Sexism in the world of country music

When many people think of country music, the things that come to mind are usually cowboy hats, southern accents, and white guys: Alan Jackson, George Strait, Garth Brooks.

Jada Watson is setting out to prove that idea wrong.

As part of her 2018 SSHRC Insight Grant, A Data-Driven History of Country Music’s Geo-Cultural Origins, the School of Music professor is challenging country music’s image by examining all the singles from the Billboard Hot Country Songs dataset. She is rounding out the pedigree of songs by adding the biographic data for everyone involved in each single – artists, songwriters, producers, group members, and their race, ethnicity and gender.

 

“…you start to see that the music doesn’t necessarily come from a white southern culture, but it might come from a black southern culture, or it might come from an urban space, and of course Canada…”

 

The dataset will help her to pose new questions about where people come from and the musical communities to which they belong. Contrary to popular belief, the musical traditions and musicians aren’t always found in the South. According to Jada, “…once you start to define the people that have shaped the sound of country music you start to see that the music doesn’t necessarily come from a white southern culture, but it might come from a black southern culture, or it might come from an urban space, or even Canada…”.

Dixie Chicks

Dixie Chicks

 

Jada’s desire to dig into questions of gender representation in the industry has its roots in her early work on the Dixie Chicks.

 

But that’s not all Jada’s up to. She was also awarded a SSHRC Insight Development Grant in 2018 to understand how gender politics have governed country music radio and largely served to erase women from the genre. Jada has been examining the radio quota system put in place in the 1990s to increase station ratings by limiting songs by women to as few as 15% of a station’s rotation. “Despite the fact that we often think of the 1990s as the heyday of women in country – Faith Hill, Tricia Yearwood, Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain even - if you start to look at the numbers you see that towards 1999 the numbers for women start to decrease quite significantly… and it’s because these quotas were enforced throughout this period.” Jada now plans to go as far back as the 1960s to look at the beginnings of this sort of discrimination.

 

“…Graphs are just changing the way I do work in a really exciting way.…”

 

For both projects, Jada is combining her training in Information Science and Musicology to build complex network graphics which will enable her to see even more than by just using the Billboard dataset. For example, this will allow her to visualize changes in ratings or radio methods over time. Bringing this Digital Humanities perspective into her research is an exciting prospect for Jada, who, despite her degrees in these fields had never imagined bringing the two worlds together; “Graphs are just changing the way I do work in a really exciting way”, she says.

Gender trends in country music.

An example of the type of graphs Jada is developing to show gender trends in country music.

 

When asked what her favourite aspect of her research is, Jada says “… sharing it with students, sharing it with my colleagues, is what is most exciting these days because it generates the most fascinating discussions…” Jada is also hoping to share results with the country music industry, and with groups working to change the narrative around gender and race in the genre. As for where she sees her research heading in the future, she’s curious to explore the implications of the quota system for Canadian radio stations and musicians.

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