A couple of weeks back music writer Jessica Hopper asked her nearly 30,000 Twitter followers a simple question: “Gals/other marginalized folk: what was your 1stbrush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t ‘count’?” I didn’t see the tweet first hand. I would like to say that’s because I was reading about the Chinese stock market crash or the gruesome wildfires in Washington, big news stories that broke through the clamorous din that day. Or better yet, doing something offline, but according to Instagram I was busy that afternoon filming videos of my dogs chasing each other, then stopping to pee. I first saw Hopper’s tweet a few days later, after Huffington Post picked it up and someone on Facebook linked to that piece. “This Is The Kind Of Bullsh*t You Face As A Woman In The Music Industry” read the headline.
I’m a woman. I work in the music industry. I have faced a lot of bullshit. It’s mostly been my experience that no one is allowed to talk about it, so my interest was piqued. I clicked.
OK, yeah, that sounds like the world.
Yep, that’s a thing I’ve seen and experienced.
Ugh. But still like within the margin of what I was expecting to hear.
And then this, from Meaghan Garvey, a colleague of Hopper’s at Pitchfork.
Garvey went on to explain the details, which are incredibly disturbing, and which I will not repeat here, at her request. Suffice it to say, hers was not the only story like this. It was as if an entire community of oppressed people had been holding their collective breath since the moment they were first violated, just waiting for someone to ask: are you being, brazenly, routinely abused? And the answer was a resounding yes.
Aside from feeling deep rage at perceived acceptability and frequency of sexual assaults being described, none of the rest of the hundreds and hundreds of responses to Hopper’s tweet particularly surprised me. Late at night in dark corners of dark bars over the last decade, since I started working as a music journalist, I’ve occasionally tried to have this conversation with (usually) other female writers and industry folk. This was (usually) met with uncomfortable silences, shifting in the seat, and eager calls for another round. No one wanted to talk about it. But the ingrained sexism couldn’t have been more apparent. It was right there in the proportion of women you’d see onstage, on staff at magazines, and working at labels.
As a girl in a dress, the assumption is you’re there to service the band. On assignment for NME I was once asked by security to leave the dressing room because the band needed to get ready for their interview with the reporter from the NME. Another time, the editor in chief of a major music magazine introduce to a visiting rock star the one male intern by name, then refer to the other five female interns as “everybody else.” I remember feeling weirdly relieved that he’d just gone ahead and said it. Like, oh, right, we actually are in agreement about how things go around here: women are all the same kind of nothing and men are people with names.
I once wrote an entire essay for ELLE about how I was hired by a magazine because of my experience covering rock music in downtown Manhattan, then made over so that, to their mind, I would look more like the kind of girl covering rock music in downtown Manhattan. (This involved red hair and a personal trainer). It’s an open secret that the business is sexist, one I had the impression we all had to keep if we wanted to work here. What surprised me about Hopper’s tweet was not the content of the responses but the outrage contained within them, and the outrage they inspired. Hopper and her followers’ tweets were covered everywhere from the A.V. Club to the Guardian, where my dad, a philosophy professor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, came across it in his morning perusal of the soccer news.
If right this minute you performed a simple Google news search of the word “women” you will become mostly very depressed. Two women in India were recently sentenced to public rape by village elders in order to pay for a crime committed by their brother—he ran off with his married lover of a higher caste. Saudi Arabian women are finally given the right to vote but at least initially, few registered, and it inspired outrage among opponents, who waged a Twitter campaign against the new law. Politicians in the UK are considering implementing female-only train cars as a means of handling groping and sexual harassment on public transit. And Chrissie Hynde thinks girls in short skirts are asking to be raped.
And yet, hey, guess what!? Women in Saudi Arabia just got the vote! They can’t drive cars and need permission of male guardians to travel or work, but there is now a sliver of a sliver of hope that they can help vote leaders into power who would change that. The so-called “revenge rape” going on in India, reportedly a not uncommon practice in a country where there’s a stark divide between the formal, democratic, legal system and local authority, sparked such a furor that the men who ordered it may soon be arrested. Moreover, the country’s Gulabi Gang— a group of pink sari-sporting females founded in 2007 to fight violence against women—has now reportedly swelled to 400,000 members. And speaking of open secrets about bullshit in the music industry, Chrissie Hynde has always had a misogynistic streak. Back in 1994 she listed her number one rule for “chicks in rock bands” as “Don’t moan about being a chick, refer to feminism or complain about sexist discrimination. We’ve all been thrown down the stairs, and f—ed about, but no one wants to hear a whining female…” So it’s not like we lost a strong teammate here. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union recently recommended the justice department investigate Hollywood studios for unfair labor practices, women will soon, for the first time in history, be entering the Navy Seals, and we just might have a woman president in 2016.
By far the most demoralizing aspect of the sexual harassment/gender bias I’ve faced as a woman in the music business—and more broadly, as a female human in the world—is the idea that I’m not allowed to talk about it. That, to quote Ms. Hynde: “No one wants to hear a whining female.” That it would be whining to complain about being groped at festivals or mistaken for a groupie every time I go backstage. That it would be whining to object to being paid, you know, 78 cents on the dollar in the United States of America in 2015. Ten years ago Bill Cosby’s (alleged) victims were still suffering in silence, Dr. Dre’s ex-girlfriends had only their own counsel to keep, and I was in the aforementioned dark bars trying to get someone else to admit our business—our world—has a problem. Now, Jessica Hopper posts one tweet and a global conversation is started. Something is shifting. Just the other week, Thump published Michelle Lhooq’s exploration of the powerful role social media has in exposing assault in the New York nightlife scene. Maybe it’s Karmic payback for all the porn morphing men’s minds into misunderstanding sex as a one act play starring them (read some Anais Nin, dudes) but in terms of opening up the conversation about sexism and gender bias and inequality and sexual assault, the internet has been good for women. Talk is not action, of course. But it’s possible to imagine looking back at this general moment in time as a tipping point, as the moment where misogyny in our entertainment industries, and the real life violence it provokes in our society, was exposed, examined, and eventually rejected.
Take, by way of example, the Video Music Awards – the annual amusing/horrifying trainwreck is also a microcosmic rendering of the id of our pop culture and therefore our society. In case you missed the WWF-style pre-show drama, Nicki Minaj accused the VMAs of disproportionately nominating the videos of thin white women over girls with dark skin and booties. Taylor Swift took this as a slight against her (which it totally was) and called Nicki out, essentially, for being a bad feminist. “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other.”
Ten years ago, you wouldn’t mention the F word if you wanted to get played on terrestrial radio (still the biggest breaker of mainstream bands in America) but in the past two years feminism and pop culture have become inextricably linked. In Hollywood, certainly. Re-watch Patricia Arquette’s Oscars speech demanding wage equality, complete with JLo and Meryl Streep’s fist pumping reactions. Or check out George Clooney discussing the upside of the Sony hack, which revealed the kind of gross pay disparities the ACLU has highlighted. But also in music. Increasingly, pop stars are openly vocalizing their support of the movement. In the past few weeks alone Grimes, Anna Calvi, and Chvrches Lauren Mayberry have all spoken out about the sexism they’ve experienced as women in music. Feminism has become a cool-kid hashtag, and that, in a small, but very significant way is #progress.
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