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Why Are There So Few Female Headliners At ACL?

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Paul Woodruff for KUT
A view of The Strokes from ACL 2010. The festival typically features a male-dominated lineup of headlining performers.

The second weekend of Austin City Limits starts today.  There’s one difference from last week—Florence and the Machine is headlining Sunday night instead of The Strokes. And Modest Mouse is playing instead of Alabama Shakes. If you look at the line up overall, Florence Welch and Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes, are the only female performers in the top ten performing slots. It’s a trend seen at music festivals across the country. 

This weekend, the top ten performers in the lineup are: Foo Fighters, Drake, Florence and the Machine, The Strokes, The Weeknd, Disclosure, Deadmau5, Bassnectar, Alt-J, Hozier, Of Monsters and Men -- nearly all of the groups are made up of all male performers. Two of the bands have female vocalists, but the other musicians are male.

Outside Austin City Limits during weekend one, Austinite Laura Presley and her friends say they’re not surprised by the male-heavy line up.

“I feel like the headliners are always older guy bands – Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson,” she said. “Florence and the Machine, she’s going to be here."

Presley’s friend, Katherine Hale, calls the band’s frontwoman, Florence Welch, the only “big chick” playing the fest.

“But I don’t like many female vocalists. I prefer the male bands,” another friend, Bonnie Ising says. “But I’m excited about Alabama Shakes. She’s got a manly voice.” However, if you didn't go to weekend one, then you'll miss hearing Howard sing.

Presley says Welch’s status as the only “big chick” is to be expected at ACL.

“I think it’s the same as everywhere else in work place, bosses, everything there’s always a gender disparity between that,” she says.

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Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUTX
Florence Welch, frontwoman of Florence and the Machine, during her evening set at ACL 2012.

The disparity definitely exists on ACL stages-past. Over the past five years, the number of female performers listed in the top ten spots is slim to none. Last year, Lana Del Rey held down the fort among a lineup that included Eminem, Pearl Jam and OutKast. The year before that: not a single female performer was listed in the top ten slots. Before that, in 2012, Florence and the Machine was once again the only female headliner; in 2011, Alison Krauss & Union Station. 

“Since the late 1960s women musicians have been marginalized and discouraged within this particular arena,” says Mary Celeste Kearney, a professor at Notre Dame who studies gender and music. “So, there’s not many women that have been supported, either as solo artists or bands, really encouraged to get involved in many ways.”

Kearney specializes in examining the gap in rock music. Though, it's unclear how C3 Presents, the company who puts on ACL, chooses its big acts – they did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story – Kearney says the gender disparity in music starts early.

She says parents and adults socialize young girls to not get involved in aggressive genres like rock and roll.

“In really basic ways girls, from a young age, are excluded from the [rock and roll] culture,” Kearney says. “It’s one that happens at night, at not-great places in town so parents have been discouraging of their daughters from getting involved in this.”

That socialization can begin early in school, she says.

“If they join a school band, where do the women sit? Where do the guys sit? What instruments are they allowed to play with and experiment with? All of that plays into how kids feel comfortable with certain genres of music.”

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Even all female bands, like the sister trio Haim, who played at ACL a few years ago, can run into their own problems. Kearney says sometimes those bands are booked simply because female musicians are seen as unique.

“If you’re getting ahead only because you’re a gender, then your musicianship is always second. And that is the number one thing I’ve learned from studying this culture. Women musicians are always seen as women first and musicians second.”

If you look at the line up of both weekends together,  Florence and the Machine is the only vocalist in the top ten. The next bands to include women are Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. They have female vocalists. But the rest of the band’s musicians are nearly all male. Kearney says that structure is common.

“If you look at the women who are fronting all male-bands they are typically more attractive or more conventionally attractive. That’s seen as a safe place for both them and for guys in the band because they’re not challenging much of anything in terms of gender politics. The guys still get to be in charge of the music and play the instruments, etc.”

You could argue Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes challenges this critique as a strong woman, with a commanding stage presence, who also plays guitar.

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But Howard is the exception, not the rule.

Kearney says all of these issues means there are fewer female performers to choose from when booking small bands or large festivals. For those looking to see some female performers this weekend, you might want to head to the smaller stages.

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