Women, Men, and Music: the XY Factor
Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.
Hardly revelatory, I know. This time last year, I contributed to a relatively prominent and very good music blog’s retrospective on the best songs of the past decade. More depressing if grimly predictable than Kate Nash’s inclusion in the best-of was the fact that, out of over 40 contributors, I was one of only two women. From the demise of Plan B magazine, with its conscious commitment to encouraging female writers, to Anwyn Crawford’s recent rebuke of The Wire, the relative lack of female voices in mainstream music criticism is a truth universally acknowledged.
As part of Ross’s audience, I’m not saying I felt excluded or unwelcome, nor did I find the questions less interesting, relevant or articulate for being asked in a masculine rather than feminine register. But something did click with me when, towards the discussion’s end, a man towards the front reticently asked Ross: “This might sound a silly question, but – do you like to dance?”
The opening caveat there is as important as the question itself. Let’s start with the latter, which threw into sharp relief the varying ways one can engage with music. Let’s call the difference that of Pure versus Applied. Where Alex Ross excels is his ability to demystify music, separating and examining its component parts. This scholarly and almost clinical approach can succeed brilliantly, particularly when discussing Ross’s first love, classical music. But, as an exclusive approach, I find it lacking, and the absence of attention to dancing helps explain why.
I find it very hard to think of any song I truly love that I cannot also dance to – whether by ‘dance’ I mean drunken mock-waltzing to ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ or that routine you do to ‘Killing in the Name Of’ which involves attempting to stab your knees with your eyebrows. I intellectually analyse the music I love, scouring its lyrical content and its social and cultural context for meaning to enhance my enjoyment of it, but not necessarily to justify my enjoying it in the first place. I am equally interested simply in experiencing its rhythm, its flow, its grind, its melody, the way it makes me want to move as well as the mechanics of how it achieves that, its impact on my body as well as my brain. I attach as much weight to a physical and emotional response as to a cerebral anatomising of music. Until that question was asked, the talk had concentrated wholly on the latter, lacking any consideration of the former, equally useful, dimension of how music works. So no, it wasn’t ‘a silly question’. Why the questioner might have felt that it was perhaps approaches the heart of the matter.
I’m sceptical of the patronising and reductive idea that men and women appreciate music in intrinsically different ways, men with a cold and technical analysis and women with an exclusively personal and emotional response. But this scepticism has to struggle against the weight of cultural conditioning and its success in bequeathing to boys and girls approved modes of engagement. The male = analytical/female = emotional dichotomy is a counterproductive product of social training, and identifying and questioning this assumption in relation to engagement with music is part of breaking down the barriers between genders and combating sexism in general. Doing so is hindered, however, by the extent to which these different approaches are accorded varying weight in wider discourse, with prevailing attitudes in mainstream music criticism privileging one over another.
The first half of this article identified a split in approaches to music between the intellectual and abstract and the personal and emotive. This is, of course, a false dichotomy, as is the concomitant view of the former approach as a male preserve and the latter a female one. It’s not like emotional engagement can’t be channelled into sharp and intelligent critique. And it’s not like girls are incapable of dry and po-faced analysis (an album review of mine once received the amusingly disgruntled response “I bet you write for The Wire, you pretentious cunt”. I mean, chance would be a fine thing). Neither are male writers incapable of experiencing or articulating an emotional reaction. Gender has no intrinsic – as opposed to socially and culturally instilled – effect on how an individual engages with music. But the effects of cultural conditioning in creating this false dichotomy, and the degree to which male-identified ways of music writing are privileged – the existence of what Everett True describes as a dominant male hive mind – goes some way towards explaining why female music writers are so scarce in the mainstream press.
Music criticism as presently constructed has an undeniable tendency to discourage female participation. Sarah Barnes recalls that when writing her first album review:
I felt out of my depth, because my experiences of music reviewing told me that what I wrote had to be very technical, almost cold. All that technical knowledge seemed very male, and I think I had picked up on this as a pre-requisite in music criticism from reading copies of Kerrang… or listening to my boyfriend reeling off genres and sub-genres until my head starts spinning.
More recently, Aoife Barry’s study of gender imbalance in music magazines compares reading The Wire to “poring over academic texts in an attempt to formulate an answer for an essay due the next day; the feeling that out of the dry sentences I have to pull something tangible that makes sense to me”.
The masculinist bent of mainstream music criticism has seen certain forms of engagement with music – attention to the emotional, the pleasure-seeking, the glittery, the silly, the frivolous, the undeadly serious – conceptualised as less deserving concerns, and downgraded accordingly, along with musical genres – pop, glam, disco – which are seen as primarily catering to these concerns. So in order to be taken seriously, to do ‘proper’ criticism, one must elevate cerebral, scholarly Pure Music and implicitly disparage the dizzy, gushing imediacy of the personal Applied. Better a nit-picking, list-making, album-ranking Hornbyite geek than a groupie, regardless of the degree to which these categories can and do overlap in the same individual.
However nebulous or subconscious this construction may be, it ties in unhelpfully with rock-solid sexism and gender imbalance within the music media and industry to reinforce both the image and reality of music writing as a boys’ club. As this excellent overview explains:
Periodicals like Rolling Stone and websites like Pitchfork Media – which have largely usurped print publications – tend to discuss the appearances of women more often than those of men, take their music less seriously, stereotype them and incorrectly attribute their successes to male coworkers. These double standards govern how women and men are viewed in general, rather than being specific to music criticism and reporting. Music journalism is a product of its culture’s gender roles and consumer demands. When this culture combines with mainstream pop and rock publications’ largely male staff and the sexism already prevalent in the music business they address, critics unwittingly carry on tropes that they have the power to ameliorate.
So, as noted ice-skater V. I. Lenin once asked, what is to be done? First, let’s acknowledge how many women are interested, engaged, and actively writing about music. Female music writers may still constitute a niche, but as all these sites show, we are out there. Blogs are necessary and useful – journalist and promoter Sara Sherr urges female writers to “pitch, pitch, pitch… If no one publishes you, start a blog” – but should be accompanied by a concerted attempt to address the mainstream’s failure to acknowledge the validity of other voices, and to recognise the benefits of a personal and emotional contribution, in its construction of a credible approach to music.
The more women who are seen to be writing about music, the more women will write about music, and the more the dynamics and conventions and hierarchies of writing about music (by both women and men) change because of more equal participation in it, the more we all benefit, the more the form progresses – Frances Morgan
Active and visible participation by women is a key part of promoting perspectives beyond the mainstream, an expansion which can only enrich the analysis, understanding and enjoyment of music. The road we take from here needs to pass through the land of a thousand dances as well as a thousand doctorates.
[Yeah it’s been around, this article, on Bad Reputation and Collapse Board, occasioning varying degrees of debate and disagreement. Let here be its final resting-place.]