It’s Brutal Out Here: This Year’s Albums That Critiqued Sexism In The Music Industry

Last month, Dr. Luke, despite accusations of rape, sexual assault, and emotional abuse by Kesha, charted at No. 1 on Billboard’s ranking of hot producers. Also last month, The Recording Academy nominated comedian Louis C.K. for a Grammy, despite numerous accusations of sexual misconduct. This is all to say that the music industry often has no regard for the safety of women.

This becomes more and more obvious over time. Earlier this year, it seemed like we, as a collective society, were reflecting on the way we treated Britney Spears. Our recognition of this situation of sexism, though, was quickly commodified and made into a documentary, which happens quite frequently, giving the impression that speaking out about trauma in this industry is only necessary if it is profitable.

So maybe it was inevitable that some of the biggest releases this year would consist of women verbalizing the poor treatment they deal with in the process of making and releasing art. Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, which arrived in May after the unspooling of memorable, wildly successful singles, painted a portrait of a young woman who’s tired of having to constantly prove herself as smarter and more mature than anyone would typically estimate. Many people — mostly men — were surprised that they took a liking to this female pop star; lots of pretentious music-lovers argued with one another over the genre of her songs. Are we allowed to throw the term rock in there? Alternative? Punk? (On a similar note, a lot of headlines dubbed Sour as a breakup album, and a lot of other headlines claimed it is not “just” a breakup album. They’re right, it’s not, but would it be a problem if it was?)

But that’s beside the point. There’s reason to distrust Rodrigo; she was, after all, a Disney kid, and that can’t be ignored when discussing the colossal impact her debut album had in the music world this year. However, one of the reasons Sour did so well is that it makes you forget all about that. The fierce first track, “Brutal,” is both vulnerable and bombastic, especially when she sings: “And I’m so tired that I might / Quit my job, start a new life / And they’d all be so disappointed / ’Cause who am I, if not exploited?” This — coming from an 18-year-old woman who played a role in the High School Musical mockumentary series — felt monumental. How often is exploitation referred to in pop music, let alone named specifically?

And a lot of this returns to the fact that, well, she is literally a teenager. A majority of the attention that’s placed on her is due to her youth, and Sour seemed determined to not let any listener find her to be naïve. She doesn’t want to be condescended or underestimated.

More recently, Taylor Swift expressed a similar sentiment on her re-recording of the 2012 Red. Her struggles with the industry were made apparent in 2020 when Scooter Braun sold her masters so that she would no longer own her past work. “Nothing New” is a collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers that’s on the new version of Red, the version she created in order to have ownership and agency over it. The beginning lines capture the treatment of women in an industry that benefits from belittling them: “They tell you while you’re young / ‘Girls, go out and have your fun’ / Then they hunt and slay the ones who actually do it / Criticize the way you fly when you’re soarin’ through the sky.” Having Bridgers hop on this track conveys the way this problem hasn’t changed since Swift wrote the song around 2012; Bridgers is the next woman in the spotlight who is wondering: “Lord, what will become of me / Once I’ve lost my novelty?”

Billie Eilish wonders this on Happier Than Ever. After turning 19, she sings on the opening track: “I’m getting older, I think I’m aging well / I wish someone had told me I’d be doing this by myself.” It’s quite obvious that the music industry often pedestals women who are in their late teenage years; the younger women are, the easier they are to be exploited and fetishized. Yet the pressures are higher, and the rate at which they grow up is intensified. This is all only exacerbated by the fact that millions of people jumped at the opportunity to sexualize and objectify these women as soon as they turn 18, as if they never viewed her as an actual person to begin with.

Similar to Rodrigo, she sings: “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now.” It really portrays the loss of sincerity and genuine creative drive once art is transformed into a career. A lot of the album reckons with these sort of meta themes; the title itself refers to the dissonance between Eilish’s private and public life. Her personal priority to be happy is constantly skewed by what stories the media are making up about her.

So much is lost when a woman puts vulnerable art into the world. It is often judged to fit into stereotypes; the “sad girl” genre is the prime example of this, showing that women cannot express feelings in music without being lumped into a category that reinforces the idea that their gender inherently makes them “hysterical” and “too emotional.” What else is lost is the musician’s ability to exist as just a being; on “Blouse,” from Clairo’s July album Sling, she repeats: “If touch could make them hear / then touch me now.” She’s sacrificing her boundaries just to be listened to, and this seems to be a requirement for every woman who makes music. It doesn’t help that the industry intentionally spotlights young, white, skinny, cis, and conventionally pretty women; the media can view them as an interchangeable type. This can obviously weigh on a musician, who is offering something sincere to an industry that repays by treating them as disposable.

All of these releases have done extremely well this year, whether it be through sales or streams or award nominations or placement on year-end polls, like Uproxx’s. But the industry has failed to actually listen to the actual work it’s uplifting. Change starts with viewing musicians as more than workers and women as more than objects.