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