a part from the high-end appearances of Little Mix, Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, and Clean Bandit, the majority of the female appearances in the current midweek charts are relatively new artists who have broken through or appeared in the last year including Alessia Cara, Julia Michaels, Raye, and Anne-Marie. The current state of the chart highlights that Lieb’s suggestion is indeed a realistic analysis of popular music, that unless you carry sex appeal that is forever changing or are a constant chart-topper such as Lady GaGa, you are unlikely to remain in the charts for long.

I find it interesting to acknowledge that the only number one single of the year so far has been Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You, with only one all-female number one single in 2016 from Little Mix with Shout Out To My Ex, which was down majorly from 2015 which had six all-female number one singles, again with Little Mix featuring amongst artists such as Ellie Goulding and Jess Glynne. Perhaps, even more interesting here is that Ellie Goulding and Jess Glynne are artists who play between the lines of traditional pop music and the emotional constructs of pop music that appears to work better. What stands out to me here is where did the sudden drop come from in female number ones? What exactly is the relevance of this to the state of popular music in 2017? Let’s not forget that the record holder for most UK number ones is in fact Madonna with 13.


Lafrance, M., Worcester, L. and Burns, L. (2011). Gender and the BillboardTop 40 Charts between 1997 and 2007. Popular Music and Society, 34(5), pp.557-570.

Bauman, Z. (2002). Society under siege. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cowen, T. (2002). Creative destruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schellenberg, E. and von Scheve, C. (2012). Emotional cues in American popular music: Five decades of the Top 40. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(3), pp.196-203.

Lieb, K. (2013). Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry. 1st ed. London: Taylor and Francis.


2 thoughts on “Week 10: Gender, Record Sales, and the Emotion(less) depth of Female Artists

  1. You make some interesting (and sometimes sweeping) statements / conclusions here; it would be good to write a more thorough piece on this when the opportunity arises to get more of the background research across.
    Personally, I think Harry Styles and the success of the so-called ‘secret release’ could be heavily-related to image, fanbase and clever marketing, as well as the ’emotional’ content it conveys.
    It is an interesting post which also begs the question, based on the artists who are at number one, who is buying ‘chart’ music nowadays. It suggests to me a younger audience, pre-teen, perhaps because by the time teenagers reach adolescence they are savvy enough with technology to file share and stream? Other questions this made me think of:
    If a female looked and dressed like Ed Sheran still get to number one? Questionable.
    Is it the ’emotion’ that sells records still? Or more the hook and repetition? Or is it predominantly the image and marketing?
    Overall, a very thought-provoking article. Thanks!


    • Also, a good read on this subject is ‘She Bop’ which charts the sexually liberated pop of Madonna, through to what is termed as the ‘narcissistic age’ and the MTV generation and beyond.

      O’Brien, L. 2012, She bop: the definitive history of women in popular music, Revis 3rd edn, Jawbone Press, London.


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