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There Actually Is a Way to Balance Feminism and Your Problematic Faves

The essays in book 'Under My Thumb' explore that fine, often awkward line between personal politics and female fandom.

by Lauren O'Neill
Mar 6 2018, 10:21pm

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The identities of ‘music lover’ and ‘feminist’ are difficult to occupy simultaneously. I know this not only because doing so is now my job, but because it’s something inconvenient I’ve always been aware of, like periods, or having to answer the phone. From a young age, obsessed with rock music, I’d frequent concerts in my hometown trailing after my group of older, male friends. Craning my neck to see the action, I’d feel a deep sense of identification—the visceral loudness made an unspoken sort of sense to me—though I’d also know that this music wasn’t for me in the same way it was for my boy peers. Often, the lyrics would put women down. Or the men that made the songs I liked had abusive reputations. Or the environment at shows would be hostile. Or my male friends would assume that I was only pretending to like bands for the social credence (shockingly, they never turned that accusation on one another).

If you ask any other woman fan, of any genre, they’ll tell you similar stories – of loving the music, sure, but also of a lingering type of uncertainty. Hanging around unpleasantly like the beginnings of a UTI, there’s often the sense that music which means a lot to women does not love us back. In pretty much every genre, misogyny looms large—often at a lyrical level, but also in the sense of who gets to make the music, and who is laughed off when they try (all year I’ve been writing about the various aspects of the music industry which fail women in this regard, too).

Because popular music, like a lot of art forms, has long shut woman creators out, its canon – the revered, untouchable greats like ‘Dylan, man’ and ‘The Stones,’ decided upon by (largely male) critics and elevated to a status of eternal reverence—reflects that gender bias. As a result, most woman fans in their twenties and thirties now find that their early tastes were largely formed by music by men. It was, simply, the most accessible at the time. Today’s teens (with Spotify at their fingertips and feminism pulled somewhat messily from academia into the pop culture mainstream) don’t really have the same problems. Many older woman, too, have since diverged from our earliest preferences, having discovered the Björks and the Lauryn Hills and the Courtney Loves of the world. But there is, most of us will admit, something about those initial favorites that you can’t quite shake.

This is a topic taken up by book Under My Thumb, a collection of essays by woman music fans from across the genre spectrum, edited by Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies. Each essay sees a different woman grappling with her problematic fave—whether that be Combichrist, Pulp or Kanye West—outlining how she came to love them, and how she reconciles sexist content with her own personal politics. Under My Thumb isn’t the first time women’s enjoyment of sexist music has been broached (academics like Norma Coates, essayists like Roxane Gay, and myriad other thinkers have touched on it). But the book's wide span of genres and artists lays out an experience that woman fans of many popular genres will most likely recognize.

In her review of the book for Frieze, the critic Jessica Hopper writes: “These writers are asserting that the double-consciousness they’ve naturally developed as a music-lover and a feminist is a fundamental critical tool, that this liminal awareness is worthy of holding up to the light.” This assessment caught my attention, because when I’m enjoying Weezer or early Saves the Day, despite their less-than-enlightened attitudes towards women, I think of feminism and music fandom as two forces that can often be hard to negotiate with one another. But by Hopper’s calculation, feminism is rendered a crucial analytical implement, and that is only proven by the content of Under My Thumb.

In The Two Sides of Phil Spector, Stephanie Phillips’ essay from the book, Phillips discusses the ebullient, glistening voices of young, black women showcased across much of Spector’s catalogue. Phillips is also keenly aware of Spector’s crimes and highly abusive tendencies, but remains drawn to the music by the voices of “heroines” like Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector. As she eloquently puts it, “I want to appreciate the music he was part of whilst also being aware of the pain he brought to the lives of others.” Elsewhere, editor Rhian E. Jones tackles music that is in its very language sexist, in the shape of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” And while, from her piece, it doesn’t seem as though Jones is going to stop listening to Dylan anytime soon, her feminism informs her criticism (and fandom) of him, and she reflects on what being a Dylan fan has taught her: “Songs like this remind us why we need to change the world, and why the ways in which we try to change it need adjustment too,” she writes.

Both essays form shrewd commentary, and are helpful in that they show how feminist critique of one song or artist can inform wider debates about intersectionality and activism. Many of the essays, however, don’t go this far—their authors talk instead about how the sexist elements of music they grew up with encouraged them to move onto similar stuff that sat better with their ideals, or are simply happy to state “I like this thing, and I’m aware that it has sucky elements, but I’ve made my peace with that.”

And that’s OK too: it’s fine to enjoy stuff you don’t necessarily endorse. I grew up loving emo, a genre that has historically allowed boys to project violent fantasies about girls. And while I can’t always get behind the lyrics on albums like Fall Out Boy’s Take This To Your Grave (“Breaking hearts has never looked so cool / As when you wrap your car around a tree / Your makeup looks so great next to his teeth,” wrote Pete Wentz, re: a girl who spurned him), it doesn’t stop me pressing play on their bright power chords on a sunny day, or screaming the words during drunk karaoke.

I’m not the only one. While writing this piece, I asked women fans from across genres to tell me about their experiences of loving music that has, for whatever reason, politics that they would never claim as their own. The responses I received only confirmed, and elaborated on, the need for more spaces like Under My Thumb, where feminist and critical fandom can flourish. Woman fans cited musicians and bands from Glassjaw to Eminem to Buckcherry, and criticism was wide ranging, from lyrical content to the people that play the music (one fan raised the example of her disappointment in Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, accused of sexual abuse), to the social groups that form because of different genres.

Indeed, some women described feeling unwelcome in particular scenes—one fan noted that "being queer and involved in the UK hip-hop scene in general has had its problems for me. I have called things I have deemed problematic out, and just been chased out and called a 'snowflake.'" And from my own experiences, I’m aware that some music communities can also be physically intimidating. Hardcore punk, for example, can literally push women to the periphery as they stand at the edges of concerts to avoid being hurt by the often violent, macho movement that goes on as bands play. And in dance and electronic music, woman creators are often sneered away, deemed less capable with technical equipment and software.

Every genre, then, has its individual problems. Indeed, many of the issues I’ve cited aren’t just exclusive to the scenes I’ve mentioned. And so it’s an area that is rightfully gaining a lot of traction within academic study. Researcher Jenessa Williams noted that many women’s cognitive dissonance when it comes to enjoying music that we find problematic is “a dichotomy I’m still trying to figure out—so much so I’m dedicating my Masters degree to figuring out why it’s so easy to forsake our socio-political beliefs when a killer hook comes around.”

For a lot of us, as for many of the Under My Thumb essayists, it’s about choice, and deciding your own limits, as well as relying on intersections to guide us. While artists we enjoy might have their political downfalls as far as gender goes, it’s almost certain that they’ll have helped us in other ways, whether that be emotionally, or with some other aspect of identity, like sexuality or race. It’s a complicated web, and though this is a conversation that’s been going on for a while, Under My Thumb tackles it with humor, intelligence, and a commendable, broad scope that shines a light on the many levels at which sexism is at play in the music we often love anyway.

Under My Thumb is out now via Repeater Books

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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.