Old, sexless and dull?

When it comes to music, we see women left, right and centre. On tour, at awards shows, on TV, on the radio, on every blog under the sun – so how could anyone say women don’t run the music game?

Every creative industry has its cross to bear – often it’s the complete absence of older women, women of colour, unapologetic women, fat women, the list goes on. I always hoped that the complexity and bravery necessary to make good music would somehow suspend the rules of real life sexism in favour of a more radical approach, one which would allow women who make great music to succeed. Also, women who produce impressively new, forward-thinking music (the likes of Planningtorock, Olga Bell, Ami Dang), women who have had decade-long careers, but rarely appear in any music magazine’s top 10 list (Diamanda Galás, Tanya Tagaq, Karin Dreijer Andersson). So why don’t we hear about these women? Why are they always secondary to their equally wonderful male counterparts?

Whilst women musicians are abundant, more so now than at any other time in history, the mould they are required fit to achieve success is often narrow. In a recent Facebook post, Björk wrote about the sexism she’d experienced throughout her career – ‘women in music are allowed to be singer songwriters singing about their boyfriends… If they change the subject matter to atoms, galaxies, activism, nerdy math beat editing or anything else than being performers singing about their loved ones they get criticized.’ Perhaps this is why pop music (where hits are 4/4 odes to love and sex) is the main genre where women are most represented. But this begs the question – are life, death, the universe, euphoria, political subjects solely reserved for Sun Ra and David Bowie?

Of course, we could argue that meritocracy is the prime motivator of music, that talent surely transcends sexism, racism, ageism, and general stigma – and yet musicians who do not  conform to specifically unthreatening aesthetic ideals, such as Lizzo or Jenny Hval, rarely get the same ‘genius’ status of Trent Reznor or Jack White.

It seems that the strict rules of what you should sing about, look like, or sound like affect even the most successful women musicians long-term. In a moving speech at Billboard’s 2016 ‘Women in Music’ event, Madonna stated – “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” The kind of unquestioning and uncontroversial career longevity awarded to mediocre pop singers, like Cliff Richard or Michael Bolton, doesn’t easily translate to pop legends who happen to be women – Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher – all who constantly receive overwhelming amounts of criticism for ageing, being too sexy, or not sexy enough, having too much or not enough surgery, for still writing ‘young music’, for being outspoken and uncompromising.

This is significant if we go behind the scenes to the more ‘hands-on’ folks, who forge the songs that we hear – respected and admired for the more ‘pragmatic’ skill of crafting a hit. The Nashville Scene reports that women make up less than five percent of music producers and engineers – and even within this five percent, their credibility is often called into question. In an interview with Fader, producer Grimes spoke of her experiences – ‘I was like, ‘Well, can I just edit my vocals?’ And they’d be like ‘No, just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.’ And then a male producer would come in, and he’d be allowed to do it.’ If women are underrepresented in this position, restricted in their creative freedom, criticised for ‘sticking around’, then ultimately we have to really question the role of women in music, and where their value is seen to lie – in capability or purely in visibility?


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March 2021
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