Wallace Wylie

Both Sides, Now! – How Women are Denied Universal Appeal as Songwriters

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by Wallace Wylie

When you’ve been listening to certain artists for a long time you can sometimes go through long periods of not listening to them. You love them, but for some reason you let them sit on your shelves undisturbed until suddenly one day you reach for one of their albums and, BOOM, suddenly you wonder how you could have gone so long without listening to them. That happened to me recently with Joni Mitchell. I threw on Clouds and all but gasped as each song reintroduced itself to me as something completely new and somehow even better. What usually happens then is that I want to read more about them. I want to see if a good writer can enhance my listening experience so I trawl around reading everything I can. In the case of Joni Mitchell I decided to check out allmusic.com to see what they had to say. This is the first sentence:

“When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”

Whether you agree or disagree with this quote is beside the point. The shocking thing about it is that you will never find an equivalent statement about any male artist. Ever. Think you can find one? I dare you. I double dare you. Bob Dylan would never be described as the most important male recording artist of the late 20th Century. He is simply a recording artist. It would be foolish to imagine that statements of this kind are rare. Female singers and songwriters seem forever destined to be bracketed off to the side, while males are allowed to be universal, untethered by their sex or gender. What’s the big deal you say? Joni Mitchell is female, and she’s hugely influential. No need to get your PC knickers in a twist! The big deal is that this is an example of the way the female experience is denied universal appeal. The male experience is the norm against which the experience of the female is measured and for that reason the average woman in the music industry (and elsewhere) is scrutinised all the more for signs of deviance from the norm. What’s even more frustrating about the above comment is that it is meant to be a compliment, not a put-down, even though it refuses to place Joni Mitchell’s work alongside the greatest work of men. Forget about all that ‘Kurt wrote Live Through This’ stuff which is clearly designed to annoy and antagonise. This is where the real damage is done.

How do I even start documenting the damage? The allmusic quote is loaded for two specific reasons. One, as pointed out, it stops Joni Mitchell’s work from being considered alongside the best work of males. She has a separate category so no need to compare and contrast. Two, in the patriarchal society the terms ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ are loaded with assumptions that come from the perspective of maleness, which acts as the norm. Think of the average male performer and you’ll notice that their maleness is either invisible, or it is psychologically affirmed to make it an essential element of being human. Being male, and masculinity, is natural and real. Being female, however, is wrought with internal contradictions and affectations.

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6 Responses to Both Sides, Now! – How Women are Denied Universal Appeal as Songwriters

  1. Retch August 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    LOVE this article!

  2. John Melhuish August 11, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Interesting. There are references all over google to the most influential male Jazz singers, there are awards for best male songwriter, best male singer etc etc Indeed Bob Dylan has won a grammy as Best Male Vocalist. There are lists of best songwriters that ignore gender, there are lists that do not. The allmusic articles seem to be individually written opinions, this writers brief summary probably correctly names her as the most influential female recording artist, because she is. The more authoritative Rolling Stone magazine just describes her as “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, because she is. I believe music and singer songwriting is one area where gender is irrelevant and where talent is recognised regardless of gender. The biggest selling singer songwriter album of the 70s was by Carole King and in the 90s Alanis Morissette. Your article made me stop and think….thanks for that

  3. hannah golightly August 13, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Wow! Congratulations Wallace, I actually agree with everything you just wrote. Now I am in a state of shock. Thank you for this article.

    The truth is we need to create a market if we want things to change. Articles like this are inspirational and can change minds. Money talks.

    And by the way, aren’t people bored of the ‘male’ point of view by now? If the point of music is entertainment low brow or high, aren’t we looking for something more interesting than the same old stories of men?

    When’s the last time you heard a song from a mother’s point of view? I literally cannot think of a single example and yet motherhood is a universal experience (if anything is)… I’ve heard Girls Girls Girls and songs about cruising for non-erotic sounding sex plenty of times- talk about alienating half an audience. I’ve heard love songs to mothers (usually released in time for Mother’s Day), I’ve heard songs about work, songs about advice from a father to his son… but surely mothers are the most influential people in the world to their children and yet in terms of music, their voices don’t exist. Is it because a mother is not a person, just a facility? Is it because some things are sacred? I just can’t see any idea that rings true as to explaining the absence. I think Dolly Parton comes the closest… but I don’t even know if she’s a mother let alone heard any songs from that narrative of hers.

    Hello major gap in the market…

  4. hannah golightly August 13, 2011 at 10:40 am

    p.s. Your piece has reminded me of a Laura Marling review from the NME from ages ago, when they described her as singing about the classic teen experience. As soon as I read that I wondered if the reviewer had in fact played the record. Teen experience? Her being seventeen wasn’t used as a prodigious signifier, it was used in a way that trivialised and reduced the meaningfulness of her output. I’d say Laura Marling is one of the best songwriters around these days. I’d say her age is hard to believe when you hear her stuff. The journalist responsible seemed to be hinting that it was musically amazing if not on some level juvenile. I thought it grown up. No scratch that, I didn’t think about her age or gender once while listening as the music engaged me and took me on a journey into her world which I noticed was a romanticised and poetic place. If they say that about Laura Marling, then what hope do any women have?

  5. Pingback: Rookie | » Heart Factory

  6. golightly September 30, 2011 at 10:35 am

    well there’s nothing ‘normal’ about men in my experience!

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