Who Run the World?: The Year of Female Musicians

by: Addison Bell

2011 belonged to Britney Spears. Maybe. The pop princess released her seventh album, Femme Fatale, which sold 276,000 copies in the U.S. during its first week. Femme Fatale is Britney’s sixth album to debut at number one on the U.S. charts, and it has produced three number one singles, her only album to ever do so. She partnered up with Nicki Minaj — another artist in the spotlight in 2011 — for a tour, which had brought in an average of $940,165 in ticket sales per city. The success of her album and her tour shows that Britney has made a comeback and is still a dominant figure in both the music industry and in pop culture.

Or maybe 2011 was Lady Gaga’s year. Her single “Born This Way” became the fastest selling single in iTunes history. In its first week, Born This Way sold 1.108 million copies in the U.S.—largely because Amazon sold it for $0.99, a $3 million loss for Gaga.

Nonetheless, Gaga is the fifth woman to ever sell a million copies in a week, sharing the achievement with Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Norah Jones and Taylor Swift. Since its release in May, Born This Way has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Gaga also appears on Tony Bennett’s Duets II, and in November she released A Very Gaga Thanksgiving (her second television special, after HBO premiered The Monster Ball Tour in May) and a small Christmas album. Her astonishing success in 2011 proves that world is obsessed with Gaga, and it appears that the obsession is only growing.

In my opinion, 2011 belongs neither to Britney or Gaga. It doesn’t belong to Katy, Nicki, Rihanna, or Beyoncé either. While these ladies were certainly in the spotlight, there were a number of other women that were up there with them, and perhaps even excelled.

Let’s start with Adele. In 2008, she released her first album, 19. The only hit to come out of the record was “Chasing Pavements,” and even its success was not enough to establish her as a recognized artist.

But then “Rolling in the Deep” happened. It was all over the radio, and it became one kick-ass break up song.

In February, Adele released 21. The album reached number one in 19 countries and has sold over 12 million copies worldwide, and it still is in the top ten albums on iTunes. I still cannot figure out exactly what caused Adele to blow up this year, but she deserves it. She does not care about her physicality and she is not afraid about putting out material that sounds completely different from other chart toppers. And she knows how painful it is have your heartbroken, which is what 21 is all about. That is why people love her. I’m proud of America for embracing Adele this year. At least it did something right.

Then there is Florence + the Machine. After their success of 2009’s Lungs, the band, fronted by Florence Welch, opened for U2 in June and July, and also did a handful of their own shows, the majority of which sold out. In the Fall they released the single “What the Water Gave Me,” which is their second song (“Dog Days Are Over” being the other) to debut on the Billboard Hot 100.

In November, they released their second album, Ceremonials, produced by Paul Epworth (Adele, Cee Lo Green). The record debuted at number one in the U.K. and number six in the U.S. Ceremonials has been receiving worldwide critical acclaim, and has established Florence + the Machine as one of the hottest bands around.

There are also a handful of indie female artists who put out some brilliant work this year. In March, Lykke Li released her second album, Wounded Rhymes. The U.K.’s Metro called it “big, beautiful and badass.” Ryan Reed of Paste said, “Li’s voice is basically a mixture of every great female art-pop artist you’ve heard: there’s a bit of Kate Bush‘s alien whine, a pinch of Bat for Lashes smoke-screen atmospherics, even a hint of fellow Swedish pop sensation Robyn‘s sassy croon.” Li’s “I Follow Rivers” was even covered by the cast of Glee (I refuse to listen because the show has butchered so many of my favorite songs).

In September, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy peaked at number 19 on the Billboard 200, making it her highest charting album to date. Metacritic gave it an “Universal Acclaim” rating, and Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal awarded it with a Best New Music title. Spin’s Stacey Anderson’s wrote, “[St. Vincent’s] complex femininity, both self-possessed and keenly evolving, is what makes her music so powerful and fascinating.” Strange Mercy marks St. Vincent as one of indie’s goddesses.

Laura Marling also released her third studio album in September. A Creature I Don’t Know is being called her most mature record, and several critics are comparing her to music legends, such as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, and PJ Harvey. Graeme Thompson of Uncut praises the maturity of Marling and A Creature I Don’t Know. She writes, “It’s deeply impressive. Not just because the songs…are stronger and more consistent than ever before, but because at 21 Marling seems so determined not to settle into a niche which could easily define her.”

It is not just  Marling’s deeply profound lyrics that makes A Creature so brilliant, rather it is the haunting nature of the whole work: the jazzy vocals, the tragic ballads, and Marling’s soothing, melancholic voice. It makes me wonder why Marling is not well known. She certainly deserves the recognition.

2011 also marked the return of several beloved artists. Björk teamed up with Apple to release her 8th studio album, Biophilia, as an iPad and iPhone app. Tori Amos put out her 12th record, Night of the Hunters. After being absent for five years, Evanescence finally released their third album. Kate Bush’s Christmas album features all new material. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake helped win a second Mercy Award, making her the only artist in history to ever do so.

The best return, however, has to be Feist. After gaining recognition for 2007’s The Reminder (how could you forget that “1234” Apple commercial?), Feist took a long (too long) break from recording. But the wait was worth it. October’s Metals is nothing short of a masterpiece. Crafted with a chaotic brilliance, the record is filled with a bizarreness that only Feist can pull off, which she does with perfection.

This is why it is difficult to pinpoint which artist owned 2011. You can look at record sales, public appeal, or quality of sound and material. You can measure in popularity or radio play or the caliber of performances. I am quite certain that many readers will say that Lady Gaga excels in all of the areas. Others, I am sure, may disagree.

The beauty of it, however, is that these aforementioned reach out to a vast number of different audiences. We have readers that are pro-Adele, pro-Florence, pro-Lohan (maybe that is a stretch). There are the powerhouses (rest in peace, Amy Winehouse), the pop stars, the icons, the jazz and folk singers. And they’re women. That’s how it should be.

2011, without a doubt, belongs to the ladies.

Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Jacob on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr: colourmegreenwich.tumblr.com.

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