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’.