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Women, Men, and Music: the XY factor (part one)

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Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.

Hardly revelatory, I know. This time last year, I contributed to a relatively prominent and very good music blog’s retrospective on the best songs of the past decade. More depressing if grimly predictable than Kate Nash’s inclusion in the best-of was the fact that, out of over 40 contributors, I was one of only two women. From the demise of  Plan B magazine, with its conscious commitment to encouraging female writers, to Anwyn Crawford’s recent rebuke of The Wire, the relative lack of female voices in mainstream music criticism is a truth universally acknowledged.

As part of Ross’s audience, I’m not saying I felt excluded or unwelcome, nor did I find the questions less interesting, relevant or articulate for being asked in a masculine rather than feminine register. But something did click with me when, towards the discussion’s end, a man towards the front reticently asked Ross: “This might sound a silly question, but – do you like to dance?”

The opening caveat there is as important as the question itself. Let’s start with the latter, which threw into sharp relief the varying ways one can engage with music. Let’s call the difference that of Pure versus Applied. Where Alex Ross excels is his ability to demystify music, separating and examining its component parts. This scholarly and almost clinical approach can succeed brilliantly, particularly when discussing Ross’s first love, classical music. But, as an exclusive approach, I find it lacking, and the absence of attention to dancing helps explain why.

I find it very hard to think of any song I truly love that I cannot also dance to – whether by ‘dance’ I mean drunken mock-waltzing to ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ or that routine you do to ‘Killing in the Name Of’ which involves attempting to stab your knees with your eyebrows. I intellectually analyse the music I love, scouring its lyrical content and its social and cultural context for meaning to enhance my enjoyment of it, but not necessarily to justify my enjoying it in the first place. I am equally interested simply in experiencing its rhythm, its flow, its grind, its melody, the way it makes me want to move as well as the mechanics of how it achieves that, its impact on my body as well as my brain. I attach as much weight to a physical and emotional response as to a cerebral anatomising of music. Until that question was asked, the talk had concentrated wholly on the latter, lacking any consideration of the former, equally useful, dimension of how music works. So no, it wasn’t ‘a silly question’. Why the questioner might have felt that it was perhaps approaches the heart of the matter.

I’m sceptical of the patronising and reductive idea that men and women appreciate music in intrinsically different ways, men with a cold and technical analysis and women with an exclusively personal and emotional response. But this scepticism has to struggle against the weight of cultural conditioning and its success in bequeathing to boys and girls approved modes of engagement. The male = analytical/female = emotional dichotomy is a counterproductive product of social training, and identifying and questioning this assumption in relation to engagement with music is part of breaking down the barriers between genders and combating sexism in general. Doing so is hindered, however, by the extent to which these different approaches are accorded varying weight in wider discourse, with prevailing attitudes in mainstream music criticism privileging one over another.

The implications of this will be looked at in Part Two.

Originally written for the excellent ‘feminist pop culture adventure’ website Bad Reputation, reproduced with kind permission. Rhian Jones blogs at Velvet Coalmine

6 Responses to Women, Men, and Music: the XY factor (part one)

  1. Everett True February 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    (from Facebook)

    Joanna Nilson
    can’t we get over this everett? didn’t most of you do a whole university course about this in the 90’s? Ladies: write, or start a band. Or don’t. You shouldn’t actively encourage female writers, encourage them because they’re good writers. It’s fucking patronising. Writing about how female writers write about music is a more ridiculous concept than writing about music. Maybe a lot of girls don’t want to be involved in music journalism because it’s boring pissing in the wind egomanical behaviour ABOUT boring egomaniacal behaviour. And most male music journalists are sexually frustrated overweight boring middle aged men. Who wants to hang out with them?

    Everett True
    Jo, I’m not denying your own personal experiences. I’m just saying that others may feel differently. For example, this great interview…

    Joanna Nilson
    This is boring, watered down, ham-fisted, first year women’s studies politics. there’s no difference between how men and women write about music. Why can’t it just be about individuals? Aren’t you perpetuating this?

    Everett True
    You’re not actually bothering to click through on any of these links, are you Jo? Just giving me a kneejerk reaction to the most superficial elements… this, of course, is why you would make a great columnist.

    Joanna Nilson
    No I am reading it. it’s just boring as fuck.

    Joanna Nilson
    this is bullshit for instance “This is why Morgan believes that women writers should actively be promoted and put on mast heads to increase visibility to encourage other female voices to come through.” oh poor girls! PATTING GIRLS ON THE HEAD IN THIS FASHION BECAUSE THEY’RE GIRLS IS COMPLETELY ERODING THE POINT. they should be on a masthead if they’re a good writer, any editor with half a brain would be able to discern that, “technical language” or not. Even that implication is fucking offensive. I’m a pretty big techhead.

    Everett True
    As fuck, or a fuck?

    Joanna Nilson

    Everett True
    No, I just found your constant negativity boring, and tuned out momentarily. Sorry Jo. I would engage with your arguments more, but we both know that we disagree on this matter – and it seems rather futile trying to convince one another of our rightness or wrongness here. Your personal experience tells you one thing, mine another. We both believe we’re right.

    Joanna Nilson
    No, you just don’t know what you’re talking about because you’ve never been a female music critic ET. or a female doing anything.

    Joanna Nilson
    Or we could just move to portland, hold hands and write a zine about it.

    Everett True
    Now you’re talking!

    Jack Sargeant ‎
    “The male = analytical/female = emotional dichotomy is a counterproductive product of social training, and identifying and questioning this assumption in relation to engagement with music is part of breaking down the barriers between genders and combating sexism in general” — strangely, isn’t that exactly what Whitehouse’s music examines? Aren’t they about engaging emotionally and physically AND analytically to their music?

    Wallace Wylie
    If the idea that men and women appreciate music in intrinsically different ways is patronising and reductive, then what is the male way of writing that Everett is talking about? I think things get muddled when claims are made that there is no difference between males and females and how they appreciate things, but then people ask for “the female perspective”. I think it’s probably fair to say that there are certain tendencies amongst male and female thought. That does not mean that all males think a certain way and all females think a certain way. Nobody would care if the statement were made “Men in general are taller than women”. This statement would still be true even if you found a female who was taller than any male. I would never claim that there was no such thing as sexism, but I think if there is a situation where males outnumber females, say at a music conference, the reason may not necessarily be sexism. It could be, but I think there’s a danger in well meaning people giving any group of individuals victim status that can be wheeled out whenever setbacks are met. What if way more males just wanted, and were able to, attend?

    Shan Welham
    Interesting point Joanna makes on encouraging for the sake of being a good writer…
    This whole debate has me questioning my own prose pre and post dabblings in live and recorded music critique.
    Pre writing about music, I turned up to have my final Creative Writing submission feedback meeting with my award-winning-older-male-author uni lecturer back in the day, the first thing he exclaimed after calling out for Shane Welham (then fumbling because tres curvy I walked in) was, “Oh, from your writing, I thought you were a man!”
    Why?? Have I been subconsciously conditioned to write a certain “male” way or was it due to the content and not the style?

    Joanna Nilson
    people aren’t deliberately trying not to understand you, the point you’re making doesn’t have a point. What “form” of writing are women supposedly producing? a non-technical, emotive form, it appears.

    Jack Sargeant
    Surely the point is that the either / or dichotomy is false, that there’s as much ‘pleasure’ in ‘dancing’ as ‘analysing’, in the ‘physical’ response as the ‘theoretical’ one, and that these elements are not mutually exclusive. That these two (supposedly) separate responses assume a separation based on gender is over simplistic and negates part of the experience (whether the experience is ‘cerebral’ or ‘physical’). The response to music is personal, uniquely so, the listener interprets the work. That’s what music is about.

    Bianca Rosemarie de Valentino
    I am a female that has been a music writer for the last 15 years and from my own personal experience & observations I believe that there is a huge difference in the way women and men write! There is also a difference in the way musicians respond in interviews with male & female journalists…

    Andrew Zincke
    Hi Joanna, are you saying that the reason there is not more women writing music journalism is because the whole business is too male orientated (‘pissing in the wind’) and male-dominated (‘sexually frustrated overweight boring middle aged men’)? Sounds like a description of any boardroom. Sounds like a good argument for something different.

    Rene Schaefer
    A clear case of over-thinking. That article shat me completely.

    Wallace Wylie
    I think the thing that always gets to me in discussions like this is the vagueness of the terms. When people use terms like social conditioning, do they mean how people are conditioned to respond to males and females, or how social conditioning shapes the thoughts of both sexes? Both? Neither? Do people believe that genes play no influence and that gender is a societal construct? The whole idea of the “blank slate” has been completely debunked. Absolutely nobody with any scientific background believes it. I would say that there seems to be different tendencies in regards to the thoughts and inclinations of men and women, but genes being what they are there are no set rules about predicting how men and women will behave.
    There seems to be a certain mindset more prevalent among males that leads to a collectors mentality. Men and women in their 20’s seem to engage with music and pop culture, but then as the bloom fades males seem to enter the collectors mindset and start digging for lost treasures, hence the increased obsession with lost garage rock or folk-rock gems. There also seems to be a male ego trait that leads to amassing obscure and arcane knowledge about music.
    As far as music writing goes, there could be elements of male and female tendencies, and sexism. I would guess that there are simply more males attempting to write about music. I doubt a good female writer would find it difficult to get their voice heard if they had the tenacity and drive, but it’s probably a lot harder for crap female writers to get a break. Crap male writers probably have an easier time of it. If people want to reduce sexism then encouraging female writers is a good thing. It probably won’t increase the quality of music writing in general though.
    Nobody has gone into detail about what the difference between typical male and typical female writing is. If it’s something beyond “the typical male writer has a penis” then I’d like to see it broken down.

  2. Everett True February 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Neither myself nor Frances are talking about printing crap writing simply because it happens to come from a female. Are people deliberately trying to not understand us here?

    What we’re talking about a) the conditioning that leads us to accept that one form of writing is ‘better’ than another, and b) encouraging women to put themselves forward as writers in the same way that men have been, and continue to be, encouraged (often to the detriment of women).

    Folk are all like “oh, how dare you suggest you might print music criticism simply because it comes from a female”?!

    What about the fucking TONS of crap music criticism written by male critics that gets published every minute of every fucking day? What’s their editors’ excuse? That they’ve got shit for brains?

    Or doesn’t it matter, because it’s from men?

    There’s enough crap male music criticism that gets printed every fucking minute of every fucking day, Bangs knows! Why is that? Surely it couldn’t be because MEN are writing it… could it?

  3. Lucy Cage February 12, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Cool piece. And of course women’s writing is DIFFERENT! It’s not (just) about different approaches or different levels of geekiness or emotional/analytical connections with music: even if the exact same words were used, the context would be entirely different. The way women are received is different. The way we’re listened to. We’re marked. (http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/nyt062093.htm).

    All this goes hundredfold when you’re talking about writing for websites. Here are just two pieces about the perils of being female on the internet: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/index.html; http://kateharding.net/2007/04/14/on-being-a-no-name-blogger-using-her-real-name/.
    Just look at the extra special vitriol reserved for female writers on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free: it’s stomach-turning. (Here’s the last thing I read on there: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/15/suzanne-moore-time-to-get-angry? Makes me furious still to read the comments.) If anyone dares write about women’s issues, dares to suggest that sexism still exists, they get the screaming mentals out in force. Who’d want to provoke that, merely by being pissed off while in possession of the wrong genitalia? It wouldn’t be surprising if young women writers decided best keep our heads down and our thoughts to ourselves. No wonder that there are fewer of them about.

    Last thing I wrote, I was told I was vulgar, that I sounded like a man, that I should be more feminine (actually, she told me to take up belly dancing!): an extreme gendered reaction to the point I was trying to make, but it is obvious that a male writer would not have elicited such a reaction, not even if he has written out my piece word for word.

    So, yes, I’m all for women journalists getting promoted, praised, encouraged, normalised. It’s disingenuous to suggest that there’s anything resembling an even playing field to write about music from so why the hell not do something about it?

  4. Ellie February 16, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I think Joanna’s talking about “tokenism”, and there’s a fine line between that and equal opportunity. I’m of Asian descent and deal with the racial side of tokenism. Basically, I don’t want to be treated like a social science experiment. Using people just to look kool and progressive is insulting to their intelligence. Hire female writers because they are awesome in their own right, not because they have lady bits.

    Do women write about music differently to men? Probably. But I’d like to think that we’re all individuals (yes! we are all individuals!) and we all approach music in our own way, regardless of chromosomes.

    Anyway, to paraphrase Brody Dalle, “I don’t write about music with my vagina.”

  5. Everett True February 16, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Ellie. There is no way I would post blogs (“hire” is a bit strong, as we don’t pay) from female writers if I thought they were crap. There is a set style of music criticism. Music criticism was invented by males for males about males, and is still overwhelmingly populated by males. And most of it, most people are agreed, is complete shit. And if that is the case, what’s wrong with encouraging folk to examine other forms of criticism?

  6. hannah golightly March 22, 2011 at 8:55 am

    As the latest addition to Collapse Board’s list of writers (and female) I would like to add to this debate that I write differently depending on the frame of mind I am in at any particular time. It is influenced by philosophy more than gender… but being female, I see the world with female eyes… the ‘perspective’ of being female is valid. I favour bands made up of women since they speak to me on my wavelength assuming they are ‘my kind of women’ (it’s not a universal clause). But when women are on my wavelength and write songs, it’s a deeper connection to those songs than it would be if it was coming through a man’s voice. As a female I am so used to hearing the male perspective that I forget that the kinship of hearing a compatible female perspective is something men are able to take as a given at all times and anything else becomes the exception. The problem is that the audience is not all men and many women don’t know what they’re missing out on in terms of seeing their internal world closely represented by another woman on a stage and through the speakers. There is solidarity and strength in that shared experience. So the perspective granted by a female writer of journalism or criticism or songs is important in itself.

    The style of the prose is irrelevant to gender.

    If we don’t have females writing about music then we end up with the inevitable misunderstanding in quality of female-expressing music. It’s the same thing that happens whenever a chick flick gets reviewed by a man- often it will be derided and rejected as inferior to Rambo and it’s ilk (I have named the genre Dick-Flicks in protest of the term chick flicks not having a male equivalent), simply because it is being critiqued by the wrong audience.

    All I am saying is that diverse representation is of benefit to all of us. None of us are the same at the end of the day, regardless of gender.

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