Three stars of the music world were interviewed by 2020-2021 Dean's Scholar-in-Residence, Vanessa Williams, in a dynamic Zoom conversation about their respective careers, Women in Music: A Conversation with Vanessa Williams, Rosanne Cash, Renée Fleming, and Jillian Hervey, which was hosted by NYU Steinhardt's Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions.
The women differ in age, career paths, and genre of music, but found common ground in their experiences as women in the music industry. Williams, who was introduced by NYU Steinhardt Dean Jack Knott, asked questions personalized for her guests, and the participants spoke candidly.
Cash, Fleming, and Hervey felt drawn to careers in music since they are all the children of parents in the music business (Fleming’s parents were music teachers, Cash’s father was Johnny Cash, and Hervey’s mother is Williams). Hervey noted that having grown up one of Williams’ four children made her want to do something other than singing. “When I started... I really wanted to stay as far away from things that would have compared me to you as possible.”
One topic that spanned the opera world, rock, and the contemporary music scene was the dominance of men. Fleming felt challenged as a woman when it came to the business side of her career. “No matter how successful I became, if I was in a meeting with groups of managers or the record company, no matter who, I just didn’t have the power,” she remarked.
Cash spoke of how there were no women in the music industry, except for public relations, and how the marketing meetings she attended were about how to sexualize her. “I put blinders on, and I let it roll off my back. But the sexism was intense. There were men who were just bad boys and then there were men who were real predators, and you had to just keep going, keep your head down,” Cash said.
Williams commiserated, “I think that’s one of the worst feelings, when you’re an artist and you have to compromise over and over again. I had to deal with that through my entire career.”
The guests spoke about feeling and being safe physically and feeling heard. Cash and Fleming spoke of the importance of buffers and support teams to help them navigate through the uncomfortable territory of managing their careers.
All were in agreement about the power of music, particularly during the pandemic. Fleming noted how singers should be sharing what they know about breathing and helping people who want to sing during this difficult time.
Cash spoke about the healing power of music, remarking that she always says that she’s in “the service industry.” She expounded, “artists are in the service industry for the heart and soul, and we’re essential workers too.”
The program ended with words of advice for people in their twenties. Hervey, who is just in her thirties said, “Stay in your true authentic spirit, which is curious. Don't ever lose that, no matter how much stuff gets thrown at you.”
Williams advised to “always ask questions, be curious.”
And Cash cautioned that “it’s not art if you don't bring your discipline to your inspiration.”