If We're Going to End Music Industry Sexism, the Dialogue around It Has to Change
Have we created a climate that’s just too overwhelmed by negativity?
Ever since Miley Cyrus stepped on stage at the VMA’s and wiggled her flesh-tone PVC pants in the direction of Robin Thicke’s upsetting trousers, the media has gained an obsession with calling out sexism in the music industry. The latest institution to be called-out on its bad form are the Reading & Leeds Festivals, which managed to assemble a 89.6% all-male bill. Gender equality is currently at the forefront of public consciousness so, justifiably, people flipped their collective lid.
Of course, the Reading & Leeds line-up has always been a bigger broccasion than a Match of the Day panel. What’s changed isn't the percentage of female acts on the bill (last year's was actually slightly higher), but people’s readiness to call out injustice when they see it. But we are still at the stage of identifying problems that are a long way from being fixed, and we have reached a point where discussion of gender in music tends to have an understandably negative focus. Pointing out the wrongs is obviously an important step on the road to change, but with so much criticism and so little progression, have we created a climate that’s just too overwhelmed by negativity?
A few weeks ago, Perfect Pussy front person and ever-positive force of nature Meredith Graves sent the following tweet booming out into the universe like a thunderous call to arms: “Campaign to Disarm Awful Obsolete Male Rock Critics and Replace Them With Teenage Girls 2015.” Seems like a fair premise regardless of context, but it was written in response to a certain established male music journalist who reviewed the new t-U-n-E-y-A-r-D-s album not on the basis of it’s content, but on Merrill Garbus’ physical appearance. “I’ve always slotted her as a hyperconscious, hyperemotional misfit with a long-gone weight problem and a generous voice,” he writes, before going on to suggest that the song “Rocking Chair” was born from Garbus’ subconscious fear of breaking one.
Yes, this guy probably deserved a verbal kicking, but Graves managed to twist her condemnation of him into a statement of empowerment for those he was undermining. Impossible as it is to shut down every fuckboy, Meredith Graves knows how to pick her battles. In one fell swoop, she deconstructs the fossilised idea that respect should be earned according to age and gender. Implicit within that is the point that young women are fucking important and should be taken at least as seriously as the old dudes judging them in the name of music journalism. I’m not saying that objectivity should automatically go out the window when this dynamic occurs, but, for example, when you have Paul Lester - a middle aged male Guardian critic - describing Girlpool’s music as “being cornered by a couple of characters from HBO’s Girls and made to listen to their boyfriend problems in excruciating detail”, you have to question whether these “respected” music journalists deserve any respect at all when they’re in the business of trying to silence the voices we would all do well to pay attention to.
It’s tempting to spend all our time shouting about the prevailing systems that position older men as the “gatekeepers” of good taste, which young women often find themselves fighting to get through. But in the larger scheme of things, going in hard on someone’s dad for not “getting” Girlpool doesn’t seem that useful. Wide as their appeal may be, their demographic is definitely not Male Newspaper Critic Who Has Been Asked To Write About Them, Aged 35 - 59. In the interest of being more constructive, for every spoonful of outrage we flick in the face of frustrating critics, we should add a double helping of positive reinforcement to balance it out. A sixteen year-old Tavi Gevinson, founder of Rookie - an online magazine for teenage girls - said it best in her 2012 TEDxTeen talk: “I don’t like to acknowledge a problem without also acknowledging those who work to fix it.”
We can all learn a little from Gevinson by turning our attentions positively towards all the artists who are speaking directly to young women and taking shit from nobody. Because if you stop to scan the musical landscape for a millisecond, you’ll find loads of them. From the rise of Girlpool to the return of Sleater-Kinney, the number of female - particularly young female - artists commanding attention right now is inspiring. Pittsburgh’s Adventures just dropped one of the best pop-rock albums of the last decade, Mitski’s tremulous vocals have been tugging at the heartstrings of everyone from Rolling Stone to Ryan Hemsworth, and Skinny Girl Diet have been a constant fixture in London’s political fabric, playing benefit shows and arts festivals in support of women’s rights more frequently than you call home. And those are just a few examples from a long list of musicians currently killing it, but apparently the 2015 festival circuit decided en masse to furtively slide this memo off the table and into the trash, proving once again that when it comes to addressing women in music, it’s never been a question of numbers, but a question of visibility.
The reasons why they have gone under-represented once again are many; ultimately symptomatic of patriarchal values that still direct everything from salary disparity to tampon tax. But it’s also a circle of cause-and-effect, that Chumped vocalist Anika Pyle highlighted in an article for Vulture: “the more women I saw [playing music], the more excited I became,” she writes. Adversely, the absence of women on bills can add to a climate of discouragement and reinforce the concept that the music industry is, and always will be, “a boys club.” But that concept is becoming increasingly flimsy. It feels like we’ve entered a cyclical dialogue of criticism, where little victories are deemed more satisfying than genuinely tackling the bigger issues. The accused defend themselves with their backs up, and eventually everyone gives up and moves on to the next thing - because, in a world where women are still treated as a genre not a gender, journalists still compare anyone with XX chromosomes and a guitar to Bikini Kill, and big festivals only seem to be able to support women in a way that's “self-congratulating, patronising and othering” (hi Bestival), there will always be something else to complain about.
In the same way the news tends to focus on the tragedies of the day, when it comes to issues surrounding gender in music, most mainstream media outlets prefer to focus on who fucked up. Not everybody knows who the Crutchfield sisters are, but everybody can “get a load of what this guy from that band said” and pass judgement. These are usually the articles you'll see doing the rounds on social media accompanied by varying degrees of outrage, not the ones written directly from personal experience or addressing the relationship between racial politics, feminism and music - things that people might actually learn something from. Unless we start treating women’s voices with the same importance as the commentary around them, and present artists as individuals rather than solutions to the problems that precede them, nothing will change. It’s up to the media to provide a balance, to offer people alternatives to the things they’re being told are problematic, because not everybody knows where to look or what they can do to help. But it’s also on us to actively share the more educational articles as much as we would the expose’s of Devin Ruben Perez’s 4chan activity.
The media has a huge influence on shaping the dialogue around music industry sexism, and for those working against it, it can sometimes feel like screaming into a void. The importance of calling things out when we see them cannot be overstated, but at the same time, nothing ever progressed just by pointing a finger at it and calling it shit. There needs to be an equal amount of positive action for change to actually occur. All the artists I have mentioned are already a part of that action on some level just by existing, but ultimately they’re just doing what they do because they want to, not because they’re out to wage a war. It’s not on them, just as it isn’t on women in general, to be the instigators for change. Speaking to i-D, Meredith Graves said: "I've busted my ass for more than a decade in an attempt to be viewed as an equal. I'm not doing that work anymore. I could work until my fingers fall off and it still wouldn't convince 90 percent of the male-dominated punk scene that I deserve to be treated like something other than a curiosity. The impetus to change can no longer be placed on women."
The responsibility lies with all of us to address women in music the same way men have been addressed since the beginning of forever, not fetishize them as phenomenons, sexual objects, or sole solutions to a communal problem. But we should also be mindful not to flood the dialogue on music industry sexism with so much negativity that the progressive voices we do have end up being sidelined. Then, eventually, we may get to a stage where praising bands based on their merit rather than their gender will be a reality, not just a line major festival bookers claim as a form of defence.
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