From Public Humanities to Social Remembering: Big Data and the Digital Redlining of Women in Country Music Culture

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Jada Emily Watson

    Université d'Ottawa (University of Ottawa)

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Theories of social remembering (Misztal 2003; Strong 2011) and digital redlining (Noble 2018) offer a critical framework for considering the credibility of big data within cultures that disadvantage and systematically ignore women. Reflecting on results of a data-driven analysis of Mediabase’s country airplay reports from 2000 to 2018, this paper considers the role of data in the process of shaping country music culture, and reframes our understanding of these reports as an instrument that systematically “remembers” some artists, while “casting away” or “forgetting” others. Over the course of this period, the number of songs by women played on country format radio declined 41.3% (Fig. 1). These reports map the evolving terrain of country music’s cultural space and have resulted in a system that pushes women to the margins: songs by women are played infrequently on country format radio (Fig. 2), with the majority of their airplay occurring in the overnights (Fig. 3) (Watson 2019a/b). As a result, songs by women are charting in declining numbers, peaking in the bottom positions of the weekly charts, and barely heard in radio’s peak daytime hours. Such practices impact black women more significantly (Watson 2020). In this way, the reports reveal a digital redlining of women, wherein programming practices are perpetuating inequalities by refusing high traffic times of day to already marginalized artists. More critically, this paper addresses the challenges of critiquing social remembering through public scholarship and reflects (as Marcia Chatelain [2016] does in her work) on my experiences of thinking and working in public digital spaces.Gender has been a central dynamic of country music history and culture (Pecknold & McCusker 2016), wherein masculinity and femininity are invoked to define class boundaries, cultural tastes, institutional hierarchies, performance styles, and the evolution socially prescribed roles. With strong ties to conservatism and religion, country’s first female artists often appeared on stage with their husband or male family members, a constant reassurance for record-buyers that the social order in which females performed familial roles and habits of constancy and tradition endured in the genre (McCusker 2017). Following WWII, as female artists began taking a more prominent role on stage and behind the scenes, cultural institutions actively sought to censor lyrics in women’s songs if they were too “suggestive”, aggressive, or politically charged—a trend that has continued throughout the genre’s history (Bufwack & Oermann 2004; Keel 2004; Watson & Burns 2010). Behind the scenes, the country music industry has employed a strict quota system for female artists on radio playlists and label rosters (Penuell 2015), which has, in turn, limited their opportunities for participating within the mainstream of the industry as performer and songwriters.Adopting methods for data-driven studies of popular music charts (Wells 2001; Lafrance et al 2011) and influenced by the concept of prosopography (Keats-Rohan 2007; Crompton & Schwartz 2018), this project has developed an approach for collecting and organizing music industry data in order to study how the biography of individuals shapes and is shaped by the genre’s cultural constructs. In order to address complex socio-cultural issues of equity and diversity in country music, it has developed a comprehensive dataset of all of the singles played on country format radio between 2000 and 2018, enhanced with biographic information about the lead and featured artists involved in performing the recorded tracks played on country radio to facilitate a vast range of queries about programming practices and their impact on weekly charts. In so doing, this project deconstructs the gender politics that have governed the genre and shows how big data has created and perpetuated gender inequalities and contributed to the continued marginalization and “forgetting” of female narrative voices within country music culture.  Figure 1. Distribution of unique songs by men, women and male-female ensembles played on country format radio between 2002 and 2018.Figure 2. Distribution of spins for songs by men, women and male-female ensembles between 2002 and 2018 reveals a 40.2% increase in spins for male artists against a 44.8% decline in spins for songs by women.Figure 3. Distribution of spins for songs by men, women and male-female ensembles across the five dayparts in country format radio programming in 2002 (left) and 2018 (right).Appendix A

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2020
"carrefours / intersections"

Hosted at Carleton University, Université d'Ottawa (University of Ottawa)

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

July 20, 2020 - July 25, 2020

475 works by 1078 authors indexed

Conference cancelled due to coronavirus. Online conference held at Data for this conference were initially prepared and cleaned by May Ning.

Conference website:


Series: ADHO (15)

Organizers: ADHO