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Women, Men, and Music: the XY Factor, Part 1

2011 January 25

Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that one sometimes needs to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were was interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.

Hardly revelatory, I know. This time last year, I contributed to a relatively prominent and very good music blog’s retrospective on the best songs of the past decade. More depressing if grimly predictable than Kate Nash’s inclusion in the best-of was the fact that, out of over forty contributors, I was one of only two women. From the demise of  Plan B magazine, with its conscious commitment to encouraging female writers, to Anwyn Crawford’s recent rebuke of The Wire, the current lack of female voices in mainstream music criticism is a truth universally acknowledged.

Photograph by Flickr user Derek K Miller, showing several sets of headphones of different sizes and types laid out on a wooden surface. Image shared under Creative Commons licensing.

It takes all sorts. Image by Flickr user Derek K Miller shared under Creative Commons licensing.

As part of Ross’s audience, I’m not saying I felt excluded or unwelcome, nor did I find the questions less interesting, relevant or articulate for being asked in a masculine rather than feminine register. But something did click with me when, towards the discussion’s end, a man towards the front reticently asked Ross: “This might sound a silly question, but – do you like to dance?”

The opening caveat there is as important as the question itself. Let’s start with the latter, which threw into sharp relief the varying ways one can engage with music. Let’s call the difference that of Pure versus Applied. Where Alex Ross excels is his ability to demystify music, separating and examining its component parts. This scholarly and almost clinical approach can succeed brilliantly, particularly when discussing Ross’s first love, classical music. But, as an exclusive approach, I find it lacking, and the absence of attention to dancing helps explain why.

I find it very hard to think of any song I truly love that I cannot also dance to – whether by ‘dance’ I mean drunken mock-waltzing to (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais or that routine one does to Killing in the Name Of which involves attempting to stab your knees with your eyebrows. I intellectually analyse the music I love, scouring its lyrical content and its social and cultural context for meaning to enhance my enjoyment of it, but not necessarily to justify my enjoying it in the first place. I am equally interested simply in experiencing its rhythm, its flow, its grind, its melody, the way it makes me want to move as well as the mechanics of how it achieves that, its impact on my body as well as my brain. I attach as much weight to a physical and emotional response as to a cerebral anatomising of music. Until that question was asked, the talk had concentrated wholly on the latter, lacking any consideration of the former, equally useful, dimension of how music works. So no, it wasn’t ‘a silly question’. Why the questioner, and we, might feel that it is, perhaps approaches the heart of the matter.

I’m sceptical of the patronising and reductive idea that men and women appreciate music in intrinsically different ways, men with a cold and technical analysis and women with an exclusively personal and emotional response. But this scepticism is a continual struggle against the weight of cultural conditioning and its success in bequeathing to boys and girls approved modes of engagement. The male = analytical/female = emotional dichotomy is a counterproductive product of social training, and identifying and questioning this assumption in relation to engagement with music is part of breaking down the barriers between genders and combating sexism in general. Doing so is hindered, however, by the extent to which these different approaches are accorded varying weight in wider discourse, with prevailing attitudes in music criticism privileging one over another. The implications of this will be explored in Part Two.

Part Two is now online here.

For Rhian Jones’s own blog, hop over to Velvet Coalmine.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    January 25, 2011

    I am – hang on.

    *checks again*

    I am STILL a man and I would say that I engage in music on a purely emotional level, very rarely actually dealing with it (or any sort of art) on a technical level. I’m interested in what works make me feel, how evocative they are, not whether they meet an arbitrarily designed checklist of what makes good music. I’ve never really spoken with my male friends about how they engage with music and in what ways as I always assumed this was how everyone, regardless of gender, interacted with art forms. I do know that, as compared to a lot of people I know, I often relate better to music which is slower and uses non-Pop instruments such as violins and pianos, and that I enjoy the sound of the female voice better than the male, but none of these things are absolute. I’m going to have to explore this now that you’ve brought it up and find out what my male friends think constitutes good music. I would have thought that the only people who care how “technically” good a song is are musicians.

    Unless I have completely misinterpreted you, that is. :S

    • January 25, 2011

      Hi Russell,

      Thanks for your comment. I think we both agree on the inaccuracy of the idea that men and women engage with music in strictly different ways – your own experience attests to this. What I’m addressing here is the tendency for much mainstream critical writing on music to favour technical analysis of songs over personal engagement with them. There’s a related tendency to disparage the latter approach as somehow ‘girly’ and overly emotional, in contrast to a rational and calm intellectual critique. This not only misses out on a large part of how music works, but also fosters a particular construction of music criticism which is off-putting to many, especially women. Part Two may make these things clearer – at least I hope so!

      • Russell permalink
        January 25, 2011

        Ah – to be fair I’ve never paid any particular attention to music criticism whatsoever. I like what I like and that’s that, so I’m probably not best placed to comment in this discussion except to say that critiques, as a general rule, have absolutely no impact on my decision to buy or not to buy or enjoyment of anything. I expect I’m the exception, or an entire industry is built on a myth (though that wouldn’t be the first time, either).

        • Miranda permalink*
          January 25, 2011

          I dunno – I love reading reviews after I’ve bought an album, just to see what effect the music had on different pairs of ears, or just before I buy an album I was already going to purchase. When it’s the latter, reading and interacting with the review is kind of part of my band-fan experience.

          At the moment I’m barely buying any hard-copy music mags the way I used to; in my teens I bought Kerrang! religiously, with the occasional Q, and also now-defunct gothzines Kaleidoscope and Meltdown. At the moment I use the internet, predominantly, to discover music. And it’s definitely different; without the confines of one magazine’s page limit and style guide, voices mesh together on my bookmarks list and give me, arguably, a more fulfilling, or at least varied, spread of ideas, responses and approaches to music of many kinds.

          I do miss mags, though, and the sort of world I used to occupy in which I read and shared them. Somehow.

  2. January 25, 2011

    (Despite being a huge fan of Alex Ross’s writing and reviews) i don’t know much about the empirical support for claims that men and women listen to music differently, and so your post is raising an important set of issues of the overlap (or lack thereof) between cultural presumptions and data. Here’s a link to an empirical research article about why we listen to music–it might be fun to consider:

    Why do we listen to music? A uses and gratifications analysis (pages 108–134)
    Adam J. Lonsdale and Adrian C. North
    British Jnl of Psychology Feb 2011

    right now you can download the whole paper, free.


    • Rhian Jones permalink
      January 26, 2011

      Thanks for the download, I shall read with interest! The overlap (or lack thereof) between cultural presumptions and data is indeed an interesting area to explore – I think there’s a wider gap than might be presumed.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Women, Men, and Music: the XY factor (part one) | Collapse Board
  2. Women, Men, and Music: the XY factor (Part Two) | Collapse Board
  3. Women, Men, and Music: the XY Factor « Velvet Coalmine
  4. Philip Roth wins the Booker Prize: Carmen’s Complaint « Velvet Coalmine

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