Is there evidence for the “teen girl” hypothesis?

My first reason for starting to look at the historical data for American Idol was my perception that there is a significant anti-woman bias to the contest. My interest was piqued during Season 9, when the number of women being eliminated was particularly front-ended. When Pia Toscano was eliminated last night, in the most shocking and most unfair result yet in Idol history (more about that in a future post), chatter on the internet focused on one thing: young girls with their text message voting were ruining the contest.

Let’s hold on a minute.

It is a peculiar truth that American pop music, and indeed music in general, is dominated by men. In 2005 Rolling Stone conducted a survey to determine the “most influential and significant artists of all time”. The list included 90 male artists and 10 female artists, with only two women in the top 40 (Aretha Franklin at position 9 and Madonna at position 39). And who were the “experts” choosing these people? 52 men and 2 women.

Rolling Stone conducted another survey, the 500 top songs of all time, similarly lopsided in who it polled (149 men, 23 women). That list included 445 male sung songs and 55 female sung songs. Only 6 songs performed by women appeared in the top 100.

However, of the best selling albums of all time, 36.7% are by women. This is skewed, but not nearly the 9:1 ratio found in popular critical opinion. Thus it is hard to evaluate what the public at large likes when it comes to gender in music. You can certainly point anecdotally to huge female stars (Miley Cyrus and Mariah Carey come immediately to mind), but it may be easier to point to phenomenally popular male groups (Backstreet Boys, Jonas Brothers).

In this post, I’d like to explore the possibility that young, female voters are throwing off Idol results irreparably. To accept the hypothesis, I would need to be convinced of several things. One is that the narrow demographic of young women dislikes female artists at a rate higher than the population. The second is after texting (SMS) and facebook voting was permitted, the bias against women got worse, and that young women text more than other demographic groups. The third is that this effect should scale: the more texts, the worse it should be.

Does America at large prefer male artists?

This is a complicated question to answer, because it depends on what kind of music you mean. Below is sampling distribution of male and female artist makeup of the Billboard Top 10 (Hot 100) since 1980.

Yes, there is a clear preference for men. Computing this since 1980, the preference goes 64% men, 36% women. Now, this is for all artists, and sometime about halfway through this data set, Rap music began to make significant inroads into the Billboard Top 10. So, if we restrict our investigation to Pop music only, and look at the male/female makeup (data only available since 1993), we see this:

There is still a clear preference, but it’s 55% to 45% in favor of men. The conclusion here is that the American public does not seem to overwhelmingly like female musicians over male, though they do modestly prefer males.

Do young women in particular prefer Male artists?

There really is scant evidence of this either way. A survey of 100 young people (mean age 19.7) in Australia found that both young men and young women tended to list more male artists than female when asked what they listened to (Millar, Psychology of Music 2008 36: 429). However, females showed a much stronger bias in favor of women. Young men, in fact, rarely listen to music made by female artists, many stating they listened to zero. Women listened more to men than women, saying that 37% of of the music they listen to was made by women.

Now, this number, 37%, is significantly higher than the number from the overall Pop list, but it is nearly identical to that of the Top 10 on the entire Hot 100. So, I would say that young women prefer male artists modestly more than the population.

Has it gotten worse?

Have women been getting screwed more and more as the years go by? No, not really:

Yes, it’s staggering that the percentage went up to 100% this season, meaning that in the First 5 rounds, 5 women were eliminated. But considering all the years together, it doesn’t seem like that much of a blip. And, in fact, for a couple of years women did a little bit better on being in the bottom 3 than the men have.

Women are getting screwed, but it doesn’t seem to vary significantly with time.

So what about text messaging?

One would think, if there was some effect of “girls tanking the results by texting for men”, that the effect would get worse when there were more text messages. Assuming that the rate of phone calls stays the same (for which we have virtually no data), I can show the rate of elimination vs SMS texts for a given year:

The effect of more text messages (more than double) between season 7 and 8 had basically no effect, and this is broadly true. Now, this data obviously doesn’t include Season 10, nor Season 9 since I don’t have the number of texts that year. My assumption, since AT&T did not release a self-congratulatory press release about it, is that the rate didn’t grow very much from S8 to S9. Looking at the female composition of the bottom 3, the result is even more counterintuitive:

This trend, to the degree that we can conclude anything about it, is slightly negative. In other words, more text messages actually kept women out of the bottom 3 more than it put them there.


There doesn’t seem to be all that much evidence to support the supposition that female teen and tweens power-texting votes into Idol is the reason that women are so disfavored in the contest. If anything, I think that this effect will be slightly better for women, not worse. Idol rates of elimination, broadly speaking, aren’t so far out of range of the taste of the American people. Season 10 is an anomaly, and it could be that the demographics are very different this year than last. However, there is nothing to support that notion.

One thing that could be screwing this up is Facebook. I have no reason to believe that there are many more young women using Facebook than young men, or even that substantially more young people who watch Idol are on Facebook compared to the older crowd. Facebook votes are limited to 50 per person, according to Idol.

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