Women in music: the moments that mattered most

For International Women’s Day, we asked our writers and contributors about the moments when women changed the game – or changed their lives

Musicians with majority female fanbases have always struggled to have their work taken seriously. Anyone who grew up hiding a Taylor Swift obsession can testify to that. That’s why it felt like such a victory to see Swift take home her fourth Album Of The Year award at the 2024 GRAMMYs earlier this year – not because Swift, one of the most successful and highest earning artists of all time, is by this point any kind of underdog, but because we all remember when she was.

The amount of female artists awarded the ‘cool’ badge has always been incredibly low compared to their male counterparts. Now, with female pop and R&B stars dominating the charts, rising acts like The Last Dinner Party celebrating style, excess and complex femininity, and independent artists like RAYE getting their flowers after finally having the freedom to self-define, this new era of female music feels particularly exciting.

In honour of International Women’s Day, here are the moments in female music that shaped us as writers, editors and contributors – and the ones that we know we’ll keep returning to in years to come.  

Kate Bush - Cloudbusting - Official Music Video

Amie-Jo Locke

Growing up, I always gravitated towards female artists. Whether it was getting Madonna’s ‘True Blue’ for Christmas (on tape) or listening to T’Pau en route to school in my mum’s car, women made up a huge part of my music tapestry, and still do to this day. That’s why seeing Kate Bush perform as part of her staggering 22-date Before The Dawn residency at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014 will forever be etched into my psyche as one of the most incredible live shows I’ve ever seen.

Every music fan worth their salt knows how important Kate Bush is. She changed the game for so many female artists (without her we arguably wouldn’t have the likes of Björk, PJ Harvey and Tori Amos – also, fun fact, Big Boi from Outkast is reportedly a superfan) when she burst onto the scene in 1979, floating about in a ballet dress and singing about doomed literary romances. However, she is notoriously reclusive. Before The Dawn was Bush’s first series of live shows since The Tour of Life in 1979, so obviously, the demand was high. Tickets sold out in less than 15 minutes. I only managed to get one because a friend pulled out last-minute. Their loss, my gain. The show was like nothing I’d ever seen. From shadow puppets to Bush in a flotation tank, this multi-media show was exactly what fans had been waiting for. A thrilling ride through Bush’s greatest hits, backdropped by unique storytelling, costumery and dance. So spectacularly Kate Bush. When she played ‘Cloudbusting’, I literally burst into tears. So did the guy behind me. Impressive that after three decades this woman could still have so much power over an audience. Everyone left dazed, enraptured. Thank god I got to see it.

Scowl - Shot Down (Official Music Video)

Maddy Howell

It might be 2024, but the hardcore punk scene can still be an intimidating place for anyone who identifies as a woman. As a young teenager, I was drawn to the aggression and expression of the genre, but a ‘boys club’ mentality dominated at shows, with male voices shouting loudest onstage, offstage, and often over those of non-men.

Fighting back on behalf of everyone who has ever felt their voices being pushed aside, Santa Cruz unit Scowl are exactly the type of band that I needed a decade ago. Writing songs about the complexities of female rage and hurt, embracing emotion and vulnerability in the process, they’ve been carving out a space for themselves since the release of their breakthrough self-titled EP in 2019. Led by enigmatic vocalist Kat Moss, they’re unapologetically taking up space in the hardcore scene, already going on to support the likes of Limp Bizkit and making their Coachella debut in 2023.

Fearlessly addressing the often-traumatising experience of living as a woman in short, sharp bursts of frenetic hardcore, Moss’ rage-fuelled growls soar over punchy riffs designed to penetrate deep into your psyche. Weaving recurring floral motifs into their logo, artwork, and Moss’ onstage outfits, they’re reclaiming femininity whilst bringing fashion, self-expression, and art into hardcore. Teaching a new generation of women that their scene is far from a boy’s club, Scowl are forging a community where non-male voices can be amplified, rage can resonate, and everyone is free to be themselves.

Paramore: Still Into You [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

Emma Wilkes

As a weird, music-obsessed (and unbeknownst to her then, neurodivergent) pre-teen, I was a religious chart fanatic. But in the midst of the glossy pop and EDM tunes that were competing for the top spot back in 2013, there stuck out, in the middle of the countdown, a tune that changed my life in small ways that gradually accumulated. It was accessible and catchy enough to cut through the noise, yet subtly different from the music I knew at this time. It was Paramore’s ‘Still Into You’.

I chased it down the rabbit hole, finding one other song on Paramore’s recently released self-titled album, then another, then I knew the whole thing. It was the first incremental steps towards what would turn into a fully fledged emo phase that’s never really ended, just evolved as I’ve grown. At the time, alternative music was far more male-dominated, as it had been for a long time, than it is now, but I’m grateful that in Hayley Williams – a spirited performer, intelligent songwriter and alternative hero to boot – my younger self had a woman to see herself in, who had the confidence she aspired to have, but also the vulnerability. More importantly, seeing her was a way to know that alternative spaces could still be my spaces even if I was one of only a few women in the room.

I will die on this hill – Hayley Williams is a trailblazer. Where would we be if the women breaking through in rock music didn’t see her and know that they could make it too? As such, Paramore have been in a constant in my life ever since, through every era, and in April last year, the day I’d been awaiting for a good 10 years alive – the chance to see Paramore live. I cried twice. There she was, real life, 3D Hayley Williams, warm, witty, note perfect – a living icon.

Rihanna’s Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show (Studio Version)

Kayleigh Watson

In the year 2024, and 19 years since she released debut single ‘Pon De Replay’, it is hard to remember a time where Rihanna was just another pop star and not the cultural megastar she is today. When it was announced that the Barbadian singer was to perform in the half-time showcase of the 2023 NFL Super Bowl, it felt like a long time coming. A hot minute since she had released her last album, Anti (seven years prior, to be precise), the appetite for her comeback had never waned, and her first live performance in five years broke Super Bowl records drawing 121 million viewers, until the record was broken by Usher this February.

However, this wasn’t the first time the ‘Umbrella’ singer was approached to perform. In a 2019 interview with Vogue she revealed that she had turned down a previous invite by the National Football League in solidarity with player Colin Kaepernick – who ‘took the knee’ in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the U.S. during the Trump regime – saying “I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler.”

That Rihanna prioritised her politics over such a career opportunity at the height of her fame is pretty iconic – as was her announcing the pregnancy of her second child with A$AP Rocky at the top of the show. Two decades in music and seamlessly ushering in motherhood and business ventures, Rihanna shows no signs of slowing down yet.

RAYE - BRIT Awards 2024 Medley ('Ice Cream Man', 'Prada' & 'Escapism')

Savannah Roberts

This may be a very recent example but personally, I think it would be a crime not to mention. I have a strong suspicion that in the years to come, women and girls will cite this moment as inspiration and mark it as an unforgettable centrepiece in pop culture. Of course, I’m talking about none other than RAYE and her career-defining night at the 2024 BRIT Awards. Not only did she take home a record-breaking six BRITs in one night, and although seeing this limitlessly talented artist finally bask in the critical acclaim she so deserves was a moment in itself, this isn’t about the awards. It’s about that spine-tingling performance. RAYE cycled through deep cuts and hits and TikTok viral sensations, and with each song she showcased another facet of her musicality. Jazz, R&B, soul, the raw emotion, the stage presence, the celebration – all mastered at just 26 years old.

“’Cause I’m a woman,” – she sings on an international stage with power and vulnerability I’ve never before seen, “Was a girl, now I’m grown, I’m a woman. A very f*cking strong woman.”

Less than a week old and this performance is already my comfort watch and I will watch and re-watch whenever I want to be reminded of the beautiful place women occupy in the world of music.

Beyoncé - Sorry (Video)

Caitlin Devlin

Where were you when Beyoncé announced Lemonade? There was so much in and around this album release that should make the music history books. The first live performance of ‘Formation’ at the Superbowl saw the singer receive praise and criticism in great amounts for the Black Panther-influenced costumes worn by her and her dancers. This performance was monumental enough, but nothing could have prepared us all for the premiere of the Lemonade film on HBO. Not only did the visual album paint a detailed and devastating portrait of infidelity in a marriage and the repercussions on both parties, but it brought in formidable Black talent like Amandla Stenberg, Serena Williams, Chloe x Halle and Quvenzhané Wallis, and sampled the work of Warsan Shire and Malcom X. And amongst this expert, thoughtful craftmanship, it manages to be honest, open and endlessly raw.

Lemonade was more than a cultural moment. It continues to impact, uplift and inspire. It celebrates Black culture, Black femininity and Black love whilst remaining universally relatable. Overnight, without warning, Beyoncé raised the bar. The album was considered by many to be the best of 2016 – many consider it one of the greatest of all time. Unequivocally, it is. 

Little Simz - Venom | A COLORS SHOW

Amy Davidson

One of the infuriating things about being a woman in music is being measured by your gender. That means, for example, not being able to receive your flowers as an incredible rapper without the prefix ‘female’ in front of it. As a woman and a massive hip hop fan I sometimes struggle with the misogyny within the genre, so when Little Simz dropped her album GREY Area in 2019 it felt like an oxygen mask.

‘Venom’ in particular directly addressed the unnecessary gendered comparisons levelled at her with a clean deadpan flow: “F*ck those who don’t believe/They will never wanna admit I’m the best here/From the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries/It’s a woman’s world, so to speak/Pussy, you sour/Never giving credit where it’s due ’cause you don’t like pussy in power.” That sound? All the naysayers being gagged.

Miley Cyrus & Dolly Parton - Wrecking Ball & I Will Always Love You [Miley’s New Year’s] Sub Español

Elana Shapiro

A decade after Miley Cyrus released hit single ‘Wrecking Ball’, she took to the stage with godmother Dolly Parton to share a new version of her own breakup anthem which led into Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You.’ Seeing them share a stage wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. The pair have often performed together, whether it’s a duet of ‘Jolene’, or even all the way back to Dolly’s cameos on Hannah Montana – they have always seemed to genuinely enjoy working together and supporting each other’s projects, going beyond a relationship based purely on the titles godmother/goddaughter. And their performance at the 2023 NYE show felt even more special. 

Their voices balanced easily, melding together to create something beautiful as they covered classics such as ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’. But it was ‘Wrecking Ball’ which stole the show, going viral across social media in the coming days.

Cyrus has shared honest admiration for how “Aunt Dolly” has persistently broken boundaries for country music, by being sexual, bold, and unapologetically herself. Their joint performance of Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ – a track which sparked controversy and harsh criticism when first released because of nudity in the music video – felt both significant and empowering. It was a true full circle moment.

Dua Lipa - Don't Start Now (Live at the MTV EMAs 2019)

Róisín Kelly

As a teenager, I was so eager to be “cool”, I fell into the embarrassing and misogynistic trap of deriding pop music. Dua Lipa was one of the first voices to break me out of that toxic spell. Because no matter which way you cut it, Dua is cool. She’s also the definition of a pop powerhouse. Just this week, Spotify revealed that Dua Lipa has broken records as the first female artist with over two billion streams on four of her tracks.
When she first appeared in 2017 with ‘New Rules’, those iconic lyrics became a mantra for a generation of women to live by. In our era of f-boys, Dua was the best friend we all needed. Telling it to us straight. If you’re under him, you ain’t getting over him.

But it’s Dua’s sheer determination that really blows me away. After her dancing became a global meme and the internet reared its ugly head (as it often likes to do when beautiful women are succeeding), what did she do? Gifted us with Future Nostalgia – a disco-infused album with dancing at its core and choreography so slick you could mistake Dua for a career dancer. As a woman working in the music industry, I just love that narrative. The world tried to tear her down, and she came back stronger.

Her debut performance of ‘Don’t Start Now’ at the MTV EMAs was so iconic it’s seared into my brain forever. Then there was her Future Nostalgia tour – one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.

But what I love most about Dua Lipa is that she knows exactly how to make a truly great groove. And sometimes that’s literally all I need.

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