How Ageism Kills the Careers of Women in the Music Industry
I'm a 27-year-old singer-songwriter, and I'm constantly being told that I'm about to become too old.
The author at a recent performance
There's a part of me that's terrified to write this. I'm a singer and a songwriter, and as a female who's not yet a household name, I can't help but feel the familiar, deep-seated fear that being open about this fact will lead to my professional demise. I'm fighting it. Here goes: I'm 27.
I've felt a sense of urgency since I can remember. I can feel it now, I could feel it ten years ago, and I felt it even as a kid. It looms just ahead at every moment, threatening me with its sinister little whisper: You are getting older.
It's hard to say how or why it started. Maybe it's because, as a kid, adults praised my songwriting by telling me how remarkable it was that I was so young. Or maybe it's because so many of the females I saw becoming big stars were teenagers, and it probably didn't help that even the older celebrity faces in magazines were airbrushed into eternal agelessness. Whatever it was, it seemed clear to me that women could only make it in Hollywood if they were not only youthful but actual youth. If I could just make it by 16, I thought, then I'll be OK. But the so-called big break never got the memo.
I finally worked my way into the pop music circuit in my early 20s. Inevitably, in the deluge of meetings that every singer or actor attends over the course of her career, the dreaded question comes up: "If you don't mind me asking," the other person in the room will say, "how old are you?" As 21 melted away into 25, I noticed that the reactions to my always-honest answers were beginning to change. What had at first been encouraging ("Oh, you have plenty of time!") was starting to turn sour: "Well, you look really young" or "You can always lie about your age!" I'd laugh and nod, meanwhile gritting my teeth and praying desperately that I'd find success before it came to that. But I worried. Would I have to?
I started to hear other girls, even those younger than me, speak fearfully about their inevitable birthdays and what they needed to accomplish before they were "too old" to be considered viable in the industry. I heard persistent rumors of certain beloved stars being a few years older than they claimed. I met with agents who remarked on how young I looked and then, in the same breath, expressed concern about me being in my late 20s. I read the smorgasbord of youth-worshipping, age-shaming articles, blogs, and comments that the internet had to offer, and realized the extent to which I, too, had believed that getting older, as a woman, meant somehow being less worthwhile.
Meanwhile, the comments I heard, typically from men, grew more frequent:
"I think her career is just over," said a young executive about a fellow pop singer who was just a year older than me, "I mean, she's like 27 now."
"Well, I'm not gonna beat around the bush," one well-meaning music manager told me. "You don't have a lot of time here."
Another, in our first meeting: "You know you have a limited window of time, right? You need to do this quickly."
Time. Time. Time. Time.
As if I don't know. As if I don't feel it. As if it's not already beating the shit out of my subconscious. As if I'm not being crushed by the weight of time, every minute of every day. Limited time to write a hit song, limited time to be considered attractive, limited time before my maternal clock kicks in, limited time before, I'm told, I'll panic and feel the need to get married and then suddenly there won't be any time left at all.
You don't have to tell me. I've known my whole life. Every ambitious woman has. Wouldn't it be great if being reminded of that pressure could actually make success come faster? It's a race against time, and yet ultimately, the scheduling of one's big break, if it happens, is not up to you or me or anyone. So where does that leave me? Barring snapping my fingers and having a hit song on the radio tomorrow, what are my choices? Give up? Lie, as so many would have me do? I've wondered: What would it say about me if I hid my age—what would it mean about how I feel about my own value? Or, for that matter, any woman's value?
In a culture where artists and actresses and writers alike are either fibbing or withholding the truth of their birth dates, because everyone around us is telling us we're only as valuable as we are young, the impulse makes sense. It might mean fewer acting roles, or less interest from labels or agencies, or no longer having a "thing." And that's extremely daunting. But maybe it's only the norm until it's not. Sia and Tina Fey—women known for the merit of their talent rather than the size of the boners they induce (though they're both totally boner-worthy)—give me hope.
Yes, I am getting older. In a few years, I'll be 30, and maybe I'll be tempted to email all the websites that have ever listed how old I am and ask them to erase any evidence that I'm human. Tempted, perhaps, to do my darnedest to make the world believe that I am still young and fresh and sparkly and dumb and infantile and fuckable, available for the defiling, even as my humanity pulls me, faster and faster, into smarter, stronger adulthood. Tempted, as it were, to be a part of the problem.
Except I do believe it's a problem. Time is moving, and it's happening to all of us, no matter how well we conceal the shrinking lips and deepening lines that come with its passage, and what I can't quite wrap my head around is why women are supposed to be so goddamn ashamed of it.
The truth is, I'm thrilled to be beyond much of the insecurity and ignorance of my teenage years and early 20s. I feel beautiful. I'm doing the best work I've ever done, I know more than I've ever known, and I'm excited at the thought that, with every passing year, my work will improve and I'll know infinitely more than I do now. I believe that I am valuable. So why am I, along with countless other women, being told to feel like I'm not? I'm only in my 20s. What happens in ten years? Twenty?
I've been trying to beat the clock for my entire life. I don't want to panic anymore. If I stake my value on surface-level qualities that are fleeting and outside of my control, not to mention representative of nothing about who I am and what I'm capable of, then I have a future of heartbreak ahead of me. I would rather use the precious time I have to focus on creating music and words and art and film that I am genuinely passionate about, and becoming great. The rest is just noise.
Of course I'm afraid, but I'm more afraid of hiding. If I hide, and the problem lives on, and any girl, young or old, has even one more piece of evidence contributing to the idea that she is only as valuable as her youth, or her looks, or her fuckability, rather than her talent, her intelligence, her creativity, or her strength, then I have done the world a great disservice.
I am 27. In a couple decades, I'll be 50. Deal with it.
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