International Women’s Day has come and gone, leaving a lot of red and some dope hats in its wake. During this month dedicated to female history and the contemporary social challenges women still face, it is important to reflect on the impact of women in music, and to realize how fundamentally many singers, songwriters, and artists altered even longstanding social stigmas with their lyrics, style, and unforgiving attitude. So in honor of the lady greats of the music world, we look back on some iconic and pivotal moments in music history crafted by women, for women. (Please keep in mind this is by no means a comprehensive list.)
1955 – Marilyn Monroe sees Ella Fitzgerald perform in New York for the first time. Blown away by Fitzgerald’s raw talent, Monroe convinces Los Angeles club manager Charlie Morrison to let Fitzgerald perform at the Mocambo, if Monroe sits in the front row of her shows for a week. Morrison agrees, allowing Fitzgerald to circumvent the social taboo of a black artist—especially a black woman—playing in a “white” club. Fitzgerald goes on to irrevocably alter the terrain of jazz music in America, paving the way for thousands of female artists after her.
1961 – Aretha Franklin releases her album, Aretha, with Columbia Records. Franklin goes on to be dubbed “The Queen of Soul,” commanding respect with her powerful vocals, knowledge of musical instruments, and chart-dominating singles which put her at the top of her game throughout the mid-to-late sixties. To this day, Franklin ranks among the women in music with the most recorded Billboard hits, claiming a total of over 80 chart-topping songs.
1967 – The Velvet Underground release their eponymous LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico, featuring the dreamy, iconic vocals of Nico herself on songs like “Femme Fatale.” The debut album explored themes central to the cultural revolution of the 1960s—drug use, sexual liberation, BDSM, etc.
1971 – Women dominate the 1971 Grammy Awards, claiming awards in all four top categories. Best New Artist is won by Carly Simon, while Carole King wins Record, Album, and Song of the Year.
1975 – Patti Smith releases her debut album, Horses. The album, inspired by Beat poetry and featuring the sounds of punk and garage rock, will go on to be named one of the most important albums of all time, responsible for inspiring countless other musicians over the years, including The Smiths.
1981 – MTV is born. Following the flash of the iconic moonman, MTV airs 10 music videos to the public. The second video to air (just after “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles) is Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run.” Throughout the 1980s, Benatar proves herself to be an undeniable musical force, solidifying her position as one of the foremost members of the iconic ladies of the eighties.
1984 – Madonna’s second studio album, Like a Virgin, is released. Featuring songs like “Material Girl” and “Into the Groove,” the album reached and maintained the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list for a whopping three weeks. Madonna goes on to influence not just the pop music scene, but also the history of dance and electronic music with songs like “Music,” which brought the club lifestyle into the mainstream. Her daring fashion choices (can you say cone bra?) and music video performances also forever change the expression of female sexuality in video and on stage.
1996 – After signing an $80 million contract with Virgin Records, Janet Jackson becomes the highest-paid musician in history.
2008 – Lady Gaga releases her debut single, “Just Dance.” Gaga goes on to become one of the most sought-after artists of our time, and becomes a vocal political and social advocate, particularly for the LGBTQ community.
Sure, it’s always rewarding to remind yourself of the kick-ass women in your life, and to reflect on the sacrifices that ladies who came before us have made in order to move feminism and women’s rights forward. Though we have a long way to go before we can fully claim to have burst through that stubborn, Plexiglass ceiling, what better way to mark the passing of an under-appreciated day and to honor the Sisterhood than to think back on some of the baddest, raddest ladies in music. These women are unquestionably queens, have never taken no for an answer, and managed to rock, jam, and thump their way to the top in an industry unquestionably dominated by men. For your listening pleasure, here are some songs by women, past and present, to get you through the rest of Women’s History Month. Cheers!