Is the music industry finally allowing women to grow up?
Breakthrough female artists in their thirties are challenging the music industry's dusty ageism
For musicians trying to get their foot in the door, age can make or break them. Artists I know have told me that it’s standard for musicians to knock a few years off their age to add a little sparkle to their success story, while music execs have been reluctant for their ‘older’ but emerging artists to disclose their age in the press.
I know why: in journalism one of the first questions editors ask about a prospective rising star to profile is, how old are they? There is a sweet spot. Under 20 and they won’t have anything to say – most people that age haven’t had enough life experience (and if they have it’s usually traumatic). But too far over 25 and suddenly they are met with scepticism: why has it taken them so long to break through? Is it because they aren’t so special after all?
Publicists are savvy to this too. Almost every press release I receive about a new artist contains a version of the phrase “at just 21 years old….” It’s much easier to sell an overnight success story, even if it ignores the years of hustle that came before the break. I’ve lost count of the number of times older and wiser artists have told me how frustrated they have felt to read their stories airbrushed in the press, nothing accounted for before their "viral moment".
And for record labels, the younger the artist, the bigger the fanbase: young people stream the most music, attend the most gigs and are the easiest demographic to target via social media. There’s a reason why artists like Billie Eilish, who went viral with Ocean Eyes at 13, and Olivia Rodrigo, who went to no1 with Driver's Licence at 17, were seen as darlings of the music industry. The older you get, the further away you drift from the most lucrative listenership demographic.
The pressures of an industry obsessed with youth applies to both men and women, but of course with women it’s particularly brutal. The entertainment business – from music to Hollywood – has always fetishised the “ingénue” (just look at the backlash against Billie Eilish when she unveiled her new ‘womanly’ look on the cover of Vogue, age 18, or the vitriol directed towards a just-turned-18 Millie Bobby Brown when she started dressing sexy). It is profoundly depressing to think that Smash Hits reviewed a 35-year-old Madonna with the headline, “Calm Down Grandma!” in 1992.
And then there is the question of motherhood: record label bosses worried about investing in an artist who might only have a year or two before they want to have a baby, while singers like Paloma Faith and Jessie Ware have revealed how mercilessly inflexible the business can be for touring mothers.
Faith has revealed she knocked four years off her age (from 27 to 23) after she read an article that described KT Tunstall as old – at just 27. Anastacia said she was 23 when she was actually 30. As Madonna said in a 2016 speech accepting a Billboard Woman of the Year award: “In the music industry…to age is to sin”.
But, in the last two years, there seems to have been a shift, with a crop of female musicians breaking into the business in their thirties. Lizzo’s name-making sleeper hit Truth Hurts (originally released in 2017) entered the charts in 2019 when she was 31. Rina Sawayama released her breakthrough album SAWAYAMA in 2020 aged 30. And that same year Jessie Ware – who almost quit the music industry after becoming a mother – released the most successful album of her career, What’s Your Pleasure, aged 35. In January Priya Ragu made the BBC Sound of 2022 poll – a poll journalists use to identify each year’s shiny new generation of musicians – age 36. And Self Esteem – who used to lie about her age – was in February nominated for a Brit in the Best New Artist category at the age of 35, writing on Twitter, “In an industry obsessed the with youth of women, I’m galvanised as fuck by this.”
If the tide is genuinely turning, then I am relieved. Yes, youth and a breathlessly fast ascent is an easier story to sell (to my editor, to the reader, in a headline), but interviewing a young star is always hard work. Not only is it difficult to tease out anything particularly enlightening from the average teenager (and nor do you want to mine them for unprocessed trauma), I always feel a little concerned about immortalising opinions that will surely change three times over in the course of their early twenties through quotes that will forever sit somewhere on the internet. Last year when I interviewed a 17 year-old “viral star” on Zoom from the middle of his messy teenage bedroom, he seemed so vulnerable the experience genuinely felt wrong.
And I am relieved for their sake too. Fame is always easiest to navigate once you’ve already grown up away from the spotlight – you only have to chart the rise and fall of most Hollywood child stars to see why. Last week, Lizzo spoke to Vanity Fair about how her arduously slow route to success meant that “I was almost 30 when all this shit started popping up on me. I had a chance to fuck up as a teenager and in my 20s.… I’m so glad I had a chance to grow up and then get hit with all this shit.”
While watching the Stormzy x Louis Theroux interview (out today), I was struck by how often the 29-year-old rapper talked about wanting to grow up, and to have a family – he even has a "family" sized house being renovated around the corner from his current home, ready and waiting for when he has children. “I’ve just been a kid for too long,” he said, while revealing how difficult it was for him to “become a man” in the public eye, to have his mistakes from his first relationship plastered all over the media age 26. While many people I know want to prolong the youth of their twenties, reluctant to settle down too soon, for people in the spotlight settling down must seem like a form of protection from fame itself.
Fame is an infantalising experience – only today I read an interview with a nanny turned tour manager of the Rolling Stones who revealed why her first job looking after babies was genuinely helpful for her second job looking after rock stars. They are absolved of all decision making and responsibility, are told where to go and what time to wake up, and every whim is catered for. Often in interviews, I am startled by how much younger a celebrity will seem than me, despite them being the same age as me or older. As Taylor Swift (who became famous at 20) said in her Miss Americana documentary: “[some celebrities] are frozen at the age they get famous—and that's kinda what happened to me”. At 29, she felt she suddenly had to catch up.
Artistically, Taylor’s music has in part been successful because it is crystallised in time – universally relatable to teenage girls and her older fans reminiscing the girls they once were. Taylor herself seems to have a Peter Pan-esque quality about her, perhaps because she is all too aware of how the music industry is always hunting for the next bright young things, as she hints in her song The Lucky One, “And all the young things line up to take your place/ Another name goes up in lights/ You wonder if you’ll make it out alive.”
But will her fans and critics allow her to grow up? Or, as veteran music critic Ann Powers said this week in an interview with Vulture, will we only be able to see Taylor as an adult once she starts a family?
“Taylor doesn’t have a child. And in our patriarchal society, when does a woman change? When she becomes a mother. All the women you mentioned became mothers, and maybe one of the main reasons why we don’t accept Taylor as an adult is because the childless woman remains a strange figure in our society. We don’t know how to accept childless women as adults."
The sad thing is, however, is that the music industry doesn't make it much easier to be a mother, either, and female artists can find themselves trapped in a limbo, judged for clinging on to a youth they no longer represent, judged for changing their sound to reflect natural maturity, judged for music no longer being their priority.
Hopefully, these brilliant 30-something stars are shaking this all up for good. This July, Self Esteem – who in interviews has refused to be drawn into conversation about whether or not she wants kids – shared a picture of a review that praised her for “following your dreams whatever your age”, with the unimpressed caption ‘ok’. The journalist apologised, and Self Esteem posted again: “Normalise women and the passing of time!” Amen to that.
This week in links
I’ve been watching the brilliant new comic Leo Reich, who lit up Edinburgh Fringe this summer when the 24-year-old performed his solo show, Literally Who Cares?! It’s a queer coming of age story which trojan horses a whip-smart excavation of some of Gen Z’s most ludicrous tropes, from performative identity politics to narcissistic personal branding and commodifying trauma. His next show is this Friday at EarTH Hackney – do anything you can to get a ticket!
I’ve been listening to Lizzo’s TED talk on twerking (yes, I may have gone down a fabulous Lizzo hole after reading that excellent Vanity Fair piece – in which she talks about why she won’t make music for white people and isn’t interested in monogamy). It’s a fascinating look at how Miley Cyrus culture-vultured a dance that has existed for centuries in West Africa, with one iteration being the Ivory Coast’s traditional ‘Mapouka’ dance. She makes the interesting point: breakdancing used to be linked to gang culture and is now an Olympic sport. She asks: “Will twerking become an Olympic sport, and will black people still be part of it?” Watch it here.
I’ve been reading this excellent piece by Helen Lewis about cancel culture at the Guggenheim – and how its curator lost her job over racism an investigation then deemed unfounded. It’s a topic many journalists would find risky to go near these days – and indeed Helen received a nasty backlash by one of the women she writes about – so I was impressed that she stood her ground. Read it here.
I’ve been commissioning James Hall on how the music industry’s newest power brokers are those who work in ‘sync’ – with some execs reviving hits decades after they first came out by expertly placing them in TV shows/films and on TikTok, bringing in millions of new streams and ageing artists a young new audience. Now it seems like all the golden oldies are waiting for their Kate Bush moment. Read it here.
I can’t stop thinking about the man ambling to Clapham Junction train station yesterday morning, neatly dressed in a suit for work, with no bag, and nothing in his hands – not even a phone. Meanwhile I weaved behind him from left to right, with various sacks and totes hanging from each arm – my gym kit, my packed lunch, my work bag, a laptop – loaded up like a donkey. My headphones were slipping off one ear as I manically refreshed the train times on my phone while trying not to drop my thermos and my keys, all the while transfixed by this perfect image of physical serenity. I am worried that if I see him again I might get existential.
PassTheAux is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A brilliant and timely newsletter - thank you for putting words to so many things female artists feel and experience every day. I think you hit the nail on the head - the things driving this are (basically money) the idea that the most committed fans of anything will be those without responsibilities and therefore younger. That 'scenes' are primarily created and driven by young people, that 'cool' is determined by young people. Though young people should absolutely have people to listen to who voice their experiences and soundtrack their journey to adulthood, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of ageism in our society. The artists you highlighted are an important step in fighting this. There should be and is space for everybody. On the streaming services, on social media, on the radio, in the venues up and down the country. I want to see a world in which a 70 year old can make her first song and get a top 10 hit with it from nowhere simply because it was a bloody good song and people enjoyed it. I dream of that world. I also dream of a world in which mainstream radio isn't obsessively targeted to demographics that are determined primarily by age. In which existing artists aren't relegated when they hit 40-something because they are deemed as no longer 'relevant' - to who? And where training and funding opportunities aren't cut off at 25. And so much more but i'm probably boring everyone reading this at this point!!! Basically I hope that our generation can continue to make the change by being stubbornly visible and unapologetic for who we are and where we're at. I am personally so, so excited for all of the albums we have to come from the wonderful roster of female artists we have during this time in history, who will only become better musicians with age. We are so lucky. To deny ourselves of some of the best albums ever would be RIDICULOUS. End of rant.
“he seemed so vulnerable the experience genuinely felt wrong.“ love this! Also in her documentary Taylor said “as I’m reaching 30, I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful “ but then arguably with folklore and evermore she reached a new pinnacle of success and gained a wider audience, and Midnights has just outpassed 1989 (her biggest commercial hit) in sales. I hope she continues to show that women become more reflective and powerful as we age and creates space for less successful artists to do the same. “Nothing new” ft Phoebe Bridgers haunts me 💔