How not to write about female musicians, part 7,082

An SYTYCB entry

The disastrous Gorilla vs. Bear review brought to attention by Audra Schroder at the Dallas Observer is only part of a tired decades-long chain of reactions to female musicians who perform outside their prescribed gender roles.

This has been going on since the first-ever Riot Grrl convention, which USA Today featured alongside an article poking fun at the artists’ fashion choices. Not surprisingly, the main article about the convention, titled “Feminist Riot Grrrls Don’t Just Wanna Have Fun,” dismissed the musicians’ politics as “strident,” “anti-male,” and “self-absorbed.”

How can we pay attention to the music, the logic goes, when the artists’ looks are so distracting? It is a similar to the rhetoric used to defend sexual assault: Men can’t help but view women as sexual objects when they dress in a way that asks for it. This connection is made explicit in a 1992 Newsweek article about the Riot Grrrl movement, deeming Courtney Love’s stand against sexual assault hypocritical because she  “wears vintage little-girl dresses that barely make it past her hips — all the better to sing songs about rape and exploitation.”

It is no accident that the objectification of women and the dismissal of their professional work go hand in hand. In all the above examples, drawing attention to female artists’ appearances stops the writer from confronting the content of their songs about injustice toward women. Implicitly, these articles are saying, “these sluts are trying to make us respect them. LOLZ.”

This happens regardless of the artist’s aesthetics or message; if it is not sexual, writers will find a way to make it. Maura Johnston’s Village Voice piece “How Not To Write About Female Musicians,” which inspired Schroeder’s “How Not To Write About Female Musicians, Part 7,081,” includes the question: “Are you essentially making shit up about the artist in order to sexualize her?”

Many writers, male and female, have demonstrated impressive stretches of the imagination to portray female musicians as sex kittens or other stereotypes.

These stereotypes are often dichotomous, as demonstrated by some recent, contradictory receptions of Laura Veirs. Neil Robertson at Pitchfork described her vocal aesthetic as “angel-sweet,” but according to Dan Weiss, another Pitchfork writer, her voice is a “vaguely sexy purr.” Another review in The Guardian deems her a “chanteuse” — a female nightclub entertainer — with an “elfin body.”

This is but one example of how reviews not only focus more on female artists’ physical qualities than their music, but also embed their performances with one-dimensional qualities, either pure and angelic or dark and seductive.

And when the act resists sexualizing? Female artists still can’t escape trivialization. Antony Hegarty’s 2010 op-ed in Stereogum postulates that folk group CocoRosie is “dismissed because their visual presentation frustrates many male writers’ abilities to sexualize them” or otherwise pigeonhole their experimental artistry.

Music publications’ objectifying, demeaning and under-crediting of women are symptoms of the prevalence of these attitudes all over the media and the shortage of women in positions powerful enough to change them. The ideology that considers women supporters and reactors rather than creators and shakers, singers and sex symbols rather than writers and producers, also encourages them to be fans rather than critics.

Just 15% of executive leaders in top communications companies are women, according to a 3rd Annual Annenberg Public Policy Center Analysis of Women Leaders in Communication Companies. The shortage of women in journalism is especially true in leadership positions, as critics, and in rock music publications. This is not to say that a male staff makes for sexist writing, but it increases the business’s risk of old-boys-club mentalities. That music journal Blender is owned by the same corporation as Maxim, for example, suggests that it is not under particularly feminist leadership.

Indeed, the covers of some music publications are hard to distinguish from front-page pornography teasers. “Jessica Alba: Booty and Soul of America’s Hottest Starlet (2005). “The Hot List: The Best Bands, Bars, X-rated Fetishes, Lesbian Hookups and 14 New Artists to Watch” (2001).  “The Naughty Ways of Miss Drew Barrymore” (2000). “Sex, Lies and Videotapes” (1989). “Madonna Goes All the Way” (1984).

As for the remedy, it is doubtful that Rolling Stone will give up its eye-catching covers. But perhaps as non-commercial websites become go-to sources for reviews, consumers will become more empowered as critics, and aficionados with feminist leanings will have an outlet to spread awareness of overlooked artists and of why such artists are overlooked.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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