Diversity is one of the most important issues facing the music industry, both this year and every year. It’s a topic that is raised when a festival lineup gets revealed, when Spotify and Apple Music unveil their streaming charts, and when the Grammys offer up their latest batch of nominees. And for good reason, as the arts mirror the world at large, where the work of white men is given more weight and visibility by the powers that be, often largely because of systematic issues ranging from the maintenance of power to sheer ambivalence. It often seems that as loudly as people shout for change, improvement is incremental, with victories always tempered with how far there is yet to go.
This was felt with oppressive force in 2018. Coachella offered up their first-ever woman of color as a headliner in their 19th installment, but that win is accepted with the knowledge that Beyonce was only the third solo woman ever to hold that headlining slot — and that the lineup still only featured one woman for every two men. And this is still better than most festivals offer, with the opposite, a festival like FYF Fest, found that making a lineup that underscored diversity (including only women headliners) didn’t receive support from the ticket-buying public and had to cancel.
At the Grammys, wins for Bruno Mars in the three biggest categories (Album, Record, and Song Of The Year) is a victory for a ceremony that often disregards people of color — even if some also saw it as a case of cultural appropriation — but the flip of that coin was that fact that only two women were nominated at all in those three categories, Lorde and Julia Michaels. Lorde, of course, was famously snubbed by not even being given the opportunity to perform by herself. It’s these kinds of narratives across music’s biggest institutions that provides a great sense of frustration from music critics. Over the past decade, the field has made it a point of emphasis to include more diversity in places of power, and despite consistently ringing the bell for change in the industry, evolution occurs at a glacial pace.
But as individual music listeners, there is power in what we consume, and what we exalt. That’s been true forever, but never has it felt more put into practice then when reading 2018’s Best Of lists. And while individual publications, including Uproxx’s, seemed to have more diversity than ever in their choices, there is always the question from the reader whether this is an organic result or an initiative put out by the publication to be more inclusive. Neither would be necessarily wrong, but the former certainly is more encouraging about the state of music criticism and music listening. And as is shown with this first edition of the Uproxx Music Critics Poll, the diversity of music tastes within critics has never been greater.
We can look back at past Pazz Jop winners for reference, but it’s clear that music by non-white males has never been at the critical forefront like this. Certainly, recent years have been better than decades past, with 2017 offering only three male-fronted acts in the top 10 and most of the decade following suit with three or four selections that would fall into this category. The aughts were more grim, with years often featuring five or more white male-fronted acts, including years like 2002 and 2004 when seven of the top 10 were white dudes. And as you go back through the decades, some years are a little better and some are a little worse, but absolutely no year looks quite like 2018 in terms of the music that is given a shine here.
Within the Top 10 of the Uproxx Music Critics Poll, eight of the artists are women. If you extend out to the Top 15, that’s a whopping twelve female-fronted acts. Of those same 15, six are people of color, a number that could surely be higher but still feels like a positive when you consider that only one artist in the Top 15 is led by a white male (The 1975 at No. 8). And you can’t disregard this as a genre thing, when rock and indie still had a pretty good showing in the Top 15, holding seven of the spots. A contrarian could argue that this is a case of non-white-male-identifying people making better music than ever, but that’s an insulting and narrow interpretation of the data. It’s more about a changing attitude that affirms the music of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as deserving of the critical attention that they’ve so long been denied, particularly in the album form which has long been a patriarchal stronghold.
Songs lists, for their part, have often been more diverse thanks to the ubiquity of the pop and hip-hop worlds, where white men often take a backseat. The longheld critical attitude would be fine praising a one-off from a pop star or rapper as worthy of accolades but discount them when it came to the album form. So while the results of the songs list of the Uproxx Music Critics Poll seem more in line with recent years, the virtual absence of white men as the list goes down is noteworthy and underscores the changing critical attitude present in the albums list.
And it’s not just at the top of the lists where this change is noticeable. Artists like Sophie and Kali Uchis represent so much more than just another slot on a list, giving voices to perspectives in music that are often not amplified loud enough to reach the masses. And while part of it might be affected by the old guard of critics realizing they need to expand their own listening palette, part of it is surely the opening of the critical gates for more diverse voices to participate in the process, aware that the music of the marginalized contains insights, experiences, and stories that haven’t been told as frequently as those of white men. Of course, there is still so far to go with getting more women, people of color, and LGBTQ people published in media and put in positions of power within the system, and this year’s critical favorites might just be a taste of what’s to come as that continues to improve.
As critics, this is how it starts. It starts with the music that is talked about the most and hopefully reaches more ears. That in turn translates into better streaming numbers, playlist placement, awards, and festival bookings. Already with the 2019 Grammy nominations, there are five women up for Album Of The Year and Post Malone represents the only white male within the field. Primavera Sound unveiled a 50/50 gender initiative that they are calling “the new normal,” and already it is looking like one of the most exciting festival lineups in years. Hopefully, results from music critics like this become the new normal as well, because the music industry is better for it. It’s nothing short of revolutionary.