Tuesday, 14 January 2014

8 Ways Male Musicians Can Fight Misogyny in Music

Poster for feminist concert series in Leeds, UK (source: lippymag.co.uk)
It's a world I love dearly and thus it pains me to say it, but in my experience the music world is one of the most profoundly sexist professional domains out there. I say this partly as an occasional musician myself, but mostly as the spouse of a professional musician who has spent a great deal of time immersed in musical settings. Particularly in recent years I've developed strong friendships with a number of female musicians, and have seen first-hand how much unadulterated sexism and misogyny they have to face on a regular basis.

For those outside the music business this might well come as a shock. After all, surely professional domains such as engineering and construction are more rife with sexism than music. While I've spent less time in these worlds (aside from a year working closely with the construction industry at Merit Contractors Association), I would maintain that it's worse in the music world. While engineering and construction are still overwhelmingly male-dominated professions, there is at the very least a widespread recognition of the ingrained sexism in these domains and, in this country at least, most of the leading construction firms and engineering departments make a point of at least being seen to promote gender equality. Music, by contrast, is perceived by outsiders as a "progressive" field, which ironically has allowed it to endure as a bastion of unreconstructed misogyny.

Of course, anybody with half a brain will tell you that gender theatre is everywhere to be seen at the upper echelons of popular music, a fact that was thrown into sharp relief in 2013 thanks to Miley Cyrus' tongue and Robin Thicke's rapey lyrics on 'Blurred Lines'. But the problem is much bigger than most people not closely associated with professional music making realize. Case in point: how many female symphony conductors can you name, or composers who aren't named Schumann? How many female jazz instrumentalists? How many rock 'n' roll drummers or guitar players, or record producers for that matter? Here's another one: how many male covers of iconic female hits can you think of? Of the top the only one I can think of is Faith No More frontman Mike Patton's cover of Lady Gaga's 'Poker Face', and and while Faith No More retains a loyal following among overgrown nineties indie kids like me, they're hardly mainstream.

Nothing blurred about these lines (source: The Guardian)
For female musicians, the overwhelming maleness of the music business in all roles other than vocals and early childhood education takes its toll in the form of 'microaggressions'. Just about every female musicians who's been in the business for any length of time has their own laundry list of small but tangible slights, from being overlooked for ensemble positions in favour of male instrumentalists and not being treated with disdain by male music store clerks while shopping for gear to enduring condescending 'man-splaining' of music technology to flat-out sexual objectification as lead singers, concertmasters etc. Even classical music is rife with it, a fact that the director of the Conservatoire de Paris made clear recently when he asserted that women "lack the physical strength" to be symphony conductors.

This is not, however, to say that all men in the music business are sexist pigs. Far from it; I have a great many male musician friends who are as appalled by the stubborn misogyny of the music world as their female colleagues are. However, as in any domain with entrenched cultural norms, acknowledging a problem is easier than fixing it. This is why I decided to articulate my thoughts on how to fight it in the proverbial trenches - that is to say in the practice rooms, in the concert halls, in the clubs, in the recording studios etc. This post is primarily aimed at my male musician colleagues, but also to women in the biz who may, unconsciously, buy into many of the gender cliches trotted out by instructors, producers and male colleagues' expectations.

There have been several great polemics on the many and varied microaggressions that female musicians face. Montreal-based synthpop icon Claire "Grimes" Boucher famously tore a strip out of the social neanderthals in her industry in a recent blog post while Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho did the same in a recent speech at McGill University. But while many female voices have spoken out against the entrenched sexism and misogyny in the music industry, disappointingly few men have. This post is my small attempt at helping male feminist allies in the musical world combat gender double standards at the grassroots level, starting with checking their own privilege. Here are my eight tips.

1. Stop assuming every female musician you meet is a singer.

This ought to be a given, but sadly it's not. Virtually every female instrumentalist will recount tales of male counterparts who were incredulous to the fact that they played (gasp!) an instrument. And while we're on this topic, there are far too many male musicians who treat female vocalists like some sort of pseudo-musician. And those who actually feel that way should be locked in a room with Diamanda Galás for at least three solid hours.

Would you mansplain gear to her?
(source: synthtopia.com)
2. Don't assume you know more about gear and music tech than your female peers.

The aforementioned Grimes is, as those familiar with her music know, is a sampling and programming wizard. So are Andrea Parker, Ikue Mori, Yolandi Visser, Maryanne Amacher, Sachiko M. (and Gaga for that matter) and the countless other female samplers, turntablists, programmers and all-around techies. And yet just about every female musician armed with a laptop and Garage Band has had to contend with condescending men purporting to explain how to use tech. Seriously, if your natural impulse upon seeing a woman fuss with music software (and most likely drop a parade of F-bombs when things aren't working quite right) is to give her unsolicited advice on how to 'improve' her handiwork, you're being sexist.

3. Actively seek out female musicians/composers and female-driven acts in your listening.

As I mentioned before, men who cover women are few and far between in the music biz, whereas women covering men, whether it's Tori Amos doing Kurt Cobain or Eva Cassidy doing Bill Withers, are everywhere. This can only mean two things: there's little if any worthwhile music written by women, or there's an enduring but unspoken stigma against men paying tribute to the female greats. Why not be part of proving the latter? That of course starts at the listening stage, and the fact is most guys don't listen to much female-driven music. Which is a pity because there's so much phenomenal female-driven music out there.

4. Take care not to talk over your female peers during rehearsals and gigs.

Unless you're a completely unmitigated douchebag, you don't do this deliberately. But so many guys do. And even if you don't we're all conditioned to give male voices more credibility. Celebrity speech coach Christine Jahnke, whose clients have included Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, attests to how much more work women have to do to gain the same degree of public credibility as their male counterparts. Even if you're not guilty of gratuitous man-splaining, chances are you have to work less hard to convince people you know what you're talking about. So when it doubt it's worth dialing it back a little.

5. If you're a student, make a point of choosing a female musician/composer/musical movement as an essay topic.

This phenomenon, sadly, goes far beyond the realm of music. If you're a guy, as yourself this question: as a high school or university student, when you were asked to write a paper about a historical figure/famous author/great composer etc., did you ever pick a woman? If not, why not? I first became aware of this phenomenon as a history TA, and have since encountered it everywhere - women are more than happy to write about male subjects, but not vice versa. And this extends far beyond the undergraduate years. When is the last time you read an article on the Riot Grrrl movement or the Blue Stockings Society written by a man? Belief in cooties seems to extend far beyond age four. Why not buck social convention and pick Meredith Monk or Violet Archer for your next term paper on a modern composer?

6. Be critical of your music 'gods'.

Yes, you're still allowed to like these guys. Or at least their music.
(Source: Last.fm)
As a self-identified male feminist, I have a complicated relationship with some of my favourite male artists. I can't stop loving Led Zeppelin, even though Jimmy Page was infamously guilty of the confinement and statutory rape of 14-year-old fan Lori Maddox. I still have a soft spot for the music of multiple wife-beater Miles Davis, and The Prodigy's Fat of the Land album is still a workout favourite of mine in spite of the presence of the problematically named song 'Smack My Bitch Up'. But while I still like these artists, I have the perspective to not elevate them to the godlike stature that so many male musicophiles do. The deification of music history's great men is one of the more nauseating aspects of male musical culture. By all means admire Jimmy Page and Miles Davis for their musical accomplishments, but let's be honest about their less-than-admirable characters - and don't take offence when they get deservedly knocked off their pedestals.

It should be noted, however, that not all the 'great men' of rock, jazz and other sexist cesspools are misogynist pigs. Kurt Cobain was a great ally who famously helped promote the Riot Grrrl scene of the early-to-mid-nineties. Hardcore punk legends Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye (author of Fugazi's epic anti-rape anthem 'Suggestion') are both passionate feminists. And R&B star John Legend recently came out as a feminist, arguing that "if men care about women's rights the world will be a better place." There are indeed great examples of men actively combatting misogyny in the music world, and their exploits ought to be celebrated. It also helps when it's combined with kick-ass music!

7. Confront misogyny head on when you see it.

For young guys immersed in 'bro' culture, this is probably the hardest thing of all to do. But it gets easier. A lot of men, especially men in their teens and early twenties, are understandably fearful of social censure when it comes to calling out their own when they engage in blatantly misogynistic behaviour. But there are three reasons for doing it. Firstly, it's the right thing to do. Secondly, you'll gain a whole lot more respect from your female peers (as well as your more enlightened male colleagues). And thirdly, the more you do it, the better at it you'll get - and the more benefits from reasons one and two you'll reap. And besides, many of the guys who engage in douchebag behaviour don't realize they're doing it - and never will unless they're called out on it by voices they respect (i.e. male ones). And for the rest of the male populace that really don't care, their respect - or lack thereof - isn't worth fretting over.

8. Quit taking feminist rants personally.

No, L7 doesn't hate you. They just hate it when you're a dick.
(source: ckuttimecapsule.wordpress.com)
Here's the thing about feminism: it's not about you. In fact it's never about you specifically, unless you're the d-bag making brazenly misogynistic remarks - and if that's you, you probably haven't made it this far into this post. Feminism is not anti-male, nor is it about making individual men feel bad about themselves. It's about deconstructing social grammar that's been inculcated over 6,000 years of human history. It's this basic misunderstanding that turns so many otherwise thoughtful and open-minded men off feminism, with some turning to the mean-spirited and logically bankrupt polemics of the Men's Rights Movement. No, feminists don't hate you - they just hate it when you're a dick.
So that's my rant-du-jour. In sum, my message to men in music is that music is far too important a thing to be left to the social neanderthals of this world. I suspect a big part of the problem is that being a musician (at least a professional one) is such an all-consuming process, and what with the demands of practicing, composing, rehearsing, gigging and gig-hunting, there's not a lot of time left over to read the works of Simone de Beauvoir or debate gender politics with your counterparts in the political science department. But thanks to digital media we have unprecedented access to both information and mind-improving conversations with a wide cross-section of people. And thanks to blogs like this one, you can get your information in a pithy, attention deficit-friendly fashion.
Start by reading. Read as much as you can. A full list of feminist blogs and news forums would run into the thousands, but sites like Jezebel and Skepchick are good places to start. For a double-dose of feminism and music, check out the appropriately named Feminist Music Geek blog. And then start a conversation. Those of you living in the Edmonton area might want to investigate the Facebook group Feminist Edmonton, a group which I've found to be very welcoming of male perspectives and questions. The world needs more guys reading, writing and engaging in open, frank conversation about this stuff. And the music biz, in particular, is in dire need of a fresh shot of feminism. Help make it happen!
(This post was inspired by (and is dedicated to) my amazingly talented better half Allison Nichols and her fellow take-no-crap female musical troopers, as well as their male allies - you all know who you are. You guys are the best!!)