Sabrina Carpenter’s Espresso is the ‘song of the summer’ – but it hides a worrying trend

Sabrina Carpenter’s Espresso is the ‘song of the summer’ – but it hides a worrying trend

Sabrina Carpenter’s “song of the summer”, Espresso is still riding high in the charts. The only thing keeping it off the top spot in the current UK singles charts is her new release, Please Please Please.

It’s safe to say the new princess of pop has the music world at her feet. But a peek behind the scenes suggests that she is the latest example of a female face fronting a male-dominated industry.

Before going any further, though, I need to address the elephant in the room. I’m writing about gender bias in popular music as a man who works in academia – a field also criticised for its lack of gender equity. While there’s little I can do about being born a man, I can do something about drawing attention to the inherent gender bias in pop music.

Since the year 2000, there have been 275 UK number one songs with women as the lead artist or co-lead artist, making up 47% of the 585 total. So far so equal. But when we look at how many of those 275 also had all-female songwriters and producers, there’s see a significant imbalance. Only Beautiful by Christina Aguilera (2002), Running up that Hill by Kate Bush (which went back to number one after appearing in Stranger Things in 2022) and Strangers by Kenya Grace (2024) meet this criteria.

That’s only three songs in 24 years, and less than 0.5% of the overall total. And, even then, all the instruments on Beautiful and Running Up were performed by men and they both had male music video directors. This leaves Strangers as the only track with no male involvement at all.

That’s 0.2% of female-led singles with no male involvement in the 21st century. A remarkable statistic considering the UK singles chart has been running for 72 years and spawned nearly 1,500 number ones. On the flipside, the percentage of male-led songs with no female involvement stands at 57%. Non-binary artists make up 1% of the total, but all of those songs involve male songwriters and producers.

In early 2020, the University of Southern California released a study on gender inequality in music. It showed that less than 3% of producers were women, and less than 13% were songwriters.

In terms of songwriting, Sabrina Carpenter’s Espresso and Please Please Please both fare significantly higher – 75% of their songwriting teams were women (including Carpenter herself). But in terms of production, with Julian Bunetta for Espresso and Jack Antonoff for Please Please Please, it’s the same old story. And, unsurprisingly, they’re both also mixed, programmed, engineered and mastered by men. In the case of Espresso, everything but the lead and backing vocals are performed by men.

Everything but the lead and backing vocals on Espresso are performed by men.

These damning statistics are being swept under the carpet as the media continue to ignore the elephant in the room. A recent GQ article praised singer Charli XCX for her authenticity on her latest album Brat, describing it as: “clearly coming from her brain and not some record-label bozo”. But the article conveniently ignored the fact that said “bozos” (in this case Atlantic Records) brought in ten male producers and 12 male songwriters to achieve the end product.

Redressing the balance

Award-winning producer Lauren Deakin Davies puts the lack of women in production roles down to culturally constructed ideas which are formed in childhood, where, when selecting GCSEs and A-levels, many girls decide not go down the music production route because that’s not a “girl” thing to do.

Indeed, between 2018 and 2022, only 24% of A Level music technology students were female, and the same percentage are currently studying similar courses at university.

But this may be changing. It’s disappointing that the current UK government rejected the recommendations put forward by the Women and Equalities Committee’s landmark Misogyny in Music report. But studies have shown that the amount of female producers increased from 3.5% in 2022 to 6.5% in 2023 and songwriters from 14.1% to 19.5%, something Deakin Davies says may be down to lower costs and accessibility of studio equipment.

There have also been recent efforts to redress the gender imbalance in the UK music industry via the Youth Music NextGen Fund, which supports those who might be discriminated against, for reasons that could include gender, race, disability, location, or other characteristics, and the latest Fix The Mix annual report, which puts forward a series of proactive initiatives to encourage and champion more women into pursuing previously male-dominated roles.

These are all very welcome signs that things are heading in the right direction, but a glance at the songwriting and production credits of the current UK charts shows us that there’s still a very long way to go until we see female talent flourishing outside the vocal booth. And until we see more exclusively female-made hit songs, the music industry remains very much a man’s world.

The post “Sabrina Carpenter’s Espresso is the ‘song of the summer’ – but it hides a worrying trend” by Glenn Fosbraey, Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Winchester was published on 07/01/2024 by