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Women, Men, and Music: the XY Factor, Part 2

2011 January 26

Part One of this article identified a split in approaches to music between the intellectual and abstract and the personal and emotive. This is, of course, a false dichotomy, as is the concomitant view of the former approach as a male preserve and the latter a female one. It’s not like emotional engagement can’t be channelled into sharp and intelligent critique. And it’s not like girls are incapable of dry and po-faced analysis (an album review of mine once received the amusingly disgruntled response “I bet you write for The Wire, you pretentious cunt”. I mean, chance would be a fine thing). Neither are male writers incapable of experiencing or articulating an emotional reaction. Gender has no intrinsic – as opposed to socially and culturally instilled – effect on how an individual engages with music. But the effects of cultural conditioning in creating this false dichotomy, and the degree to which ‘male’ ways of music writing are privileged – the existence of what Everett True describes as a dominant male hive mind – goes some way towards explaining why female music writers are so scarce in the mainstream press.

Music criticism as presently constructed has an undeniable tendency to discourage female participation. Sarah Barnes recalls that when writing her first album review:

I felt out of my depth, because my experiences of music reviewing told me that what I wrote had to be very technical, almost cold. All that technical knowledge seemed very male, and I think I had picked up on this as a pre-requisite in music criticism from reading copies of Kerrang … or listening to my boyfriend reeling off genres and sub-genres until my head starts spinning.

More recently, Aoife Barry’s study of gender imbalance in music magazines compares reading The Wire to ‘poring over academic texts in an attempt to formulate an answer for an essay due the next day; the feeling that out of the dry sentences I have to pull something tangible that makes sense to me’.

Photo showing headphones modified with homemade ear cushions using white cotton fabric, held for the camera by a hand wearing yellow nail varnish. Image by Flickr user Flickr To Me, shared under a Creative Commons license.

Image by Flickr user happyfacesrock, shared under a Creative Commons license.

The masculinist bent of mainstream music criticism has seen certain forms of engagement with music – attention to the emotional, the pleasure-seeking, the glittery, the silly, the frivolous, the undeadly serious – conceptualised as less deserving concerns, and downgraded accordingly, along with musical genres – pop, glam, disco – which are seen as primarily catering to these concerns. So in order to be taken seriously, to do ‘proper’ criticism, one must elevate cerebral, scholarly Pure Music and implicitly disparage the dizzy, gushing immediacy of the personal Applied. Better a nitpicking Hornbyite geek than a groupie, regardless of the degree to which these categories can and do overlap in the same individual.

However nebulous or subconscious this construction may be, it ties in unhelpfully with rock-solid sexism and gender imbalance within the media and the music industry to reinforce both the image and reality of music writing as a boys’ club. As this excellent overview explains:

Periodicals like Rolling Stone and websites like Pitchfork Media – which have largely usurped print publications – tend to discuss the appearances of women more often than those of men, take their music less seriously, stereotype them and incorrectly attribute their successes to male coworkers. These double standards govern how women and men are viewed in general, rather than being specific to music criticism and reporting. Music journalism is a product of its culture’s gender roles and consumer demands. When this culture combines with mainstream pop and rock publications’ largely male staff and the sexism already prevalent in the music business they address, critics unwittingly carry on tropes that they have the power to ameliorate.

So, as noted ice-skater V. I. Lenin once asked, what is to be done? First, let’s acknowledge how many women are interested, engaged, and actively writing about music. Female music bloggers may still constitute a niche, but as all these sites show, we are out there. Blogs are necessary and useful – journalist and promoter Sara Sherr urges female writers to ‘pitch, pitch, pitch… If no one publishes you, start a blog’ – but should be accompanied by a concerted attempt to address the mainstream’s failure to acknowledge the validity of other voices, and to recognise the benefits of a personal and emotional contribution, in its construction of a credible approach to music.

The more women who are seen to be writing about music, the more women will write about music, and the more the dynamics and conventions and hierarchies of writing about music (by both women and men) change because of more equal participation in it, the more we all benefit, the more the form progresses. – Frances Morgan

Active and visible participation by women is a key part of promoting perspectives beyond the mainstream, an expansion which can only enrich the analysis, understanding and enjoyment of music. The road we take from here needs to pass through the land of a thousand dances as well as a thousand doctorates.

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

19 Responses leave one →
  1. January 26, 2011

    A friend of mine – who is a woman who writes about music – has said that the main difference she sees between the genders in music criticism is men’s tendency to want to rank and canon-ify things compared to women’s tendency to write about how a song affected them personally. The second approach takes into account things like the listener’s mood on the day of the performance, and does not assume that the critic’s response can/should be generalized to other people. So there is an implicit refusal to rank, and then male critics dismiss the analysis as not engaging in the Important Work of music criticism, which is to say which songs are better.

    I’m simplifying her argument but that is basically it. Not analytical/emotional as much as hierarchical/personal.

    • January 26, 2011

      Thanks for your comment. I think that’s a plausible argument – though again, I’d be surprised if the split according to gender was absolute.

      • subdee permalink
        January 27, 2011

        Oh yeah, I don’t really believe in gender essentialism, given that my hippie parents didn’t believe in imposing restrictive gender roles, and I turned out like a boy. :p At least as far as fixing things and building things etc goes. At the same time, I don’t want to say that these differences don’t exist, in the aggregate. I usually stick with the explanation that the differences within a gender are greater than differences between genders.

        In this case, I think being constantly reinforced for your opinions (about whatever) vs being constantly punished for speaking out might have something to do with why male critics feel more comfortable making broad sweeping statements, while female critics retreat a bit and qualify what they say with “this is how it is for me“. There’s also a lot of music criticism that is about posturing, and when we say posturing, we usually mean male posturing. And the Rock Canon is very male.

    • January 28, 2011

      Subdee linked to me to this (I’m the friend she mentioned in her comment). I’m also quite wary of gender essentialism – for one, I tend to be tremendously analytical in my approach to art I like! – and, going back to the “this is how it is for me” thing, equally wary of generalizing my personal dislike for list-making and ranking, which is my major bone to pick with music criticism as it stands. Simply put, I don’t like top 10, 50, 100 lists, and I don’t like rating albums on 10 or out of 5 stars – it’s not how I approach music personally, and what’s more it doesn’t add value for me when others do it. Literally, if I see you’ve ranked a single at #35 and another at #40, it tells me nothing that two separate blog posts on those two singles wouldn’t. Are they even comparable apples to oranges? If it’s a best-of-year overview, probably not. And yet the ongoing conversation revolves around the expectation that one would produce and compare these lists, which I find frustrating and deadening.

      Any evidence I have supporting a gender basis to that is anecdotal: I’ve participated in online spaces and conversations that were majority female, and others that clearly skewed male, and I have never seen a female space devoted to *any* topic where numbered lists and scoring systems formed the backbone of the conversation. In male spaces, it always crops up, music criticism being no exception. And one subtle but pernicious effect is that as time passes and lists are built and rebuilt into canons, representation drops out. A lot of the female artists who were tremendously important in a snapshot of the mid-to-late 90s are half-forgotten now. Not necessarily because they’ve been reassessed negatively: simply, guys are building the lists, and they have other acts at top of mind, so artist #101 falls by the wayside. Is 101 that much less important or deserving of canonization than artist 100? Of course not. But if the list is the paradigm…

      This may be only one of a number of ways in which music criticism is subtly discouraging to female participants, or it may be the biggie. That I couldn’t say. It’s the biggie for *me.* A difference of opinion that fell along gendered lines, that’s just shouting and posturing, which I can do with the best of the boys! But process is more difficult to fight.

      • Rhian Jones permalink
        January 31, 2011

        Thanks for commenting. All good points, particularly:

        A lot of the female artists who were tremendously important in a snapshot of the mid-to-late 90s are half-forgotten now. Not necessarily because they’ve been reassessed negatively: simply, guys are building the lists, and they have other acts at top of mind, so artist #101 falls by the wayside.

        The 90s were the decade in which I grew up, and I distinctly remember that when I got into contemporary music it was via about as many female artists as male. In early Britpop for one, women were far more prominent than a retrospective look at the genre would suggest, because as you say, that process of canonization focused around the Blur-Oasis-Pulp axis has given them less attention.

  2. January 26, 2011

    There’s definitely a strain of male-identified rock criticism which is hugely personalised & emotive – a kind of Hemingway style stripped-down GRAPPLE with the music which usually manifests in sweary run-on sentences, stream of consciousness rants, tales of personal excess, etc etc. The whole idea that writing about rock shd aspire to BE rock, which was something someone once said about (inevitably) Lester Bangs.

    (Who was much better than that!)

    Anyway that stuff, as well as the listy writing, is what leaps out to me as something male rock crits really seem to value. I also think it’s mostly bloody dreadful.

    • January 26, 2011

      Cheers Tom. That particular Hemingway/Gonzo piledriving style is a very good counter-example.

  3. January 26, 2011

    Excellent and articulate. I think though, that the gender constructs existing in music writing reflect regional differences; here in Australia, the tendency to list and codify sits neatly next to the tendency to brashly declare personal involvement with the music and its associated excesses. I don’t know where you’d situate our odd desire to praise everything indiscriminately (and attack those who don’t, Everett being a good example) in that framework though. “This band is better than this band, but they’re both pretty good I guess, at least they’re trying”?

    I also don’t think I like the way female writers are approaching this. Those blogs you listed are all leaning on their gender. Why do I have to be a female writer? Why can’t I just be a music writer? I don’t think deliberately choosing a ‘female’ approach will help anything.

    • January 27, 2011

      Thanks for the very good points you raise. This article is primarily based on my experience of British and US criticism, and it would indeed be interesting to track the influence of factors like regional/national variation.

      I agree with your second point, too, and the blogs I listed could certainly be expanded to include writers who, as you put it, lean less on their gender (Anwyn Crawford, Frances Morgan, Ann Powers – feel free to list your own!). That said, I do support the idea of dedicated sites for female writers and artists purely because their visibility is often relatively weak. To refer back to my conclusion, though, ideally music writing would involve breaking down divisions between not only genders but also ways of ‘doing’ criticism, moving towards a point where the writer’s gender is not necessarily the prime determinant in either their writing or in the amount of attention they receive.

  4. Russell permalink
    January 27, 2011

    After mulling it over for a long while, I’ve finally decided to comment here. Bear in mind that I’m a little puzzled because this is the first article I’ve read on BadRep that I really haven’t “got” at all.

    I’m starting to think that’s because I can’t grasp the concept of one kind of music criticism being associated with “male” while another is inherently “female”, and that more essentially this goes back to one way of enjoying or experiencing music versus another. This seems to be based on the fact that male music reviewers are more prevalent and successful than female reviewers; no doubt this is is true.

    However, I take issue with the idea that this is necessarily because female reviewers write about the music as they experience it in one way which is necessarily different and divided along gender lines from the way men enjoy music, because that’s simply not true. Men enjoy music (and other forms of art) on an emotional level just as much as women (from what I can tell) and women are just as capable of being clinical and analytical about these things. It is probably true that men are less likely to comment about their emotive reactions, which may be where some of the ideas (I think) you are commenting on come from, but you’ve have to be unusually stodgy and repressed even as a bloke in England to not have any emotional reaction at all.

    Again, it’s entirely possible I’m massively missing the point here and getting stuck on one idea that I feel strongly about. Maybe it’s because I tend not to read reviews or criticism in general. However, this is the first time I’ve really felt lost or confused about anything I’ve read on this site so I’d really like it if we could talk about it some more.

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 27, 2011

      “However, I take issue with the idea that this is necessarily because female reviewers write about the music as they experience it in one way which is necessarily different and divided along gender lines from the way men enjoy music, because that’s simply not true.”

      I think this is one of the points Rhian is actually seeking to make in the course of this article. The idea she is positing is that that is the assumption that is continually made – she uses herself as an example of someone who exhibits both ways of experiencing music in her own life and writing. So (in part 1 of the article) she talks about experiencing her favourite songs on an emotional level – dancing and so on – and in part 2, she makes the point that alongside this, she’s also had the “I bet you write for The Wire” comment. The article as I see it is trying to explore and explode the idea of a binary scale along which men and women “experience” music, gathering at opposite ends.

    • January 27, 2011

      Hi Russell,

      “Men enjoy music (and other forms of art) on an emotional level just as much as women (from what I can tell) and women are just as capable of being clinical and analytical about these things.”

      Yes – as Miranda says, and as I state in the first paragraph here, this is precisely one of the points of this article.

      • Russell permalink
        January 27, 2011

        Thanks both. I think my problem is just that I’m coming at the whole thing from a completely different place. I think this may just be something that is Not For Me, in the sense that my perspective on it is totally different so I can’t really engage with the mainstream view, even to the point of criticising the mainstream, because I don’t know or understand what it is. That might be sad but there you go. I mean no disrespect or attack Rhian (as I hope you know).

        • January 27, 2011

          Oh, no offence taken, and thanks for engaging! It’s interesting to see how the assumptions embedded in music criticism can appear bizarre or transparently counter-intuitive to an observer who’s less familiar with that environment. I do think that the assumption of male=rational and technical, female=hysterical and emotive is one that needs challenging wherever it crops up, as it’s not restricted to music criticism.

  5. January 28, 2011

    Hello! I wrote a similar thing last year, prefaced by some rambling b0ll0cks about the Monetary Policy Committee which doesn’t make sense as an analogy. Skip the first 4 paragraphs! Anyway, my point was basically that a good sphere of criticism needs writers from a variety of backgrounds to cover all bases – both list-making and rambly anecdotes – and as society is massively gendered (and there’s not a lot we can do about this right now) we need contributions from all parts of the spectrum.

    • Rhian Jones permalink
      January 31, 2011

      Hi Kat, thanks for the link to your post! I think the key line from it is

      men and women who are equally passionate about the same music will probably bring different experiences of it to the table.

  6. January 30, 2011

    What others have said about lists and canonizing–yes! I like the occasional list. It helps me focus and can be a great conversation-starter (and of course I understand why publications are so eager to run them). But I’m positively baffled by, for example, music communities like ILM that use lists as a rather aggressive form of taste assertion and authority.

    But ultimately, I can handle the lists. It’s the currently fashionable way of writing and talking about music (in the U.S.?) that Tom describes in his comment above that’s my major mental obstacle. I’ve been a blogger and professional writer and my responses to music are primarily analytical. The question I always ask is “what does it mean?” which includes many, many kinds of meaning, including emotional. But I always find myself subtly at odds with male peers and it seems to have something to do with not articulating my emotional responses in the “right” way. Sometimes I read what strikes me as an emo-ish and unnecessarily gushy review or think piece thick with unproved assertions and assumptions (and tons of references to obscure bands) and it’s like reading a foreign language. But the piece receives such an enthusiastic response from the writer’s (mainly male) peers that I have to wonder, am I just stupid–or wrong? Same goes for most tumblr conversations about music. I’ve given up trying to participate in those–it’s not worth the aggravation.

  7. subdee permalink
    January 31, 2011

    And related to the question of why there aren’t more women in music criticism:

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