Express yourself
: reframing women’s participation, agency and power in popular music

  • Lucy O'Brien

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Spanning a 20 year period of publications (from 1995-2016), this research critically examines women’s agency and participation in popular music since the 1920s, demonstrating how female artists have been marginalised by gender expectations, under-represented in the media and under-supported by major record labels. The project’s core research questions are: how have gender norms silenced the history of women’s achievements in popular music? What impact has this silencing had upon the gendered construction of the popular music canon? How does this silencing impact on the lived experience of women in the industry, and how have they negotiated these constraints? These questions are explored through a theoretical framework centred around Foucault’s analysis of power relations in social contexts (Foucault 1990, 1991) and Butler’s work on challenging gender categories (Butler 1999), to identify how in navigating repression, troubling gender restraints, and becoming empowered through experience, women find agency in the music industry.

    Through interviews and participant observation as a music journalist, academic and punk musician, a methodology of feminist ethnography, textual analysis and grounded theory (data collected over time) was developed. Interviews with over 250 women in popular music enabled female performers and those working ‘behind the scenes’ to talk openly about their experiences, leading to the co-creation of a feminist ethnography and knowledge-making, and an intricate picture of how women have negotiated existing power hierarchies in the music industry. The research finds that the omission of female artists from popular music histories has created a distorted picture of the music canon, leaving out the integral role that women played in the development of 20th century genres like blues, rock, soul and punk. Women have developed strategies to remain visible in an industry that has a gendered culture of ‘forgetting’ and gained agency by disrupting ‘rules’ about image or genre conventions. By doing this individual performers have built a sense of self-expression and authorship. Ownership of their work gives them confidence both as performers and businesswomen – for instance, the research identifies the female band as a source of feminist empowerment. The thesis points to future directions for research in documenting women’s progress as performers and industry workers, to challenge gender inequality in popular music.
    Date of Award2018
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorJulie Doyle (Supervisor)


    • gender
    • popular music
    • agency
    • participation
    • music industry

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