Image courtesy of the Reading Festival website; image credit: Sarah Louise Bennett
The night before Reading Festival was about to hit the town, we hit the town ourselves to buy last-minute tents to see us through what promised to be an action-packed weekend. Despite Saturday being set to be the most popular day of the festival, we could still agree that Friday’s lineup brought together some of the biggest names in music today, no matter whether your definition of a big star rests on their level of media celebrity, radio airtime, or their popularity on TikTok. It would also have been hard to miss the high calibre of genre-bending and box-breaking female artists whose names criss-crossed the bill from morning until night; and thus, my plan was set. From 1pm to 11pm, I went from stage to stage (...to stage, to stage…) to check out sets from some of the 2022 music industry’s must-watch women, for this “female-focused Friday” feature.
After having interviewed Black Honey’s frontwoman Izzy B. Phillips ahead of Meadowlands Festival back in April, I knew I had to catch their Reading set, which was about to take place as soon as I arrived on-site. It was worth speedrunning my tent-pitching for; immediately I’m greeted with the paradoxical vision of Izzy herself standing centre-stage, her ethereal white dress contrasting with her smudged black eyeshadow and barbed-wire guitar riffs. To me, and to many of her fans, she’s an artist that both defies, embraces and redefines femininity, making her the perfect person to start my female-focused feature adventure with. True to her word, Black Honey’s festival set is a “true party for the outsiders and weirdos out there”; Phillips intersperses well-received performances of some of their biggest hits (‘All My Pride’, ‘I Like The Way You Die’, ‘Corrine’ and ‘Run For Cover’), with vitriolically-delivered profanity and hand gestures during ‘Charlie Bronson’, and piercing screams during ‘Spinning Wheel’, which contrast sharply with the gentle vocal runs she slides into by the end of the song. Following a performance of new song ‘Out Of My Mind’, she asserts that “at Reading Festival weekend we want to celebrate diversity”—and Black Honey certainly do so with such a diverse, and often unpredictable, set. We look forward to seeing where they go next, because we probably can’t guess at it until they get there—we only know that they’ll go far.
Queen Millz is the next act on my list not to miss, so I make a beeline from Main Stage East to the BBC Radio 1Xtra stage once I figure out where I am on the Reading Festival map. Up-and-coming rapper, singer and MC Queen Millz is already onstage by the time I arrive, bouncing around backed up by a female DJ (DJ Debs) and two female backup dancers—from the outset, it’s a set that exudes girl power. Despite the confidence and attitude that seems to come naturally to her rapping, her thoughtful lyrics and soulful vocals during songs like ‘Mill$’ show she has more than just one skill under her belt. She draws an impressive crowd considering not many of the people in it seem to be familiar with her music, but we’re sure they will be soon. “I thought the industry was lost but I was found,” is one of the standout bars we catch from her. We’ll be sure to keep her in our sights so as not to lose her in the future.
Making it all the way from Los Angeles to Reading Festival’s Festival Republic Stage, Scene Queen and her music are the epitome of female empowerment and sex-positivity. True to form (and the title of almost all of her songs), she comes on dressed in baby pink from head to toe, the black harness crossing her torso the only indication that her music might have a few surprises under its sleeve.
An artist known for pioneering the genre of ‘Bimbocore’, which is also the title of her debut EP, her music redefines what it means to be a woman in the 21st century by taking control of the way female sexuality and behaviour is portrayed. I can only describe its sound as something like ‘if Ke$ha joined a metal band’; Scene Queen’s cutesy valley girl accent clashes with the roaring guitars and screamo elements behind it in the best way. Between performing her all-pink-everything songs from ‘Pink Paper’, to ‘Pink Bubblegum’, to ‘Pink G-String’ (performed live for the first time ever), she shares her thoughts on the female experience, alongside a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour, and explanations of her lyrics and song concepts—the latter of which showed how thoughtful they actually are, despite the ironic label of ‘Bimbocore’. Other highlights of her set include a cover of Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’, followed by “a song that’s somehow even gayer than that” (‘Pink Panther’), and an all-girl moshpit to boot. “No offense to the guys, but have you ever been a woman in a moshpit? People are kind of touchy-feely in a moshpit, so keep your hands to yourself or your ass is getting toasted,” is her only justification—and the only one she needs. No one dares to defy a Scene Queen, after all—as she details in ‘Pink Rover’, she has no qualms about being ‘off with their heads’...
Never let anyone say social media isn’t a major player in shaping the music industry; viral internet sensation Pinkpantheress’s set on Reading Festival’s BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage only proved it. The crowd it drew to the tent was far bigger than anyone could’ve expected; the other journalists in the press tent later shared that the crowd for the Main Stage artist playing at the time was nowhere near as packed-out. It was so packed-out, in fact, that you couldn’t get anywhere near the front even if you tried (and some people definitely did try). She’s definitely not a woman in music to miss if others’ enthusiasm was anything to go by, but we had to give her set a miss, unfortunately. It was impossible to hear or see anything, in addition to being a major health and safety concern, but it was admirable—and a testament to her fast-rising stardom—how many people stayed just to catch a glimpse of her. Maybe now the promoters have realised the enormity of her fanbase, they’ll promote her to one of the Main Stages next festival.
I returned an hour later to make a second attempt at getting into the dance tent, and it was definitely easier this time—but that’s not to say that Nia Archives isn’t making waves in her own right. The jungle-music genius drew a comfortably-sized crowd, getting them moving to her tunes enough that you were glad there was the extra space to accommodate them. On the big screens on either side of the stage, you could see her effortlessly handling her hour-long, high-energy set without even breaking a sweat—though the crowd definitely were.
Putting two hardcore dance sets back-to-back on the lineup was a brave choice by Reading Festival’s organisers, but turned out to be one of the better lineup choices they made among their many other controversial decisions (replacing Måneskin, Jack Harlow and Rage Against The Machine with the dissimilar Charli XCX, AJ Tracey and The 1975; and having Ed Sheeran come on as a surprise act during Bring Me The Horizon’s Saturday set). Meg Ward comes on beaming, her look hard to pin down and box up as she rocks a purple corset under a baggy purple and pink striped shirt, with a mullet to boot; this seems to explain the 80s influences which turn up partway through her set. The graphic behind her features her name stylised into a heartbeat—and she definitely brought beats to the heart of the tent. She brings a techno twist to the Dance Stage, and much like Nia, never loses steam. It’s amazing to see more women hit the electronic and dance music scene, and we’ll be sure to keep hitting the dancefloor as they do.
I finally made it back into the markedly less sweaty open air in time to catch Little Simz’s set on Main Stage East, which started with the song ‘Introvert’ from her award-winning and Brit-nominated album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. These deeply personal lyrics, combined with her outfit—a towering beige beanie, dark white-rimmed sunglasses and a baggy denim jacket and sweatpants combo—make her persona seem even more mysterious; on one hand, she’s introverted, covered up, and on the other, she’s making swaggering steps around the stage and spitting bars like she was born to. The audience is more than okay with this paradox—like she says on her song ‘Speed’, ‘Why they wanna put me in a box?’. There’s no need to; we just have to accept that her cool, effortless charisma and her sometimes-introvertedness are just equally valid facts of life. Like she says during her performance of ‘Rollin Stone’, we’re clearly “in the presence of a queen”.
One thing is for certain, though: Little Simz never comes across as anything less than real. The big screen’s camera feed zooms in on a female audience member who is moved to tears during her set. All the while, her backing band provides funk grooves and vocals during ‘Two Worlds Apart’ and ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, before shifting to dirtier basslines and a more rock sensibility during songs from her previous album, Grey Area. Despite their understated power to get the crowd moving, the instrumentals are stripped-back for the most part, leaving Little Simz’s vocals at the forefront, speaking loud and clear for herself, for women, and for the people.
MEGAN THEE STALLION
Last but never even close to least, people moved in flocks to Main Stage West to see one of Friday’s headliners, Megan Thee Stallion, grace them with her performance. Arguably one of music’s biggest female figures today, her music and public persona tirelessly championing the freedom of female sexuality and its expression, she made the perfect act to wrap my coverage up with. Speaking of wrapping up and coverage, however, her lace-up leotard leaves little to the imagination as she struts onto the stage, radiating the admirable self-confidence that makes her such an inspiration to so many people. Between performances of girl-empowering songs (‘NDA’, ‘Plan B’) from her new album, Traumazine, in addition to well-selected older material to please the crowd with (‘Body’, and a solo version of ‘WAP’), Megan makes sure to underscore the theme of her slot: promoting “real hot girl sh*t”. “Where my hot girls at?” she asks, and the front rows of the crowd answer. As it happens, anyone can be a hot girl, as shown by the diverse range of people she hand-picks to share the stage with her during the last few songs of her set. “I wish I was a hot girl, it seems really fun,” my 23-year-old male colleague says from beside me. Megan Thee Stallion not only makes it look fun, but she makes it look easy.
Unfortunately, for all the female artists I did manage to see, there were still some I had to miss due to festival-typical clashes; honourable mentions go out to Griff, Flowerovlove, Sisi, Caity Baser (who we’ve seen before), Witch Fever, and Dolores Forever, all of whom are making woman-shaped waves in the music industry in their own way. I’d invent time travel to go to their sets if I could, but for now, we just have to wait and see where they’ll go next—very far, we think, if the fact that some of them are just starting their career on a Reading Festival stage is anything to go by. Some of them are just sixteen to seventeen years old, too. Yes, that might make our terribly aging (20+-year-old) writers feel bad about themselves, but there’s no real need to feel down when the future of women in music only seems to be looking up.