Music’s slow lane for women

The feminist literary critic Lillian Robinson has argued that the mere questioning of received cultural tradition on behalf of women will tend to result in accusations of relativism and the politicisation of aesthetics. Yet in many areas of the arts, a widespread ignorance of women as leaders and visionaries persists. For instance, despite a significant percentage of composers now being female, classical music continues to subsist almost exclusively as an environment in which to worship the genius of long-dead white males. Likewise, the history of the Academy Awards shows that over almost a century the supposedly greatest films – as identified by the Best Picture and Best Director prizes – have, apart from rare exceptions, been made by men.

In contemporary music, the fringe existence of women is no less striking. In a 2006 study in the journal Popular Music, authors Ralf von Appen and André Doehring conclusively proved the ongoing exclusion of female artists from the rock canon, the foremost gauge of modern-day musical prestige. Musical veneration is also inevitably a nostalgic endeavour, making it easier to ignore how central women have been to creative developments in more recent decades.

The advent of punk provides a good starting point in examining this history. Names like the Sex Pistols and Ramones are legion in the annals of rock music. However, contemporaneous all girl bands such as the Raincoats and Kleenex/Lilliput are today virtually unknown. Despite being critically lauded, the catalogues of these post-punk progenitors are in disrepair, their histories largely untold.

Into the 1980s, the role of women became even more striking in the boy’s-own world of rock. Many notable bands of the era, such as My Bloody Valentine in the UK and Sonic Youth in the US, had a core female presence. So did a number of exceptional Australian groups, including the Go-Betweens, Triffids, Moodists, Hummingbirds and Not Drowning Waving.

By the 1990s, rock had splintered into a wide array of subgenres, meeting art music halfway in what can now be more broadly termed contemporary music. Since then, though the importance of women as instigators of exciting new sounds has burgeoned, their cultural relevance has certainly not evolved on equal terms. Whatever the value of their sonic productions, the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Beyoncé have achieved musical fame chiefly as sexualised commodities, their success largely forged through alignment with patriarchal marketing forces. The quite distinct narrative of permanent musical greatness – epitomised over the past three decades by the incessant reiteration of the rock canon – continues only to elide music made by women.

For example, when Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill emerged in the US in the early 1990s, their impact was judged comparable to that of fellow Washington state residents Nirvana. Nonetheless, the wide-ranging legacy of these punk-feminist darlings pales in comparison to their male peers, despite The New Yorker recently describing Hanna as ‘one of America’s greatest living rock performers’.

Soon after, another Olympia, Washington trio, Sleater Kinney, were being hailed by prominent rock writer Greil Marcus, who called their Corin Tucker ‘the most interesting singer in the United States’. Around the same time, Louisiana’s Lucinda Williams also arrived at the vanguard of the merging rock and country styles, with journalist-critic Robert Christgau terming her ‘the most accomplished record maker of the age’. Neither, however, has since developed more than a cult following in comparison to their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey out of Dorset in the UK may well have emerged in the 1990s as the most exciting new musician on the planet (the Rolling Stone Album Guide later acknowledging that she made several ‘world class’ albums during the period). Unfortunately, Harvey has since had to make do with the title ‘the sexiest woman in rock’, bestowed upon her by a male observer.

These and other innovators were marginalised because the focus of the music press remained very much upon male-centred ‘scenes’ such as grunge and Britpop, creating what Guardian writer Charlotte Richardson Andrews rightly calls a ‘slow lane for women’. The acknowledged great bands that evolved out of the era were instead all male: the Stone Roses, Oasis, Nirvana, the Strokes, Radiohead and (God help us all) Coldplay.

Into the 2000s, the number of female musicians making important new rock-inflected music has only multiplied. Examples include: the unique rock experimentations of UK band Electrelane and US harpist/vocalist Joanna Newsom; alt-rock bands with a crucial female presence such as Wussy, Low, Yo La Tengo and Imperial Teen (US), Black Box Recorder, the Delgados and Belle & Sebastian (UK), the Knife (Sweden) and Bettie Serveert (Netherlands); the new folk of Marissa Nalder and Christina Carter, the ‘anti-folk’ of Kimya Dawson and the pop-rap melange of the British-Sri Lankan Mathangi Arulpragasam (MIA).

In addition, towards the avant-garde end of the contemporary music spectrum artists like Liz Harris (Grouper), Rachel Evans (Motion Sickness of Time Travel), Marcia Bassett and Hildur Guonadóttir are constructing stunning drone-scapes that rank amongst the finest in that expanding style. Major post-rock groups such as Canada’s Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor rely upon essential female input. The list truly is endless: these and countless other examples confirm by sheer weight of numbers that women are at the forefront of new twenty-first century music.

Yet the marginalisation of women in narratives of musical greatness lingers, in Australia as elsewhere. In a 2009 Meanjin essay, Catherine Strong showed – via the example of Triple J Hottest 100 poll – how music audiences too have come to marginalise not just women but anyone not playing guitar-centred, Anglo-American ‘classic’ rock. All of this surely comes down to a circular arrangement whereby aesthetic evaluations reflect the wider conservative social reality of white men holding most of the positions of cultural power.

As long as discrimination stays embedded in the basic social fabric women will remain peripheral to discussions of greatness, in music as in many other fields of cultural endeavour. The truths of inequality generally and the absence of women from cultural accounts of greatness and authenticity are undeniable and, as Marlow, the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, says of colonialism, ‘not a pretty thing when you look into it too much’.

Dean Biron

Dean Biron holds a PhD from the University of New England and teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology.

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Suzie Gibson

Dr Suzie Gibson is a Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University. She has published widely in distinguished national and international journals that cover the fields of literature, philosophy film and television. Her research is informed by her knowledge of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century literature, continental philosophy and feminism. She is a regular contributor to a number of online and offline publications including both peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed publications such as Screen Education, The Queensland Review, The Conversation, Performing ArtsHub and Overland Literary Journal. She has also written a number of important book chapters on popular culture figures, including James Bond and Batman in order to explain complex philosophical concepts through these iconic characters. Trained in literary and critical theory, she has published extensively on a variety of textual forms, including traditional and experimental literature and philosophy.

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  1. While I agree with your conclusions I think the article is a kind of grab-bag of overgeneralisation and cant.

    For example, you state that “classical music continues to subsist almost exclusively as an environment in which to worship the genius of long-dead white males.”

    I can see no evidence for this in your article, and it is a statement which is full of hatred for art. It is resentful. I listen to Mozart, for example, (especially symphony 36, my favourite) because i get immense pleasure, happiness and spiritual feeling from the music, not because I am ‘worshipping’ a DWM. I have no idea who Mozart was personally, as a man. All i know is the music he wrote and the way it’s performed by both men and women, and in which i take sheer joy.

    The implication of your statements are that if a white male should listen to Mozart he should not get pleasure or interest out of the music, that he should in fact not listen to it at all, which is a curb on his freedom, and should consider it over and done with. What music would you then like to replace it? The suggestions you offer? Fine. But that is itself narrowing the world, the world of music, too, isn’t it? You’re effectively saying, lets forget about every cultural expression of music from DWMs, say, before the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and start anew with an emphasis on and a predominance of music written and performed by women. There’s a kind of a totalitarian implication, in your arguments, if you ask me.

    Also you give the example of Triple J Hottest 100 poll and state that music audiences too have come to marginalise women. But surely the poll interviewed women as well? Can you give details of the survey, please, in order to show how it evidences a marginalisation of women in society as a whole? (as if Triple J was ever representative of anything but youth culture, which was once ‘alternative’ and is now quite mainstream. But that’s another issue)

    Lastly, where exactly are the positions of cultural power in Australia? If we’re talking about literary power centres, well, they are in places such as Overland, as well as Griffith Review, Meanjin, etc. And all these are certainly not underrepresenting women. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    1. Well, let’s face it. Articles like this one are a dime a dozen, and the literary/cultural magazines in Australia, the so-called literary power-centres of Overland, et al., lap them up. They love them! Can’t get enough of them! Yet articles like this one here are in fact way too easy and overly formulaic. Actually, the formula runs something like this. Start with someone relatively young and who has studied (or is studying) at university and whose knowledge of the world has come out of cultural/literary/film theory as well as from the university Professors, the Academics, the Great Knowers. Next, take your topic, namely the marginalisation and hard times of contemporary women. Then add your chosen cultural field — music, literature — and stir it all up together. VOILA! There you have it, an article ready made for one of this country’s illustrious literary power-centres.

    2. Thank you for your comment. Access any of the many available polls or lists of the “100 greatest pieces of classical music” etc etc. and the complete primacy of male composers will be obvious. Otherwise, one can only highlight again the opening statement taken from Lillian Robinson, made many years ago but still entirely relevant as your arguments and those of the responder below make very clear. The “implications” you somehow come up with constitute a severe narrowing, when our article is quite simply arguing for a broadening of purview.

  2. It’s a pity these comments are from women who seem to be championing those who are for obvious reasons not in need of support. The fact that women make up the majority of most disadvantaged and poverty stricken in the world clearly has not been considered. Addressing the gender imbalance in the rock canon is just a glimpse into the kind of real inequalities that women face everyday across the globe.

    It’s great to be able to listen to Mozart and enjoy it. I don’t recall claiming that it’s a crime to do so. And what’s more if ‘articles like these are a ‘dime a dozen’ then please provide evidence of this assertion. Moreover if they are so everyday, why has not the male dominated culture around rock music changed?

  3. Thanks for this. I just don’t understand how an awareness of gender and race and exclusion is evidence of a hatred for art, as a comment seems to suggest. No one is saying that Mozart and Mozart lovers deserve to be dragged down to hell by some female Commendatore.

    Must try and chase up some of the music you mention in the article. It made me feel profoundly ignorant, which is a good thing, and I won’t just blame that on the market. It’s easy for (some of) us to slip into complacency.

    I am hearing the statement that aesthetic judgements in literature need to be ‘free’ of gender and race considerations much more than a few years ago, to go all anecdotal. Last time I heard this was from a woman involved in an independent publishing house.

    1. Really like your comments here Penelope. It is a bit of a worry to ignore how much race and gender impacts upon our perceptions and judgments, as if there exists some ideal realm where there is no prejudice. Don’t feel ignorant. There’s so much to read and to listen to in the world that one has to impose some kind of limit in order to enjoy music and aesthetic forms in general Thanks again for your thoughtful words.

      1. If, as you state (or imply) Suzie, that there is no realm in which there is no prejudice, then please let me ask, What are the prejudices of Overland, and of this article and its authors?

          1. I should think you know more than me. You wrote the article and are talking about prejudice. My question is valid and a philosophical one. All i am doing is bringing attention to your statement and the implications in it which you are not aware of or are unwilling to consider. If you write, as you have, that that there is no realm in which there is no prejudice, then surely you have to stand by that statement. My question is only the logical consequence of your own words. That’s all. It seems to me that you’re unwilling to truly consider the implications of what you write. That’s too bad.

          2. Well I think from your response Telford that you’ve just enacted a form of prejudice. If you think that one’s gender, race or class has no bearing on how people are treated then you must live in an ideal world. The fact that their are EEO principles in the workplace recognises that not all of us are treated equally. Perhaps one of the shortfalls of social media is that it enables all sorts of people to rant—including cranks.

          3. Re: Suzie Gibson on 2 December 2014 at 5.05 pm

            You have me wrong and you do not seem to be reading my posts properly. Why are you reacting as if I do not think that one’s gender, race or class has no bearing on how people are treated?. I do. I’m a homosexual man, i think I know something about it. I have prejudices of my mine. Sure. Here’s one. I believe the so-called ideological critiques and so-called radicalism that comes out of English departments in this country are a form of luxury not sufficiently recognised. See, I do not live in an ideal world. I’m a flawed person and would like to be better. i think English departments are flawed and could do better. See. I don’t live in an ideal world. The question I addressed to you asks you to examine the statements you make and for you to ask yourself what prejudices your writing might contain. You have not done that. It’s you who are living in an ideal world, dear. My question is not a rant. It is a legitimate opening up of philosophical discussion, one which you appear incapable of engaging with. And you’re a university lecturer. My God! You just people to agree with all the time. So undemocratic!

    2. Thanks for that, Penelope. Of course as writers of the piece we lean towards musical examples that we also enjoy, however the point of the argument is that these and others are all relatively anonymous for no discernible aesthetic reason (so surely the suspicion eventually must arise that it is their femininity holding them back). We have tried to bring in a wide range of examples, while emphasising the ongoing disintegration of traditional genres – if you were like us interested in the hinterland between rock and classical, then I would very much recommend Hildur Guonadóttir as worth chasing up!

  4. I’ve followed the posts, and quite frankly, i think the statement that “classical music continues to subsist almost exclusively as an environment in which to worship the genius of long-dead white males,” does actually appear to be a comprehensive write-off of classical music. It equates the subsistence of classical music (i.e, the listening to it, attending the concerts, the patronage, etc) as a WORSHIPPING of DWM. There seems to be little space outside of this rather condemnatory statement. In fact, I think quite a lot of people, men and women alike, especially in the classical music community and general listeners of the music as well, would be right to feel quite insulted by it. And by saying this I’m not arguing against female inequality. As a woman and a person I’m all for it and would wholeheartedly praise your intentions, it’s just that, well, writing about it like this is perhaps not the way to go about it. In this sense, I agree with Prezzikerr above. Ouch!

    1. Classical Music is an easy target the majority of it being written when women were actively barred from producing or playing it. However, Opera offered talented women a chance to earn an independent income. They could be powerful enough to have works written specifically for them. Even today women opera singers are judged first on their talent and vocal abilities meaning that most have bodies and ages that resemble the rest of us. When Anna Netrebko gained weight after the birth of her son, she was back onstage and doing publicity still carrying her baby weight, a thing unheard of in the pop culture world.
      Do we wish that more women wrote classical music? Of course we do. Does attacking the composers who make up the bulk of the Classical musical tradition for being men who enjoyed the privilege of their age help? No, it only attacks a whole genre of music and makes finding and sustaining an audience for those women writing “Classical” music all the harder.

      1. Thanks you for your interesting comment.

        “Does attacking the composers who make up the bulk of the classical musical tradition for being men who enjoyed the privilege of their age help?”

        Well, I would have to question exactly where such an attack is in the piece?

        “Classical Music is an easy target the majority of it being written when women were actively barred from producing or playing it.”

        That seems far more to the point to me – “finding and sustaining an audience for those women writing ‘classical’ music” is surely made harder (if not impossible) by that kind of attitude?

        It is also instructive, I think, how people capitalise “Classical” and “Opera” while everything else gets cordoned off into a (lower case) “pop culture world.”

        Terms like “classical music tradition” or “classical music community” create fortresses using words as bricks and mortar … you are either in or out, which is the starting point for the kinds of problems which our article attempts to address.

  5. I think the “space” for discussion is well developed by a piece such as this:

    We do not mean to write off classical music per se but do question the ongoing worship of a nostalgic male-centred canon, which as we show is exactly the same thing that happens in rock, and jazz too for that matter. Someone would probably object to such ideas more if they position themselves as part of a “classical music community”, but there is also a new world out there where classical, rock, jazz etc. have broken off into a huge array of interconnected tributaries … that, we would respectfully argue, is where the most exciting stuff (including by women) is happening now.

  6. Yes, the omissions of women and female and their silences are legion throughout His-story as opposed to Her-story. Where are the philosophers, physicians and physicists, let alone musicians? Can’t say much more really than question the musical gaps, and add:

    PJ Harvey – best muso, performer I’ve ever witnessed

    Kim Deal – most revolutionary bassist – ever

    Courtney Barnett – best couldn’t give a damn but suck it in and see (and blow it out again) popunkist, evah

  7. Since it’s relevant to the topic, I should first say that I’m a 55-year-old white heterosexual male who since the 1960s has listened to classical music, and from the early 1970s to rock music – and while my tastes in popular music have broadened a lot from what they were in my twenties, at their core is still electric-guitar-based rock music.

    Which puts me squarely in the rock music “canon” audience catered to by such magazines as Mojo, Uncut and Classic Rock. Those magazines feature almost exclusively male bands and performers in their cover stories – mainly, those rock bands and performers who were big in the 60s and 70s – with a much smaller number of female performers from that era, such as Kate Bush, also featuring.

    My pop/rock music “likes” were formed in the 1970s – metal, progressive rock, punk, funk, disco, and the sui generis Abba – and for a long time I listened almost solely to the performers of that era. In the last 10 years, thanks to YouTube, I have taken to seeking out newer performers in the genres I enjoy, and I’ve found that many of the newer performers I most enjoy are bands made up or fronted by women – just a few examples being Kylesa and Arch Enemy (metal); Wild Flag and Ex Hex (punk/power-pop); Warpaint and St Vincent (alternative rock, insofar as that term means anything).

    I’ve also gone back to all-female bands whom I clearly remember refusing to listen to in my NME-reading and clearly more sexist twenties – bands such as the Runaways and the Slits – and discovering that I enjoy their music much.

    The point of all this is to ask: Is the “rock canon” immutable, ruled forever by Beatles and Stones and Clash and Pistols and other exemplars of testosterone, or is it a product of an ageing generation of male critics and consumers? If we ask this question in twenty years’ time, will the commercially and critically successful female performers of today be regarded as accepted members of the “pantheon”, or will the “pantheon” have vanished, exposed as the consequence of a specific era of consumer capitalism?

    To put it another way – by any commercial measure, and increasingly in terms of critical acclaim, Taylor Swift is headed straight for that pantheon. Will she be there in twenty years? Personally, I think so.

    Finally, I think there are a couple of ways in which your argument is trapped by its own assumptions. First, you appear to assume that approval from *male* rock critics is required for entry into the “rock canon” – as per your Sleater-Kinney and Lucinda Williams examples. If a band was championed strongly by the great rock critic Ellen Willis, would that help or hinder their canonical status?

    Second, to dismiss Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Beyoncé because “their success [is] largely forged through alignment with patriarchal marketing forces” is surely to apply a double standard, in which male performers’ accommodations with those same patriarchal marketing forces are regarded as acceptable and ‘normal’, whereas women must not only jump through the same hoops as their male counterparts, but must successfully refuse to make those accommodations, to have a chance of entering the “rock canon”.

    1. That’s a very interesting history, Tim … and you are the second person to recommend Ex Hex to me in the last couple of days so I must chase that up.

      “You appear to assume that approval from ‘male’ rock critics is required for entry into the “rock canon” … no, we are just providing evidence that these under-appreciated musicians have at least at some level found critical favour. We did not set the standard that canonical approval must come from men (it almost always does) … we are just examining the situation.

      Further, I do not think it is a “dismissal” of Madonna et al. to address the (different) manner in which they have come to prominence. I would not totally dismiss your double standard argument as it is a fraught area, but it seems hard to doubt that marketability and beauty impact upon the possibility of a woman achieving fame, whereas being authorised culturally as a “great” musician is a different story, with women having been largely excluded from that debate altogether. There are many more females in the pop charts than there are females in the rock csnon.

      The recent history of music is also the history of an entirely false opposition between largely outmoded classical and popular music metagenres. I like to read stuff that helps show how pointless that opposition is in the 21st century, so as such your comments are very welcome.

  8. “Classical Music” has been invoked a bit here, and I wonder what exactly is meant by the term? And where, on which side of the gender divide, do all those ‘Operatic’ and ‘Classical Music” divas sit, I wonder as well, and why? Remembering all along that regardless of musical genre, it is a capitalist mode of production which is turning male and female forces into commodities (gold) and anti-commodities (shit), and reversing that same process when it suits market forces. That’s where the real battle, musical or otherwise, lies.

    1. Good points! You are spot on about the capitalist machine. Commercial success is about being a commodity. It is a battle that will never be won as capitalism trumps everything. This is why I think it’s important to try to look beyond the hype and the famous names as they are caught up in the same commercial logic that elides some really good music being made. Thanks for your contribution.

    2. “Classical music” can evoke a certain style but even more so it evokes a strict opposition with “other” music, usually dismissed (implicitly or otherwise) as of inherently less aesthetic value. I think the most interesting question is what is left outside of the marketplace meta-genres classical and popular.

      Where does improvised music fit? What about field recordings? Indian music? Oum Kalsoum? The Master Musicians of Jajouka? Again, the list of transgressions is endless.

  9. Right, and right again.

    Post-industrial and industrial music is interesting too because it questions the becoming of noise (what music is and isn’t for us in terms of production and reception forces). As Mick Fleetwood puts it, in “Play On”: “I’ve got all this money because I can hit things with two bits of wood.”

    Talk about poets in an age of High High capitalism – his description of one song as “an ode to masturbation” pretty well sums it up.

    Sometimes there isn’t enough vomit to go around.

  10. I’m surprised that Kate Bush isn’t mentioned in this essay or any of the comments. She may not be rock, but she’s among the most revered and influential of British musicians.

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