Australia / Music / Think Piece

Music: Artists, Who Happen to be Women

UPDATE: I made a playlist of some of the music mentioned here and much more (unfortunately I couldn’t get all the songs I wanted and I know there are many omissions) Play it as you read?: http://grooveshark.com/playlist/Artists+Who+Happen+To+Be+Women/87818877Beth Gibbons

Over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, Australian national radio station Triple J played its “democratically” voted “Hottest 100” songs of the last twenty years. Immediately after the number one song (Wonderwall by Oasis) was announced, a few commentators tallied the numbers and decreed outrage that of the one hundred songs, only nineteen were by women artists (solo or part of a band).

As Eliza Sarlos points out in her great article here, Triple J is only partially to blame – after all, the public voted for the compilation, not they. She also outlines the statistics of how many Australian artists were voted in – artists who wouldn’t get a look in if the Best Of list was based elsewhere – and how the exposure they get on air contributes to the voting public’s awareness of them, and hence likelihood of those artists appearing in the list. Sarlos suggests that perhaps it’s the radio station’s responsibility to heighten the quota of female artists they air to change the gender balance in the future.

Of course, Triple J would counter, they compile daily playlists based on what listeners want to hear. They could also point to their yearly “Hottest 100” compilations, which do champion a greater percentage of female artists. Triple J aren’t completely to blame, but they’re not totally off the hook, either. They’re just part of a wider representation of sexism in music – a sexism that has started to crumble, but still visibly holds sway over pop culture.

It should also be noted that Triple J has an outdated checklist of what music they play. They no longer just promote independent artists, and quite a few of their top ten songs of the year are bought by people who usually listen to mainstream radio. If they also played critically successful female artists from the mainstream, the “Hottest 100” list might have had better female representation.

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Roisin Murphy

Music introduced me to feminism. While being gay, I’m still male (and white), and I enjoy the privilege that entails.

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Actually, I’m going to interrupt myself here.

I have a potential reader in mind now. I’ve constructed him in my mind from a combination of males I’ve known through my life. The type of guy, who, having seen my shift in gear to the first person has automatically tuned out, is already getting defensive because I’ve used the words ‘feminism’ and ‘gay’ – the type of guy who comments on articles written about sex discrepancy stating in that holier-than-thou, closet-Counting-Crows-loving way that maybe female artists just aren’t that affecting; the type of guy who gets embarrassed discussing feelings, unless it’s him whining with a guitar about being left alone, or worse, asking if “they know it’s Christmas time at all?”

And the woman who agrees with him.

These people infuriate me.

This is patriarchy in full dick-swinging glory. Men have always dominated the charts, therefore men are more talented. Men have always dominated the business world, therefore men are more talented. More men are top chefs, therefore men are more talented. Men sell more books than women, therefore men are more talented. Men have killed millions more of their own citizens, therefore men are more talented.

You get the logic. You see the flaw.

This is status quo pushing. Everything’s OK; nothing to see here.

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Fiona Apple

I suppose being gay has made me aware and wary of this – I felt more comfortable listening to hard-done-by women because prescribed masculinity intimidated, scared and abused me as a kid dealing with his own prescribed sex and sexuality. I found it easier to talk to women because they more readily accepted me for the shade of gender I fell on in the spectrum. Football’s not on your radar, either? Let’s talk!

When I started forming my own taste in music, I sought out lyrics I could identify with, and these were mostly written by women. Not because they included the pronouns “he” and “him” to define sexual partners, but because there was a comfort with exploring emotional states, a struggle with victimisation, a search for their own voice in the world.

For a while in my teens I only listened to female artists. I listened to Bjork have a visceral relationship with either a person, herself, or the earth itself; I listened to Fiona Apple react, then act mature around lovers; I listened to Roisin Murphy in Moloko be a consummate eccentric; and I listened to Beth Gibbons bear the weight of the world in Portishead. These women made complete, and critically lauded albums, with songs as well-built and tightly constructed as any male-lead band or artist.

Joanna Newsom

In Best Ofs of those years, my lists were outweighed by female artists, but as I got older and grew more passionate about music, I lost the discomfort of listening to male voices and started to appreciate song-crafters, slowly adding new favourites, irrespective of sex (turned out not all men are bullies). But women kept impressing me: Joanna Newsom, Laura Veirs, Feist, Julieta Venegas, Ely Guerra, Sia, Janelle Monae – to name just a few.

I wanted to know that others felt the same way I did about these women, but at that validation-seeking age (and lack of internet fandoms), I found little in music literature that held them up as a superlative – except compared to other women. Or, they were only as good as the men that produced or co-wrote songs with them. This confused me at first. What wasn’t I hearing? Did I have some gay hearing defect that made me hold female artists in higher esteem than they objectively deserved? Why were male artists deemed geniuses, while the female ones dismissed as crazy and probably either a man-eater or volatile?

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Julieta Venegas

I understand why some women can be reticent of supporting women artists. I suffer the same sort of hyper-criticality of gay male artists. There’s more at stake: I unfairly think of them as representing me, so if I don’t identify with their sound or image, they don’t appear on my radar, and then I give up and don’t actively seek out artists who are gay. If in mainstream music (music that the casual listener is fed, rather than finds for themselves) women artists are either sexualised, responding to a man, or just plain happy to have hips that don’t lie, it can be hard for people to hear a broad range of human experiences with a woman’s voice. Furthermore, some people listen to music to escape gender politics, so it’s unsurprising more people celebrate male artists who don’t need to politicise their sexuality. Let’s just drive along a Californian beach checking out chicks – gee, isn’t life great! Or, we’ll vote a female-led band (ie The Cranberries) to number one because she’s singing about guns, bombs and zombies.

“Have you heard that M.I.A. song with the gunshots and cash registers? Pretty cool, eh, bro?”

And the collective critical salivation over PJ Harvey’s brilliant Let England Shake – songs about war, mostly from male perspectives.

PJ Harvey

Canadian artist, Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, recently blogged about her exhaustion from being called a “waif” who makes “girly music”, and the insistence – from men – to be produced. The condescension being that she needs help – even when she’s made a living out of making music and gained critical acclaim and accolades without it.

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed a change, if not an allowance, in music criticism giving female artists the spotlight they deserve. Pitchfork (a once underground music crit site, now pervasive, just like Triple J’s own transformation to popular culture) champions artists like Grimes, and will not scoff at her politics. And when Fiona Apple released her fourth studio album last year, they all but apologised for ever doubting her talent. More importantly, male writers are beginning to accept that a talented woman doesn’t need ‘balls’ to make good music, and that without cojones it doesn’t automatically make her an ingenue, either. But the boys’ clubs of stalwarts like Rolling Stone, NME, Q magazine, (any music lit which started on paper) have been slower on the uptake – perhaps because they’re more worried about demographics and sales than being progressive.

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Grimes

The recent Triple J “Hottest 100” reveals more about the continuing machismo-based culture in Australia than it does the state of women in music. It informs even the programmers at Triple J, which is the station that has nurtured the majority of Australian female artists of the last 20 years. In Sarlos’ article, she states that in the last couple of weeks, just above 5% of new acts added to playlists were women – though that’s been disputed by the boss. It’s not because there aren’t any very popular female acts, it’s just that they aren’t made visible. At least not on Triple J. You can see why this might be in Australia: in the last 20 years, just under half of the highest selling albums in the country have actually been by women (from 1993’s Music Box by Mariah Carey to 2011’s 21 by Adele). But all live in the realm of pop. Which brings us to the politics of Triple J playlists: while Alanis Morissette was the highest selling artist of 1995, with Jagged Little Pill, and three of her songs were publicly voted onto the “Hottest 100” of that year, Triple J refused to add her to their playlists. So people were voting for music that the station never aired. This was a time when Triple J was staunchly against the mainstream, which would change – perhaps against their will – in 2000, when Powderfinger’s My Happiness secured the band’s ubiquity on all Australian radio stations. Since then, almost all number one songs have been mainstream.

And what makes a song popular in Australia? I propose it’s this (though, of course, I’m well aware of the exceptions): since most young people (who would vote in the “Hottest 100”) get their dose of music at music festivals (because stand alone shows can be too expensive), it’s the “stadium rocker” songs that stand out. Which would explain the second highest placing female act in the latest list: Florence & The Machine (at #49), and the lack of female acts overall. Most stadium-rocking female artists are pop – Beyonce (there, I mentioned her), Madonna, Kylie (though she had a brief period of Triple J love), Rhianna, Shakira, Katy Perry, et al – and will never see the red light in the Triple J studio (regardless of songwriting and production credits). It’s still embarrassing for a self-identifying music-loving male (probably Gen X, probably grew up with grunge and Public Enemy) in this country to like them. Similarly, artists like PJ Harvey and Bjork make macho, footy-loving guys, who admit to liking Kylie, feel awkward.

Bjork

What’s lacking is exposure – but not just airplay. The essential attitude to female artists needs to change. I’ll never forget the look of ecstasy come over the long-haired, metal-head at university hearing Bjork’s Homogenic album for the first time. Gender shouldn’t dictate what music you seek out. After all, music is maths – the patterns and structures it forms cannot be gendered. The stories women tell may be more accessible to a gay guy like me, but they don’t exclude anyone brave enough to listen.

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NB: I haven’t even begun to touch on race, language, and transsexualism in music. So let’s just say it was Triple J’s Hottest 100 songs by Western European-descending, heteronormative, cisgendered, English-speaking males (and a handful of females). But that would be splitting hairs, and taking merit away from some great music.

Further reading:

Women’s Agenda – Where were the women?

The Vine – The biggest omission

Flavorwire – The Best Advice to Women in Music from Female Musicians

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