A debate is now erupting on Twitter and Facebook following Beyoncé's show at Glastonbury. On Sunday night Jo Wiley gushed that Beyonce was the "first woman ever to headline at Glastonbury". Beyoncé took the ball and ran with it, declaring onstage "I'm the first woman... etc". And now Piers Morgan in his TV interview with the star is reiterating it. Does no one check their facts? Previous female headliners on the main stages have included Skin (Skunk Anansie), Björk, Meg White (White Stripes), Shirley Manson (Garbage), Candida Doyle (Pulp), Sinead O'Connor, Suzanne Vega and Joan Baez. Even Shakespeare's Sister headlined Saturday night on Pyramid Stage in 1992.
Granted, Beyoncé delivered a fantastic performance on Sunday - from the stuttering energy of "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" to a moving rendition of Etta James' "At Last" (complete with footage of civil rights protest and President Obama), to a vast singalong Halo. There was some grumbling before her appearance about the "popification" of Glastonbury (last year Kylie, this year Beyoncé. What next? The Wombles? Oh...), but Beyonce is an R&B innovator. She pioneered funky, staccato phrasing over robust beats; she hauled the '80s power ballad out of its bland lethargy and created something of might and passion. She's not content to do showboating vocal gymnastics; she has been known to jolt expectations with intonations of hip-hop, Arabic music, and reggae. In that respect Beyoncé truly is in the spirit of Glastonbury, and part of its continuing evolution.
However, despite her foxy all-female backing band, Beyonce's disregard for all the women artists who've come before her at Glastonbury is disquieting. "I'm the first woman to ever headline the Pyramid stage - unbelievable!' she announced before she went on, shocked at her selection. "I am honoured, especially since my message is for women and I always try to make songs that I think we need to hear to encourage us."
Well Beyoncé, it is unbelievable because it's not actually true. We could stretch a point for PR and hype's sake that she is, erm, just about the first female solo artist to headline Pyramid. But that conveniently ignores many key women who've fired up the main Glastonbury stages, from Chrissie Hynde to Sister Sledge to PJ Harvey. And does it somehow not count if female musicians headline Pyramid as part of a band? Like Skin? Or Meg White? Or Shirley Manson? Or, what the hell, Shakespears Sister?
This is a good example of the collective cultural amnesia that occurs where women's rock history is concerned. "I don't like my achievements being made invisible like that. Hold on, am I Scottish mist?" says Skin, who fronted Skunk Anansie for a fierce headline set on the Pyramid Stage in 1999. "Hold on Beyoncé, actually you're not the first woman to headline a stage at Glastonbury. What about Suzanne Vega? Or Sinéad O'Connor? You're not even the first black woman on that stage! Everyone got carried away at the prospect of a big American star at Glastonbury and lost their mind. Not one person had checked it."
Maybe someone should have a word with Piers Morgan... and anyone else content to recycle this misleading idea. The more this truism gets repeated, the more women's real achievements are ignored. Don't believe the hype.
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