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Book examines pop stars, how gender plays role

It’s no secret that male and female popular music artists are marketed in different ways.

Assistant Professor of Marketing Communication Kristin Lieb’s new book, Gender, Branding and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars (Routledge, 2013), takes an in-depth, academic look at why this occurs and includes numerous recent examples in popular music.

The book lifts the veils on the construction of pop stars, how they create brand identities to maximize their earnings, and how gender plays a major role in their positioning.

“Unfortunately, for a female pop star, her core asset is really her body,” said Lieb, who was a music industry executive, a freelance writer for Billboard and Rolling Stone, and a case writer for Harvard Business School before joining Emerson. “Her body is what gives her the ability to extend her brand into various entertainment verticals such as television, film, magazine, fragrance, or fashion.”


Kristin Lieb, assistant professor of Marketing Communication

Lieb uses interviews with music industry professionals and theory from mass communication, sociology, marketing, gender studies, and pop culture studies to make sense of her interviews and build theories of her own. The centerpiece of the book is Lieb’s “Lifecycle Model for Female Popular Music Stars,” which shows the patterned representations into which female pop stars must fit if they are to succeed at the highest levels of the industry.

Virtually any gold- or platinum-selling female artist since the dawn of MTV can be fit into what Lieb calls “its reductive phases.” She argues, for example, that female artists must be marketed as “good girls,” whether they are in the Mickey Mouse Club or sing in church choir, and then transition into being “temptresses” as they progress through their career lifecycles.

“For male artists like Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler, being really good at what you do makes people think you’re sexy,” she said. “For female artists, it’s not that simple.”

Exceptions are stars such as Adele, but they are few and far between. Others, such as Lady Gaga, understand the realities of the business and use them to their advantage, while still trading on the reductive poses and types in the lifecycle model.

“If you look at any 10 artists signed to a label, music executives are expecting one to hit really big, one to break even, and eight to be subsidized by the one that hits really big.” 

Lieb’s book also details the plummeting sales of recorded music. This has increased the importance of beauty in the business, as female artists are typically signed to major labels only if label executives see them as having crossover potential, or brand extension potential, into TV, film, fashion, fragrance, and other sponsorship capacities.

“If you look at any 10 artists signed to a label, music executives are expecting one to hit really big, one to break even, and eight to be subsidized by the one that hits really big,” Lieb said. “That’s why executives are inclined to pick a female artist who looks, sounds, and can be cross-capitalized just like another who succeeded before.”

Those interviewed for the book include singers Kay Hanley (formerly of Letters to Cleo) and Juliana Hatfield; Lars Murray, vice president of digital for Sony; Jorge Hinojosa, longtime manager of Ice-T; and artist manager Janet Billig-Rich, who has managed Nirvana, Courtney Love, and Jewel.

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