Here we are in 2017 with a sexual predator as leader of the free world, more than 320,000 individuals becoming victims of rape and sexual assault each year and women’s careers suffering at the hands of straight white men. Systemic sexism plagues practically every industry: from tech and engineering to politics, construction and music. When news broke on Friday afternoon that country singer and songwriter Lindsay Ell, who can shred a mean electric guitar, had been asked not to perform a free show at a major Sacramento radio station, fans were understandably outraged. “Had a scheduled performance in Sacramento today for listeners. The radio station has asked me not to come [because] of my personal life,” Ell wrote on Twitter, a rather bold move given the role radio programmers play as gatekeepers for gaining mainstream success.
Fan support came in droves. “Oh, Lindsay, I am so sorry this all happened. It is truly inexcusable! Better things await you on the other side of this,” said one. Another tweeted, “Lindsay, that breaks my heart for you. I wish people would separate your personal life from you art. You have my full support.” Yet a third, “That is really upsetting.. It’s too bad that you’re a woman AND you have a personal life. 2 strikes already. [Roll eyes emoji] at country radio.”
The root of this case against Ell comes down to one thing and one thing only: she is a woman. Women already face a long and tired uphill battle in the music industry, but god forbid, they have a personal life. If the roles had been reversed, you better believe there would be no issue whatsoever. In fact, the radio station in question, allegedly 105.1 KNCI, which is owned and operated by conglomerate CBS Radio (rival to iHeartRadio), would have been jumping all over the opportunity. The rivalry is just a mask to hide deeply-rooted misogyny, nothing more.
It’s no secret Ell is dating Bobby Bones, one of the biggest radio DJs in the country; they’ve been rather open about their relationship but not boastfully. His Nashville-based syndicated morning show (owned by iHeartMedia) reaches millions of people every single day, and he has been known to give up and comers a serious break in the industry. From Chris Janson to Chris Stapleton, Bones is often at the forefront of trends–and frequently creates them himself. He took to Twitter, too, to respond to the controversy, posting, “I’ve stayed out of this. Not my fight. and frankly, @lindsayell can handle herself .” He attached a photo from station 92.5 The Bull who took it upon themselves to declare Friday, June 16 as Lindsay Ell Day.
Several other Sacramento radio stations have since jumped in to rally behind Ell. Entravision’s 101.9 FM extended an invitation to fans wanting to see her perform, as Washington Post points out. “We’d like to extend our guest list to any of you who had planned to be at that cancelled performance for @lindsayell,” they said.
But this isn’t the first time Ell’s personal life has become the talking point instead of her music, even fueling rumors the two should end their relationship. Earlier this month, on his June 6 show (around the 54-minute mark), Bones revealed a rather distressing occurrence. “My girlfriend tells me yesterday, she’s like ‘hey, it’s suggested we break up.’ Other companies are punishing her for dating me,” he said on-air. “I have nothing to do with her music. It was suggested to her that we not be a couple anymore…if she wants her career. I’m keeping notes. September 1, it’s all coming out.”
“I said, ‘well, I would hate for that to happen, but if you feel like this is hurting your career, maybe it’s something we need to talk about,'” he continued, noting “somebody in the industry” is urging the split. He goes on to list various other media who aren’t playing her songs–adding “she’s getting punished from me because I don’t want anybody else to punish her.” Meaning, he has refrained from playing Ell’s music with the hope it won’t show bias and that other stations will fill in the gap. Ell’s current single “Waiting on You” is nowhere to be found on the Top 50 of the Mediabase/Country Aircheck chart. If she were a man, we not only wouldn’t be having this discussion, but she’d have a dozen or so hits under her belt already. Her sexuality has become the focal point here and not her blustering new EP, Worth the Wait.
In the country music world, the radio tour, a tool stations use to build direct relationships with artists, can be incredibly harsh and wearisome. Taylor Swift once accused DJ David Mueller of reaching “up under my skirt and grabb[ing] my ass right when I was having to pose for a photo,” and the photo evidence is hard to deny. Even if the detail of him having reached “under” her skirt is wrong, his actions clearly and irrefutably crossed a line. In a roundup of interviews recently conducted by Washington Post‘s Emily Yahr, such artists as breakout star Carly Pearce, Chris Lane and Ryan Hurd detail exactly how strenuous and physically-taxing radio tours can be–but for them, it’s “all I’ve ever wanted,” as Pearce puts it. Her searing, stripped ballad “Every Little Thing” was recently selected as the latest On the Verge recipient, guaranteeing at least a Top 20 finish, which means she has her work cut out for her. She’s currently pouring her heart out for radio programmers and their staff, hoping to collect her first No. 1 hit.
This comes after the infamous #SaladGate of 2015. Radio consultant Keith Hill advised stations not to play women more than 15 percent of their overall playlists, claiming, “They’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” To which, country torchbearer Miranda Lambert replied, “This is he biggest bunch of BULLSHIT I have ever heard.” She later added, “I am gonna do everything in my power to support and promote female singer/songwriters in country music. Always.” That was only the beginning of a firestorm. Acts like Martina McBride, hit songwriter Shane McAnally and Jennifer Nettles also reacted with their own insightful and witty barbs directed at not only Hill but at an industry that needs to change.
Of course, this goes much deeper than just getting music played on the radio. Back in March, Popdust conducted a lengthy investigation into sexism in the music industry, inspired by a 1969 round-robin interview Linda Ronstadt gave with Fusion. Speaking with an array of singers, songwriters and musicians, I uncovered the rampant sexism that is just as alive and well today as it was nearly 50 years ago. “When we dropped our first Smoke Season song in 2012, a lot of press and show offers flooded in from those same outlets that had been hesitant in the past — which was funny because Jason [Rosen] was actually featured on a couple of my previous band’s songs. It was hard not to wonder whether adding a man to the project validated the music for a lot of the critics as much as the new creative direction did,” Smoke Season vocalist Gabriel Wortman told me. “One time in particular that sticks out in my memory occurred when I was told by a producer to ‘put my big girl pants on’ and get in the vocal booth–at the time, I was asking Jason and him how loudly or softly they thought I should deliver the vocal take. He had been so condescending to me throughout the entire recording experience that at one point I was brought to tears. Anyone who knows me knows that’s really out of character for me, but being belittled like that in an environment where you’re trying to stay professional and rational makes you go slightly insane.”
Electro-pop singer Eve Minor shared eerily similar circumstances, adding, “I always get tested…when I engage in conversations with men, as if I couldn’t possibly know as much as them, and mostly these men are in dismay when I explain to them 9th chords or world music or compound time. Mostly, it’s tiring to be like ‘oh you want me to prove myself,’ but I always get a kick out of the surprise when they realize that I know what I’m talking about.” Provocative alt-rocker Kate Crash has dealt with her fair share of male egomanias, too. “When in bands, people would go to the male guitar player and tell them they liked his songwriting, and he would have to explain that I wrote the songs,” Crash said. “I have worked with producers who didn’t want me to play my own instruments or let me have say on my own songs. I have been repeatedly hit on, grabbed and made fun of. Not everybody is like this, but I had enough experiences to say it’s not a rare occurrence.”
Ell is just the latest victim in a long chain of strong, resilient women who are being defined by the relationships they have with men. When will the focus be on the music? How can we elicit change and educate purveyors of foolishness? Who can be held accountable? We have to do better.
Photo credit: Ford Fairchild