where my girls at?

Since complaining about lists is the #1 blogosphere priority in December, I’m going to go a step further and rip-to-shreds my own list. Why? Because there isn’t a single band on the entire list that is fronted by a woman. Not one. There’s a few female band members scattered here and there (Xiu Xiu, Arcade Fire, Frog Eyes, Godspeed) but none of them are the primary songwriters.

But you probably didn’t notice, right? That’s part of the problem (that we both share) — how can we not think of any female fronted bands from this decade as canonical? In pop music, women have reversed rap’s stranglehold on the charts by replacing the likes of DMX with electro-pop dance numbers. In the nineties female vocalists were called upon to lighten the mood of gangster pop songs — usually at the 2:15 mark. Today the roles are reversed. We are much more likely to catch Kanye midway through a Lady Gaga song rather than the other way around.

Still, this mainstream revolution is only a return to equilibrium. The Top 20 charts, if you look closely enough, have probably only returned to a 50% female/50% male balance. It’s not as if women have completely removed men from the game, or the music industry. Which is fine, I’m not advocating anything of the sort. We will continue to need pop stars of both genders (and maybe the in-between genders, too?).

But, if we trace the line from pop music to indie music — a term that I suppose at this point is vaguely defined as artists who write their own songs and appeal to their fans’ sense that their “indie” songs are some kind of higher or more serious art. However you want to divide indie and pop or genres in general, there does seem to be some dichotomy between the two — for one, the lack of true female indie stars. There are a few — perhaps the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Cat Power, and Sleater Kinney — but proportionally (which is the only useful measuring stick it seems to me) women are drastically under-represented in indie music. A lot of girls are listening to indie music (I’ve been to plenty of shows that demonstrate this) and yet where are their bands? Fifty percent of the population and, what, maybe ten percent of the bands reviewed on Pitchfork?

Maura, the ex-Idolator.com editor, wrote a short piece considering this very topic on her blog in 2002. As she points out, and rightly predicts, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs received their buzz from sex appeal in some way and, as soon as they moved from punk sex (S/T Debut) to softer, (more womanly?) ballads (Show Your Bones), the indie community would turn their backs, or at least reprimand the band for losing their “edge”:

“You could feel the boners being popped beneath every writeup of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs by all the guys who loved the stylized “fuck me” pose of their lead singer. (See also: electroclash.) It was eerily reminiscent of the hype around “Exile in Guyville” — so expect, when Karen O ditches her stylist and settles down, tons of ‘what? I never liked them denials’. Every band with a chick singer got compared to Sleater-Kinney, whether they sounded like them or not.”

“But I think it’s very telling that, in the Pitchfork top 50, the few female artists who are named are all people who have been in the indie consciousness for a while. (Are the members of Sleater-Kinney the only women in the world who can play their instruments?)

“Some might criticize me for being essentialist and focusing too much on gender. But isn’t so much of what makes music vital for people the way it speaks to them, or for them? The overarching message I got from the collected weight of so much of the music I heard this year — even a lot of the records I liked! — was “If you can’t look hot while you’re dancing to our beats, you can’t be part of our revolution.”

“And, seriously, fuck that noise.” (Maura 2002)

Seven years later and the world hasn’t changed much. The Pitchfork lists continue to primarily cover male bands. But is it Pitchfork’s fault? You can make the case, since almost all of their critics are male (there’s a few ambiguous names I don’t want to make assumptions about…) and we males tend to identify more with our own sex.

As a devoted Pitchfork reader and as someone who tries to get his hands on as much music as possible, I don’t have any female artists to suggests as replacements for the male-centric bands fawned over on the P4k news page.

Part of it has to be that female vocalists have never done it for me. There are certain emotions, pure rage and reckless violence, for two, in the well-timed male scream that female singers just can’t do for me. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t been properly educated about classic female singers, or if it’s because in my formative middle school years I listened exclusively to Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Rammstein, but I still don’t get girls and their songs.

And it’s not just me. My friends aren’t recommending any girl bands, either. So where are they? Is Sleater Kinney the only all-girl band, ever, to play their instruments well? Correct me if I’m wrong: girls can play the piano exquisitely. So why not guitar, drums, and bass? Am I missing something? Does the guitar’s shape prohibit women from controlling the instrument as well as men?

But that instrument stuff is bullshit anyway; more than half the popular bands on P4k aren’t virtuosos anyway. No one is ape-shit about the difficulty of Wavves’ or Band of Horses or Girls (how, ironic). Especially considering the newest trend of glo-fi, lo-fi, beach pop nostalgia practically requires extra-simple instrumentation (easily recognizable melody lines are the only way to sort through all the fucking noise…).

So that’s the question. Is it me (the boy) whose missing all the good girl stuff, or is it you (the girls) failing to produce? I might be leaning towards the latter. Prove me wrong?

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6 Comments

Filed under Fred | Unnecessary

6 responses to “where my girls at?

  1. AbeForLife

    It’s both, but I’d say it’s more your fault than the industry’s. First, I’d say it’s impossible to ever find equality in any system. I don’t want to delve into the idea of equality too deeply, but it’s difficult to have equal representation in any genre. Do people complain about too few female DJs? Too few white rappers? Too few black country singers? In this way, it’s the fault of the music industry that there isn’t as much gender/ethnic variety in terms of artists – certain artists will sell better in certain realms. In that sense, you’re off the hook. But knowing this, you should actively seek out the few female-fronted bands in the music scene where they are “under-represented.”

    How else will there be more if the few that exist go unnoticed? If they aren’t listened to or written about, their records won’t sell, and they’ll be done. In this sense it’s your job as a writer (even though that’s not really your job) to get other people to recognize the great bands that are out there fronted by women. Here are a few:

    Metric, Feist, Blonde Redhead, Mates of State (joint frontsmanship I guess), Regina Spektor, Rilo Kiley.

    Sure, maybe they won’t all make your top 25 list, but they exist. If only there were some way to implement affirmative action into music.

    • Good points, Abe (if I can call you that). You’re right, it is my fault in some way. Something about the female voice doesn’t do it for me.

      Concerning a lack of equality in any system, if this is the case then that’s the deeper question I am obscurely trying to get at. What is it about indie music and the biz that makes it so difficult for women to break through all the noise? Is criticism, by nature, gendered? Would an all-female-critics P4k site make a difference?

      To me the question of gender in popular indie bands (and this is probably relevant for any band who plays their own instruments, regardless of genre) comes down to numbers. There are just as many women as men out there (if not more), so why aren’t they making their sheer numbers felt in indie/rock/alternative music? It’s a different question than considering whether or not there are enough white rappers, because rap traditionally (there are plenty of exceptions and things continue to change…) comes from a specific space that is of and by the black community.

      But the question of female rappers does matter — there’s nothing about the black community that excludes women. They are there, just not making a lot of music that’s being heard. We know it’s not getting the plays. Why not? For rap it’s easy to make the case that the persistent themes of black-on-black violence, mistreatment of women, and general anger makes it a genre not especially friendly to female performers, although again, women have no problem consuming plenty of the music. But I think that’s only a small piece of the puzzle, if even that.

      You’re right, too, that journalists should probably try to write about more female bands. But plenty of journalists don’t find bands themselves — they are spoon fed albums to review and singles to chat-about from the record labels themselves. And it’s these labels, it seems, who have concluded that girls just don’t sell as well as Girls, the male fronted band. Again we are back to that fundamental question: Why not?

      There’s a bigger answer here that someone more familiar with gender studies/women’s studies can probably provide. It seems similar to the question of why we’ve never had many female politicians, CEOs, or women-in-power. It’s a male-centric world, yes. And someone has a deeper understanding of why and how you might stretch that point out to popular music. It’s just not me.

      (It’s sort of funny that I’ve heard or heard of every band you listed. It seems like the same tired list that floats around everywhere when these kinds of discussions come up… there’s got to be some others, right?)

      • AbeForLife

        Tired list? Hmm. Maybe you’re right. I probably know very few female-led bands compared to people who actually know the music scene really well. I’m not qualified to name the bands that are breaking through or breaking trends. However, I would like to talk about some of the issues that you raise.

        First, you ask whether or not criticism is gendered. Answer: fuck, yes. But not just gendered. We’re naturally egocentric, and only through practice can we start to shift our focus. You said that female vocals don’t speak to you the same way that male vocals do. Knowing your male, I’m going out on a limb and projecting that you feel you can relate to it more easily. Is this unique? Of course not. This is true with almost everything. We relate to things that are familiar to us. We are more comfortable and more easily persuaded by things with which we have commonalities. Think about it in terms of empathy. We empathize more easily with people or animals or situations with which we can identify.

        So when it comes to music, we have a natural proclivity to listen to music that we identify with. You mention how rap is a special case because it comes from a certain culture, and is therefore dominated by artists that best represent that culture. But isn’t indie music the same? Not only do you find very few female-led bands, but you find few ethnic minorities fronting popular indie rock bands. Why? Because indie rock is the music of white kids. Well, white kids with money, no real problems, and plenty of spare time on their hands. Who best to speak for that demographic than other white people who also like to show off their counter-culture styles by wearing cool t-shirts, and playing music that only white people can relate to? Is it any wonder that most albums are produced by white males and listened to by other white males?

        But I lost myself there before getting to the idea of reviews. If a person has a natural tendency toward a certain kind of sound, or a certain mixture of band-name recognition, style, etc., then I’d say it follows that they are best suited to reviewing music within their comfort zone. Break away, and that person is no longer qualified. For example, are you (Fred) qualified to review a country album or reggae album within the context of that musical field? Answer: No! You could review it based on whether or not YOU liked it, but why should anyone listen to you if you have no expertise? Only an expert (or someone who in some sense is qualified) should be writing actual reviews of music. So. We have a genre dominated by white male musicians. I’m guessing that most reviewers are of the same demographic, and thus the entire system perpetuates. If more female reviews existed, or more male reviewers leaned more toward a love for female-fronted bands, maybe there would be more exposure. It’s almost as if there is no room for mobility – once you start reviewing a certain genre, you get kind of stuck.

        But maybe your second point is more important. Maybe it’s the artists themselves that really don’t exist to be represented. In other words, maybe that style of music simply doesn’t speak to very many female musicians, and so they lean toward what they like and what they listen to. It could be a matter of chicken and egg. If there were more female indie rockers, there would be more indie rock music for female musicians to relate to, play, emulate, etc. Without it, there is less to relate to, less to mimic, and less to evolve. So they move into the music space that has established female leads, and they begin to play that style of music.

        Agree?

  2. Agree? Mostly.

    You mention that indie rock is made for middle class white people. No argument here. There was, however, a huge internet argument about that very subject when Sasha Frere Jones (the New Yorker pop music critic) wrote a piece (“A Paler Shade of White“) criticizing indie music for not being “black” enough — in other words, for being too white. Here’s his take on Arcade Fire:

    “As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music”

    Anyway, that’s sort of irrelevant but sort of interesting too, although I generally disagree with Sasha in that I don’t really believe that just because he desires more African-American style in Arcade Fire’s music justifies arguing that AF needs it.

    More importantly, I am trying to hone in on the logic that lets one jump from a white middle class audience for indie music to white middle class males dominating the scene. I don’t see why the equation prohibits white middle class women from producing and consuming indie music for themselves. White males for white males; white females for white females — except where are all the girls?

    “We have a genre dominated by white male musicians. I’m guessing that most reviewers are of the same demographic, and thus the entire system perpetuates.”

    This could be the start of an answer. Perhaps indie started with males and therefore never really let females in to begin with? And since the most knowledgeable reviewers will also be male since they are most attracted to masculine music anyway, the ‘entire system perpetuates.’

    We’ve got to compare the relatively popular niche of indie music to the established barometer of pop music. As indie music becomes increasingly mainstream (see: commercials everywhere) should we expect to see a corresponding rise in the number of girl-centric bands? Women seem to have a pretty good hold on the Hot 100 — and these numbers of course aren’t determined by genre but by sales, which means the best selling pop music is attractive, at least somewhat, to both sexes since it must appeal to a wide demographic to qualify as “pop” music.

    In the end, if you’re right and indie actually is manly, so much so that it drives women to other genres, what about indie is masculine? It’s bookish, non-aggressive, fashionable, liberal, and so on; it’s the stuff white people like. But not white women? Not enough of them? What scared them off? Pavement? Neutral Milk Hotel? My guess? Pretty Girls Make Graves.

  3. AbeForLife

    Good point. I did make the argument that it’s a white, middle-class music scene, which really doesn’t address the lack of females. As you said, there are women out there that are both white and middle-class (surprising, no?) so there ought to be some representation. The only way to figure out the answer to this question is to look at where all these women end up. Are they all in pop? Folk? They must be somewhere. As an expert of indie rock, I assume that you’ve looked at this genre and found nothing. So we’ll have to look outside of this genre to get some sense of this exodus.

    AH! But I love that you brought up that person Sasha Frere Jones! That proved my earlier point way more succinctly. This reviewer wants Arcade Fire to have more African-American rooted sound. Why? I’m guessing because that’s what this journalist likes to hear. Why else would you complain that a band doesn’t sound like a completely different genre? Man, I really wish the Beatles would throw in some hip-hop to, you know, flesh out their sound. How much more egocentric can you get than to say that a band should add the sounds that YOU prefer. Wouldn’t that make bands sound too similar? Should all bands branch out to incorporate every genre and sound to reach the broadest audience possible? It seems like that would just water down their sound and make them more easily forgettable.

    Well, I’m not sure how much more I can contribute to this argument without some research. Everything I’ve said is pure conjecture, and if I kept going I’d just be saying more things that I can’t back up. I’m glad you’re thinking about this topic. Hopefully someone else will come weigh in on the ideas here and bring in a fresh perspective.

  4. Pingback: Another interesting tidbit: No female hip-hop artists @ AMAs « FredFu

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