Quantcast
 Sophie

Males making a career of being blue: masculinity and moroseness in alternative music

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

By Sophie MacKenzie-Smith

At work today my co-worker and I were attempting to think of an alternative band or artist who is as consistently lyrically morose as Morrissey is. He proposed Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith and young Nick Cave. I asked him why he didn’t name any females. He replied that he had never thought about it, but that’s the way it is. I quipped that females have less to be upset about. We tittered and customers listening in probably thought I was a raging misogynist. In reality, my brain was ticking this over.

Think of the saddest lyricists you can. Purely lyrical content, so don’t try to sneak Low or a Silver Mt. Zion in. Without making gender-specific exceptions, your list probably looks similar to my co-worker’s. Why is this, though? Why do males have the top hat and baton, leading the gloomy black parade of alternative music? Yeah, Cat Power is a bit of a grump sometimes and S was a sad, limping instigator in the coining of the term ‘sad-core’, but when it comes down the the true masters of the art of sadness, it’s the males that immediately jump to mind.

I can assume with a degree of certainty that Morrissey would top many a list. Of course, historically the morose poetic male is a familiar cliché (I’m looking at you, Werther), so thus Morrissey ostensibly didn’t singlehandedly patent the aesthetic, yet he undoubtedly culturally sanctioned the ‘emotional male’ in indie rock, along with the aforementioned. To make sad and, synonymously, sensitive indie rock basically means you’re chucking a Moz nowadays. To illustrate his pervasiveness, simply take a brief gander at the virulency of emotional male singers since The Moz and his homely, honorable Quiff first moped their way into our record players, clutching gladioli and sighing Wilde poetry. The sad, sensitive male singer has become a staple trope of contemporary alternative music.

As an aide for this exercise, I decided to take a sample size of suitable emotional contemporary male artists’ latest records and rate them for miserability, or shall we say ‘Mozerability’. The rating system is thus:

  • Alienation 5+
  • Unrequited Love 5+
  • Self-Hate 5+
  • Misanthropy 5+
  • Overtures Of Death 5+
  • General Moroseness 2+
  • General Existentialism 2+
  • Overtures Of Doom 2+
  • Unhappy Family Relations 2+
  • Regret At The Way A Past Relationship Has Played Out/Ended 2+

Thus, the following bands scored highly on my ‘Mozerability’ test:

  • Xiu Xiu – Dear God I Hate Myself (10 points for record title, I’m sorry but how can you ignore that?): 32
  • Frightened Rabbit – Winter Of Mixed Drinks: 46
  • Former Ghosts – New Love: 55
  • Los Campesinos! – Romance Is Boring: 50
  • The Antlers – Hospice: 72

(continues over)

Pages: 1 2

17 Responses to Males making a career of being blue: masculinity and moroseness in alternative music

  1. Darragh May 12, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Though it is interesting that you yourself started with a male artist as your own point of reference.

  2. julian_k May 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Kristen Hersh. ‘Hips and Makers’ ain’t exactly a party.

  3. Tim Footman May 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Morose but often (Morrissey and Cohen especially) very funny.

    And I’m not sure how tightly you define “alternative”, but Nina Simone tended to a glass-half-empty attitude.

  4. Erika M May 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    I am not sure I buy the premise. I can think of lots of women singer songwriters and poets who are dark and emotional. Cat Power, Alanis Morrisette, Ani DiFranco, Billie Holiday (just off the top of my head). Me, I am most impressed by people who can be interesting (and deep) without having to be dark all the time. And yeah, if you are going to be dark, you better be at least a little bit funny too.

  5. Scott Creney May 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Erika, I was think along the same lines you were (and would add Throwing Muses, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Carole King, Sleevie (oops, I mean Stevie) Nicks, Dolly Parton, Jenny Lewis). But I think Sophie’s talking more about the lack of contemporary women artists (as in the last year or two) who fit the profile, as well as the fact that only men are looked at as ‘icons of sensitivity.’ Right, Sophie?

    If that’s the case, the reason is frustratingly simple. Men can be seen as all kinds of different things. Women are always seen, first and foremost, as women. And as such, they’re lumped into their own category.

    Which is a good reason for any woman, young or otherwise, who reads this article and gets annoyed to go out and start a band immediately.

  6. Wallace Wylie May 13, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I agree with the premise. Yes, there’s Throwing Muses and Joni Mitchell, but I don’t think there’s many others who are absolutely credible in the same way that Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Joy Division, Conor Oberst, Xiu Xiu, Smog, Morrissey or even someone like Richey James are. (Not that I think of them as all the same. I love Morrissey, Joy Division, Elliott, Xiu Xiu, Nick Drake and Richey. The others can fuck off). I don’t think Carole King ever wrote anything close to “Oh Mother, I can feel, the soil falling over my head”. The depths of depression mined by females isn’t really on the same level. I think this may come back to the idea of social roles. I think women talking about depression is seen as complainy or whiney. In indie circles the preferred persona for females is kind of uppity and bratty, like some kind of emotionally frozen teenager, as if adult womanhood represents something boring and compromised. Either that or fuzzy Spector-esque girl-group borrowings about how much in love with a particular guy they are. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those things, but it is limiting. Perhaps because many indie males feel an in-built guilt about their sense of masculinity they prefer to champion feisty women over emotionally crushed ones, and then revel in the tortured masculinity of males performers.

  7. Lucy Cage May 13, 2011 at 12:48 am

    “In indie circles the preferred persona for females is kind of uppity and bratty, like some kind of emotionally frozen teenager, as if adult womanhood represents something boring and compromised”

    I liked that sentence. I think the cutesey brat is definitely a persona being played at the moment, a pretty irritating one, too.

    I don’t really know what I think about this. Are male indie musicians really more navel-gazing than female ones? Or are there just more of them? My archetypical male miserabilists would include people such as Mark Eitzel, Mark Kozelek, Will Oldham and Bill Callahan, a clutch of Scots too (Aidan Moffat, Malcolm Middleton and Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit), but, no, I can’t immediately think of any woman who fits as neatly into their dark, raw, self-deprecating, articulate – and often very funny – sense of melancholia.

  8. Gordon Lamb May 13, 2011 at 10:14 am

    “I don’t think Carole King ever wrote anything close to “Oh Mother, I can feel, the soil falling over my head”.”

    You clearly haven’t listened to enough Carole King.

  9. Scott Creney May 13, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Hey, Lucy. I’d put PJ Harvey in that category (the ‘dark, raw, self-deprecating, etc.’), particularly the first two albums. If you haven’t heard them before, you’re in for a treat.

  10. Everett True May 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    (from Facebook)

    Scott Creney
    That picture of Neil Diamond is fantastic.

    Clark Humphrey
    It’s not just me?

    Tamsin Chapman
    This links in with one of my constant bugbears in daily life (and specifically pulling). If men are morose, they’re seen as ‘sensitive poets’ and stupid women fancy them and want to nurture them. If women are morose, they’re seen as ‘needy’ and everybody runs a mile

    Erika Meyer
    see also: bitchy, whiny.

  11. Wallace Wylie May 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    “You clearly haven’t listened to enough Carole King.”

    Boy, were you ever right. This is about the darkest shit I’ve ever heard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij9Bjl2Gy1c&feature=related

  12. Everett True May 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Oh, ha ha Wallace.

  13. Lips May 14, 2011 at 3:47 am

    Um…. Who forgot about Hole? If that ain’t femmorose what is?

  14. Lucy Cage May 14, 2011 at 7:42 am

    @Scott: Ah, Peej! Yes, I know her stuff very well and love it a whole lot. And, yes, “raw, dark, self-deprecating” fits her quite nicely. But there’s something else there – the flamboyance, the defiance, the deliberate taking on of personas – that maybe lifts her out of the navel-gazing miserabilism of the men I mentioned. I see her as unflinchingly honest but I don’t see her as a tortured soul. Although the reason I don’t categorise her as such could be as much to do with the slots that women in music traditionally get fitted into as any actual objective criteria…

  15. Everett True May 14, 2011 at 8:05 am

    What Lucy says. (Sigh. As ever.)

  16. Matt May 15, 2011 at 10:26 am

    I honestly think the answer lies in the second half of your article. Musicians often use music to express a neglected or unacknowledged aspect of their personality. Hence, males discuss emotions and various other topics of existential angst – because it is still typically presumed that such topics are not the interest of the archetypal male.

    However, women are also similarly pigeonholed. Women are presumed to be emotionally aware beings. As such, they feel compelled to project images of strength, sexuality and humour. Men want to prove they’re human. Woman want to prove they’re more, if that makes sense?

    At the back of my mind, I wonder if it correlates with the rise of feminism. The roles of women have expanded but the roles of men have not altered at the same rate. To be particularly silly, women can wear pants but men can’t wear skirts. Maybe this mopey bastard trend is a version of men trying to wear skirts?

  17. Everett True May 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    At the back of my mind, I wonder if it correlates with the rise of feminism. The roles of women have expanded but the roles of men have not altered at the same rate.

    That’s a really interesting point Matt.

Leave a Reply