Look, we love a rad woman artist. With the global music industry comprised of 70 percent men and just 30 percent women, we know that making music and being anything other than a cisgender man adds another dense set of obstacles to the already-difficult task of putting your art out into the world. But too often, the conversation centers less around a woman’s art and more in favor of reducing artists who happen to be women to just their gender alone. In fact, there’s been a wave of criticism from women in music surrounding the dreaded “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” interview question — something St. Vincent called “an unanswerable question.”
Ultimately, isn’t art less about the artists’ identity alone and more about the impact it has once it’s left the artists’ hands and been disseminated into the world? So, why don’t we talk about the massive impact that music has on the exploration, definition and understanding of the listeners’ gender identities? From the time we’re born, women are told how to act, what to say, what to wear, what size to be, who to love and everything else that the world tells us makes us a “woman.” Discussing the heavy criticism she faced as a Black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage, Audre Lorde writes, “if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Luckily, this world’s also full of tools that can help us poke and prod our identities and redefine what it means to be us, and music’s a pretty damn powerful one.
To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 (and Vinyl Me, Please’s sale honoring some of our favorite artists that identify as women or outside the gender binary), we wanted to shout out our favorite records that have helped music lovers connect with their gender identity. We asked some non-cisgender-male music lovers — some VMP employees, some not — the following: “What album makes you feel like a woman, or to consider the space outside the gender binary, what album makes you feel most like you?”
“Tori Amos: Under The Pink. This album turned 25 this year, which means I was only 9 years old when it came out and that, yes, I think it was way ahead of its time. My mom had a copy on CD and I used to hoard it, playing it repeatedly on a little jambox while I studied the lyric book. While I was too young to understand so many of the themes in this album, it introduced me to a whole new world of emotions I didn’t know I was capable of and also just how fiercely female Tori Amos is. Her vocals and piano on this album range from quiet, vulnerable introspective moments to “top of your lungs” full-on rage. The song ‘God’ came on the radio recently and all those feelings I had about the album as a kid came flooding back. Only then did I realize how much of an impact it had on me.” — Leigh
“Beyonce’s Lemonade for many reasons. But above all else, there is no better take on the world / strut down the street song than ‘6 Inch Heels.’” — Alex F.
“Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs. This album makes me feel the most like a woman right now. Stella’s ability to weave real experiences of womanhood into fascinating and confessional lyrics sets her apart from some of her more subtle contemporaries. She broaches sensitive subject matter with lyrics that range from honest and slight to graphic and confrontational. The song that’s affected me most as a woman this year is ‘Old Man.’ Here, Donnelly shines light on the gendered double standards and general lack of consequences for men in power in the workplace.
‘Your personality traits don’t count / If you put your dick in someone’s face / And no, it’s never too late / We sat there silently while you kept your job / And your place and your six-figure wage.’” — Alex B.
“Betty Davis: Betty Davis. I think the most accurate way to describe Betty Davis is ‘A Force.’ From the gusto of her wail to the brashness of her words to the thigh-high metallic silver boots and million-watt smile she dons on the cover, our funk empress oozes the level of confidence that feels unreachable in a world where your body doesn’t always feel like yours. Or where even the simplest of tasks and ideas are repeatedly explained to you every day by men ‘with good intentions.’ And I can only imagine the chutzpah it took to carry that ‘I said what I said!’ aura around as a black woman in the early ’70s. She’s remarkable, and every time I listen to this album, I stand up a little straighter and remind myself that asking for what I want or need isn’t a sin.” — Amileah
“KNOWER: Life. Genevieve not only is a bad-ass performer who makes you want to dance with her on stage, but her vocals are beautiful and empowering. She makes me want to take my bra off and dance with my hair back and forth for the entirety of the album. The first time I heard of the album or this band was live and anytime I listen I cannot help but feel Genevieve’s energy through my bones.” — Allison
“Feist: Let It Die. I mean, it’s a beautiful record, but also so genuine, optimistic, and peaceful with a splash of disco. I like to spin it when no one is home and I’m relaxing in the bath or pouring a fat glass of wine (or both). Also slight plug the VMP packaging is bellissimaaaa.” — Courtney
“Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells makes me feel like the powerful woman I am. Her work is always a reminder to me to stand proud and play it loud! On these 12 tracks, she correlates each with a different part of the body. This brings energy to that area, but with each song’s experimental content, there is so much thought created as well. Empowering me! I recommend reading what she has to say about it on her website, but she ends it with, ‘at least here’s some dope ass music.’ What she doesn’t say, is it’s produced by a self-taught Jazz Musician, four-time Grammy Winner, Scholar, and Professor of the Practice of Music at Harvard —but first a woman, an inspiration to me.” — Mandy
“Charlotte Day Wilson’s CDW feels like the woman I try to be — soft, but powerful. Wilson takes on lesbian love in her tracks with tunes you can strut down the street to, be sexy to or sit and think along with. Her strong identity as a queer woman seeps into each phrase, and empowers gay women like me to take pride in both identities. I listen to this album whenever I’m mansplained to and need comfort, as well as motivation.” — Sammy
“Sade’s The Ultimate Collection includes songs like ‘Your Love is King,’ ‘By Your Side,’ etc. The album does a great job summarizing her discography, while including some new releases of that time. When I listen to her voice and read the lyrics, I feel supported/understood of the complexities of being a woman in and out of love.” — Marissa
“Maggie Rogers: Heard It In A Past Life. In her examination of her whirlwind fame, Maggie tackles emotions that I think are relatable to a lot of young people, not just women. The album is confident, yet questioning. There’s anger, sadness and happiness — all valid emotions. I think women are discouraged from expressing strong feelings, and I’m comforted by Maggie’s embrace of her own. From the lack of control in ‘Overnight’ to the final song ‘Back In My Body,’ Maggie’s journey feels like my own effort to find my place in the world.” — Morgan
“Sabrina Claudio: About Time. This album is hauntingly beautiful. Every song — ‘Stand Still’ and ‘Unravel Me,’ namely — feels intimate and close. As someone who struggles with intimacy, both toward others and within myself, Sabrina Claudio has a strange power in making me feel things. I can slow down, close my eyes and envision someplace better — a sun-drenched room, with art on the walls, fresh coffee, and the person I can be honest with, real with, and complete with. This vision switches from time to time, between me being alone and me accompanied by another. Either way is fine with me, because in the end what really matters is that I feel safe enough to feel, to be vulnerable and to love.” — Geordon
“SZA’s Ctrl is the album that makes me feel like a woman — and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It doesn’t create some dreamy idealized femininity, instead giving us a vulnerable look into the world of a woman who is complex and flawed and reminds us that to be a woman is never to be one, singular thing but to be messy and human. Listening to it gives me strength, confidence and asks me to be kinder to myself. (I can’t just pick one, so I’ll also throw in a plug for Jamila Woods. Her debut, HEAVN, is similarly intimate and empowering, and I’ve pre-ordered Legacy! Legacy! under the assumption that it will continue those beautiful themes.)” — Theda
“Suzi Wu: Teenage Witch. This EP is short, but mighty. After my first listen, I knew I was picking up what Suzi was putting down. Suzi is fiercely herself in this debut EP — her music resonates with the part of me that still feels like a little girl in a big world, yet inspires me to step up my game and prove my worth as a woman in today’s day and age.” — Emily
“Shania Twain: Come On Over. Damn. Are you kidding me? ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman’?! These words taught me the best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun, fun FUN. I was 12 when my first ever anthem song/album came out and woooee, is it a LEGEND! It came with TWO CDs — one pop version and one country version — perfect for my Gemini pre-teen (and 30-year-old) self! Who doesn’t hear that infamous song ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman’ or ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ and feel that instantaneous feeling of WE RUN THE WORLD or I WON’T SETTLE, NO! Shania was giving me confidence as a 12-year-old. PRICELESS. I remember prancing down the hall in leopard sneakers at my Catholic school thinking ‘move aside, ya’ll.’ Don’t forget the song ‘If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!’ That’s just a duh (or it should be). Also on the flip side, ‘You’re Still The One’ and ‘From This Moment On’ had me belting just as loud as the independent anthems. It’s sweet, and you deserve my sweet too, as long as you can stand the heat. SHANIA FOREVER.” —Jesse
Top two graphics by Amileah Sutliff, third by Clay Conder.