Wallace Wylie

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

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We can look at examples from everyday life to unpack what being female means in our society. Think of the phrase ‘one of the lads’, which is frequently used as a compliment toward women. What does it mean? It means a woman who has a beer with the boys without being too girly or feminine. She may even burp and talk about sex. Bottom line: she is not affected in any way. She is not fake. She is … more like a man. Would a man ever take ‘one of the girls’ as compliment? In the vast majority of cases nothing could be more of an insult. It would imply femininity and gossipy superficiality. How many times have we heard the term ‘she’s good-looking but she knows it’? The implication here is that women should be beautiful yet exist in some kind of childlike state of innocence in regards to their beauty and how it affects others. Once she has awareness she is conceited, manipulative, attention-seeking, superficial, pathetic.

Men demand that women be natural and unaffected, and nowhere more so than in the world of music. But in this context what does natural and unaffected mean? It means women should be more like men (normal), or conform to male ideals of what they imagine natural and unaffected looks like. Do men see a cocky, good-looking male singer as being unnatural? Absolutely not, as long as they don’t indulge in too many traits of femininity. They are simply being real, strutting their stuff, indulging in some masculine bravado. The average man has no need to question this masculinity as they themselves see it as natural and good.

Being a man simply is: women on the other hand complain about being objectified then they go and wear a nice dress and wear their hair in an alluring fashion to attract men’s attention – what’s that about? If a guy wears a nice suit, or gets a tattoo, or a fashionable haircut, or wears clothes that aren’t sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, well that’s completely natural and not some desperate attempt at attention seeking. Women on the other hand, well they’re always trying to be noticed! What’s going on here is that the male view of things becomes, de facto, the universal view, to the point where women are sometimes conflicted about what they wear and what the purpose of it is. Do men go through this torture? Not even for a second because maleness is natural and doesn’t need to be questioned. I realise that this subject has been tackled a million times over by more learned writers than me, but I still hear and read comments regarding women that comply with the ones I mention above on an almost daily basis. So something isn’t getting through.

If being a woman is viewed with such scrutiny in the patriarchal world, it stands to reason that women songwriters and performers will forever be denied universal appeal as they are merely dealing with ‘female’ concerns. When a writer says that Joni Mitchell is, “The most important and influential female recording artist” the sentence is weighed down with preconceived ideas of what being a female means, and what being a female artist means. The author instead could have taken a chance and said, “The most important and influential recording artist” and gone on to make a case that Mitchell showed both stylistic and lyrical superiority to Dylan in her folk years, that her subsequent embrace of more jazz-influenced sounds represented a more radical leap than anything attempted by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and that songs such as ‘The Jungle Line’ and ‘Shadows and Light’ to this day remain challenging and unorthodox. The author could have put their heart and soul on the line and actually risked enraging and engaging their audience, but instead they took the easy way out and limited Joni Mitchell to ‘most important female’. Now before anyone complains that there’s nothing wrong with being an important female (there isn’t) it needs to be pointed out that in the context of a patriarchal society terms like ‘important female artist’ are very damaging, for all the reasons listed above. When maleness stops being the norm against which all behaviours are measured is the moment when statements like ‘important female artist’ will stop being limiting.

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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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