6 Female Musicians Who Shaped the Music Industry

Music is a powerful vehicle, and all the women mentioned in this article have used it to leave their mark on history and change the industry as we know it. Obviously there are countless women pioneers we could pick from to spotlight, but these singers, performers, and activists seem to continually stand out when considering female artists who have drastically shaped the music industry.

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1. Beyoncé

You know someone is special when they don’t need a last name to be recognized. With 32 trophies to her name, Beyoncé holds the record for the most Grammy wins—male or female—as of this writing. This is a unique achievement on its own, but what makes her even more distinct is her influence on American culture. 

The singer is a champion for Black voices and has centered her art around Black culture like no other. Her performance at Coachella in 2018 dominated the conversation surrounding the festival, so much so that many were calling it “Beychella.” She was the first Black woman to headline Coachella, too—and she made it count. 

Beyoncé has stretched the limits of what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. Her powerful vocals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her talent. Her music and performances are powerful spectacles that are wholly driven by her strong artistic visions. 

2. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift is known to point out problems with the music industry when she sees them. The singer has successfully ignited conversations about artists’ rights and the value of music. She has re-recorded parts of her catalog after record label executives denied her the opportunity to buy back the masters to her own music.

[RELATED: 10 of the Most Poetic Taylor Swift Lyrics]

From 2014 to 2017, her music was not on Spotify because she boycotted the streaming service. Swift has criticized Spotify and Apple Music for having an unfair business model that doesn’t benefit musicians. 

An incident with Ticketmaster, who botched the presale for her Eras Tour tickets, sparked lawsuits, a debate over ticket fees, and a hearing in 2023 in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the business practices at Ticketmaster and Live Nation since they merged in 2010.

3. Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell is known for her unique songwriting style and has influenced generations of singers, songwriters, and guitar players. Many of her songs feature unusual vocal and melody patterns as well as alternative guitar tunings. Many of Mitchell’s songs serve as social commentary, including “The Fiddle and the Drum,” an anti-war song from 1969, and “Big Yellow Taxi” from 1970, which laments humans’ destruction of nature. Known as a folk musician, Mitchell was curious about other formats, too; she made a jazz-centric album in collaboration with jazz bass hero Charles Mingus in the late ’70s, and in the 1980s she experimented with synthesizers and the use of samples. 

Mitchell has been honored for her contributions to music and beyond throughout her career. In 2021, she was a Kennedy Center Honors award-winner, and in 2023 she was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by the Library of Congress.

4. Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin received many honors for her achievements in music and her influence on American culture. Among them were the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Grammy Legend Award. The “Queen of Soul” was also the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

The singer’s father, a Baptist minister, would take his daughter on “gospel caravans” so she could perform in different churches. Franklin’s recording career began when she was just a teenager. 

At first, she would release songs she sang in church. By the early 1960s, however, she had fallen in love with pop music and wanted to follow in the footsteps of singers like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. Franklin proceeded to incorporate other genres into her music but always infused it with her own gospel flavors. 

5. Nina Simone

Nina Simone became known as a powerful force who used her music to add to the discourse about race and identity in America. 

In the beginning of her career as a musician, Nina Simone played piano and sang in bars. She always dreamed of becoming a classical pianist but jazz and pop music paid her bills. She often reinvested her earnings back into piano lessons, since she was not able to pursue a college degree in music. 

Simone became famous in the late 1950s thanks to a recording of “I Loves You, Porgy” from the musical Porgy and Bess. Soon after, she moved to New York. This is where she met Black activists and writers who were active in the civil rights movement. Among them were James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes.

In an interview with Black Journal in 1969, Simone spoke about what it meant to her to be an artist: “I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty.” She added, “My music is addressed to my people especially, to make them more curious about where they came from and their own identity and pride in that identity.”

 “Mississippi Goddam,” the first of many protest songs she published, was written as a reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

6. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was not only a powerful singer but a phenomenal electric guitarist at a time when electric guitars were still coming into their own in popular music. Tharpe developed her own music brew, which mixed gospel music, Delta blues, and jazz. The Library of Congress added a recording of her “Down by the Riverside” from 1944 to the National Recording Registry. 

As a guitarist, Tharpe was not only a pioneer of combining chords and melodies; she was one of the first artists—male or female—who experimented with distortion. She is thus often called “The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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