… But I think OH BONDAGE! UP YOURS!” Poly Styrene (RIP), X-Ray Spex
Music has the amazing potential to inspire social change; one only has to look to James Brown‘s endorsement of the civil rights movement, 1976’s Rock Against Racism campaign, or more recently Khaled M and his support of the Libyan revolution. Why is it then that sexism continues to fester within the rock community? Rather than combat sexism, much of the community seems to accept the status quo. Why?
One of the more obvious forms in which sexism rears its ugly head is in direct attacks upon female performers by the music press, including Melody Maker referring to several performers as “slappers”. This type of sexualised language makes no distinction between prostitutes and female musicians, a discourse that tragically runs throughout the history of rock music – articles with titles like ‘Girls! Live! On Stage!’ & ‘Women Rockers Do it All’ (real examples!) are not uncommon. In her essential book She Bop 2, Lucy O’Brien is similarly shocked when Lester Bangs expresses his opinion that Deborah Harry is “Just a piece of meat like the rest of them”. This breed of misogyny is crude, brutal and dehumanizing, and even to a casual reader it is clearly sexist.
Much more worrying are the more subtle views engrained within the popular music press that without analysis might go unnoticed and therefore unchallanged – these are those that preserve the current state of affairs most effectively.
For example, the treatment of female musicians and their male counterparts is not symmetrical; The Manic Street Preachers have been praised for their referencing of the poet Phillip Larkin in a song, yet Alanis Morissette was mocked for ‘sounding like a teenager who had just discovered him’ (both examples in the supposedly ‘loony left’ publication, The Observer). Now, I am not a fan of either, but this is clearly a case of double standards.
Furthermore, female musicians are often denied their own identity and are instead presented as merely imitations of men (and are therefore subordinate), one example being Courtney Love being described as ‘John Bon Jovi with tits’, thus reducing her artistic contribution to that of her body- which probably says more about the focus of the writer than Love herself.
However, this is not a problem that is limited to within the music press, but part of the community as a whole. For example I was recently made aware of the term ‘girlfriend metal’ which is defined as “Inoffensive, fairly melodic metal with enough pop structure that even your girlfriend who dislikes most metal will enjoy listening to it in the car”, effectively saying melodic = feminine, and therefore brutal = masculine. This logic we know not to be true, but for those who don’t believe, check out Amy Miret on vocals in legendary crust band Nausea.
From personal experience, a phrase I’ve heard depressingly often is ‘she’s a pretty good guitarist/drummer/bassist..’ only to be justified with the caveat ‘for a girl’. It seems that regardless of their acclaim, talent or artistic merit, female musicians are virtually always assumed to be inferior.
It is almost certainly true that the majority of rock fans/musicians/critics are men, but this is an imbalance that I believe is due to social conditioning rather than anything innate. In particular both the media and the rock community are to blame for creating an exclusively ‘elite’ club whose membership can only be truly attained with a Y chromosome.
What can we do about this? The first step is recognising this marginalisation, the second is speaking out against it, after all ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (and women…oops damn you, Edmund Burke).