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Melissa Etheridge Explains How Her ‘Queerness Protected’ Her in the Music Industry Boys’ Club

Melissa Etheridge reflected on the systemic challenges women have faced in the music industry for decades — and how her own queerness protected her, in a way — in a new foreword for Tunecore’s annual report, “Be the Change: Gender Equity in Music,” released March 8 to coincide with International Women’s Day.

In the short essay, Etheridge spoke about the ways the music industry boys’ club has long cast a shadow on the “decades of music defined by incredible women dominating the chart.” Amidst those more public-facing successes, she argued, many women were pushed aside behind the scenes as “typically white, male executives… profited from our labor.” 

Ehteridge came up in the Eighties alongside a mighty cohort of women like Tracy Chapman, k.d. lang, and Sinéad O’Connor. “There was finally a bit of interest in women artists’ music and experiences,” Etheridge recalled, though she still noted that all of the A&R reps who came to see her were men. 

“In music—as in life—being a woman comes with its own set of obstacles, both seen and unseen. Ranging from unequal pay and a diminished sense of autonomy to the countless cases of sexual harassment and abuse that have come to light in recent years from all corners of the industry. And, these obstacles are compounded for women of color and gender expansive individuals.”

Etheridge did acknowledge how her queerness “protected” her during this time, especially from some of the uglier, more base expressions of male chauvinism. Because of her steady work playing lesbian bars in Los Angeles, it was well-known that Etherdige was gay when she properly entered the industry. 

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“It changed the way people responded to me,” she recalled. “I didn’t experience the same sexual harassment as straight women did in the industry. Men stood back and didn’t know how to deal with me.”

Over the past 40 years, Etheridge said she’s been able to see “how far women and gender-expansive musicians have come” and laid out her hopes for the future. “The best thing to do is not to make it an issue of us against them. People are sometimes driven by their own misunderstanding and fear, so if you become the love you want to see, we hope they will feel that and change…. We can work together to create a more equitable, accessible, and inclusive industry, where people of all backgrounds, sexualities, abilities, and gender identities are granted the same opportunities for success.”

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