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Debbie Gibson, Laura Karpman, Lindsey Stirling & More Speak From the Heart at 2024 She Rocks Awards

Laura Karpman had prepared an acceptance speech for the She Rocks Awards, where she and 10 other women who have succeeded in various aspects of the music world were honored on Thursday (Jan. 25), but she put it aside and spoke from the heart instead. It was important to convey her reaction to the news, announced just two days earlier, that she is a first-time Oscar nominee for best original score for American Fiction.

“I achieved a dream this week that I thought I would never get,” she told the audience at the Anaheim Convention Center Ballroom in Anaheim, California (and those watching the livestream). “It was so out-of-reach that I stopped myself from dreaming it. I literally suppressed that desire in myself. But I kept working to create inclusion for all kinds of people — and it worked, people, and it’s going to keep working, and I want to be here as an example to you guys that you have to keep working toward your dreams.”

Karpman’s She Rocks award was fittingly dubbed the Dreaming Out Loud Award. She then performed a jazzy selection from the American Fiction score, and even engaged in some scat-singing, riffing: “This moment calls for a celebration/ She got an Oscar nomination.”

The well-produced, fast-paced event was co-hosted by Susanna Hoffs, solo artist and founding member of The Bangles (she performed that group’s hit version of Paul Simon’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter”) and AIJIA, an artist, songwriter and vocal producer, who has worked with Selena Gomez, Anderson .Paak, Mimi Webb and Rachel Platten. AIJIA performed “Tough Love.”

The She Rocks Awards, now in their 12th year, are presented by the Women’s International Music Network, which was founded by music industry veteran Laura Whitmore. In her opening remarks, Whitmore said, “A 2023 global gender gap study by the World Economic Forum uncovered some sobering facts. The pace of progress toward gender equality has slowed. We are back to 2019 levels. According to the study, at the current rate of progress it will take 130 years for gender equity to be achieved. I don’t want to wait that long. Do you?”

Debbie Gibson was introduced by music journalist Lyndsey Parker, who referred to herself as “a card-carrying DebHead,” and noted, “With all due respect to Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift, Debbie did it first. She broke barriers for pop music created by girls and for girls. She let future generations like the women I just mentioned – young women with guitars, pianos and pages of diary entries, sitting in their suburban bedrooms – know that they too could make music, hit music, on their own terms, that this wasn’t ‘only in their dreams.’”

Gibson, who received the Trailblazer Award, was just 17 in June 1988 when she topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with “Foolish Beat.” She remains the youngest female artist to write, produce and perform a No. 1 Hot 100 hit.

“This week has been very intense for me,” Gibson said. “Tuesday marked the two-year passing of my late, great ‘momager’ Diane Gibson, who was a trailblazer herself. She was the lone female in the conference rooms at Atlantic Records pounding her first on the table fighting for my creative freedom. When I see Taylor and Billie and Lorde and H.E.R. and all these fabulous females out there doing things on their own terms, I feel like they may not know it, but they owe a debt of gratitude to Diane Gibson. It’s hard to remember when the landscape was not inviting to young girls, because now everyone is looking for the next young girl. Back then, they didn’t know what to do with me.”

Gibson performed her recent song “Legendary,” as well as a medley of her late ’80s hits, including “Only in My Dreams” and “Electric Youth.”

Melinda Newman, Billboard’s executive editor for the West Coast and Nashville, received the Achiever Award. She began her speech by saying, “I am so honored to be in the company of these talented, accomplished women. Unlike them, I can’t write or sing a song that becomes a pop classic or produce records by platinum artists or play an instrument, or get a nomination for an Academy Award — but from an early age, I knew I could tell other people’s stories.”

Newman recounted that when she was all of 11, she sought to get an interview with Lily Tomlin, who was performing in Newman’s home-town of Raleigh, North Carolina. Tomlin declined the request, but that didn’t deter Newman, who worked up questions anyway and snuck backstage. “Lily looked at me, guessed correctly who I was, and gave me the interview,” Newman recalled. “I learned two invaluable lessons that day that continue to serve me well and are crucial to success in any area: always be prepared and be very persistent. I am thankful that every day since that fateful one with Lily, other people let me share their stories. It’s a sacred trust that I don’t take lightly.”

Kelsy Karter, Australian singer, songwriter, musician and frontwoman of Kelsy Karter & The Heroines, received the Spirit Award, and gave a speech that perfectly encapsulated the purpose of the event.

“There is not a woman in this room, I bet, who doesn’t consider themselves a misfit or a rebel or an underdog. There’s not a woman in this room who hasn’t been told ‘no,’ or, ‘You need to change to make it – be sexier, be skinnier, be louder, girls can’t play rock and roll.’” Karter said that she too has faced such resistance, but said she didn’t let it stop her. “I didn’t get into this business to prove anyone wrong – that has just been an added bonus.”

Kelsy Karter & The Heroines performed “God Knows I’ve Tried.” Karter’s powerful vocals and dramatic style recalled Janis Joplin.

Two of the honorees spoke to the need for representation in terms of both gender and race.

Accepting the Vision Award, Lindsay Love-Bivens, artist and community relations manager for Taylor Guitars, candidly said, “I think like many women – and I don’t think it’s just women, I think men struggle with this too – imposter syndrome might creep up in us. We might find ourselves doubting our abilities, our ideas, maybe our places in our workspaces … As a Black woman, I’ve felt that pressure doubly …Fortunately, I have a great support system that reminds me ‘You belong in the rooms you’re in.’”

Love-Bivens also summarized succinctly why representation matters: “When young women and aspiring musicians see people who look like them succeeding, it becomes a powerful affirmation that they too belong.”

Holly G, writer and founder of the Black Opry and Black Opry Records, is among the leaders in the fight to make country music more welcoming to artists and fans of color. “Three years ago, I was just a country music fan who felt isolated and underrepresented by the music that I love – and it was more than a feeling, it is a reality of the format.”

Holly G concluded by saying “I want to reiterate how grateful I am to be here and express that gratitude by continuing to work hard to make sure that the future of country music looks a lot more like the people that are in this room tonight.”

Several of the honorees paid tribute to their parents. Accepting the Excellence Award, Jamie Deering, CEO of Deering Banjos, said “To my father, Greg Dearing, who together with my mother has been so supportive in everything I’ve wanted to do and never once told me I shouldn’t or I couldn’t because I was a girl.”

Deering also charmingly fan-girled and said, “I’m honored to receive this in the same year as Debbie Gibson because I was a huge fan as a kid.” Billie Feather performed “Sister Song” on a banjo to conclude Deering’s segment.

Lindsey Stirling, electronic violinist, dancer, and artist, told of being judged harshly on America’s Got Talent in 2010 (when she was 23). “I was devastated,” she said. “This happened on live television in front of 11 million people. I was so humiliated, but yet my mom was there to give me a hug afterward and tell me that she was proud of me. That’s one of the things that gave me the courage to keep moving.”

Stirling also explained why events like the She Rocks Awards are still needed: “The idea that there’s only so many places for women at the table becomes archaic when women stand together and celebrate one another and we say that if there’s only one chair at this table, ‘I will bring up another one – I will make room.’”

Britt Lightning, lead guitarist for the all-female ’80s rock band Vixen and the musical director at Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp, received the Powerhouse Award. She too thanked her parents for encouraging her dreams, a recurring theme of the night. She performed Joe Cocker’s classic blues-rock version of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

Sylvia Massy, producer for Tool, System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers and more, received the Groundbreaker Award, and was candid in her remarks: “Working in the studio is very demanding, for a man or a woman, and you just kind of get beaten down by it and the social dynamics of it over time. That’s why it’s important to have support. Groups like She Rocks offer that support.”

Bonnie McIntosh, a classically-trained pianist who has become a keyboardist for Post Malone, Halsey, Kehlani and Selena Gomez, among others, received the Mad Skills Award.

She noted how things have changed for the better for women in the music industry. “The music industry as we all know has always been a boys’ club, especially when I first started [in 2009],” she said. “Being here at the She Rocks Awards, I’m just so grateful to be celebrated among so many different women in the music industry. There is a community here. I didn’t know that existed when I was growing up, so if anyone is watching this who is younger who wants to do this as a job, there is a community here that exists.”

Cassandra Sotos, co-owner and CEO of AmpRx, as well as a violinist and recording artist, received a new award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year — an award that, she announced, will be presented every year.

Guitarist Jimena Fosado and her trio (which also includes Melanie Jo on drums and Lex Wolfe on bass) opened the show with a five-song instrumental set.

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