There's A Huge Problem With The Way We Talk About Female Musicians
Once, there was a king of pop, but in today's music industry, there are plenty of queens in charge of the charts. Adele’s highly anticipated 25 shattered multiple records that were unimaginable for an artist today, selling 3.38 million copies in its first week in the U.S., according to Billboard (which gives her the largest sales week for an album in 15 years, since *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached in 2000). And as of Jan. of 2016 she’s surpassed 8 million copies, according to Nielsen Music. Yet no matter what success Adele reaches, her gender is always placed in the foreground. She, and other female artists, will continue to have their interviews, their stories and their voices framed by questions and feature angles that basically boil down to one perspective: what's it like to be a woman in the music industry, not an artist (sans gender implication) in the industry.
It's the sneaky little issue plaguing women in the music industry for years, but one that hasn't struck the general pop culture-loving population quite as forcefully as the lack of red carpet interviews that #AskHerMore and the backlash against the dreaded "Are Women Funny?" question took footholds among pop culture devotees. And as we head towards the 2016 Grammys — music's biggest and loudest night — there's no better time to finally shine a much larger light on the issue.
... [the question] comes from a place of ignorance and a failure to recognize women as more than just members of their gender, instead of as members of a larger community of musicians.
In a New York Times article from Nov. 27, 2015, on Adele's recent success, for example, the fact that the singer is a mother is immediately pointed out in the first graph, seemingly placing her in a specialized category, despite the fact that she dominates the industry:
While stars are now expected to live their lives in full self-promotion mode online, Adele barely touches her social media accounts. A 27-year-old mother who speaks with a working-class North London accent, she is revered by fans as much for her seeming approachability as for her vocal prowess. In interviews she speaks about being a full-figured woman in the image-obsessed entertainment industry, and about rejecting product endorsements to keep the focus on her music.
The article was later promoted by the following tweet from the Times:
Reducing Adele to a gendered role and presenting said role as an obstacle is something no male musician at her level has ever had to deal with. Has Kanye ever been described as just a 38-year-old-father? Male musicians who have fathered children, including Justin Timberlake, Dave Grohl, and Jay-Z, are almost never described as such; their musical abilities aren't propped up as near-miracles in the face of fatherhood. These men are referred by their names and their statuses as artist — not artists with an asterisk for their gendered role outside of the studio. Questions and observations about parenthood, work-life balance, and gender experiences coming in opposition to the artistic process seem to exclusively plague women in music.
Women are repeatedly asked to discuss these issues in order to legitimize their art, their successes, their ideas, and their general presence in the industry. And in many ways, they are still treated as odd people out in the industry — despite the astronomical success of chart topping pop stars from Beyoncé to Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift to Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj (this list could go on for days). In fact, the problem isn’t and hasn't been a lack of women in music; it’s the constant misplaced focus on their gender.
As Lady Gaga said in her acceptance speech for 2015's Woman Of The Year award at Billboard Women in Music awards in December, "...it is really hard sometimes for women in music. It’s like a f***in’ boys' club that we just can’t get into." Gaga claims that women have to work that much harder in order to get an ounce of the recognition that men are privileged with, and the real issue is that even when they do, their work can still go relatively unnoticed. As Björk explained in a 2015 Pitchfork interview, she spent three years producing 80 percent of the beats on her phenomenal album V ulnicura, yet she claimed that her male co-producer Arca received more credit in the media as the producer — something Arca was quick to correct on Twitter:
But despite the correction and support from her producing partner, Björk's situation exposed a larger, surreptitious trend in the industry: "Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times," she said in the same interview.
In their role as special cases within the industry, women are relentlessly asked variations of the question, “What is it like to be a woman in the music industry?” which is a question that basically begs women to defend their ranks in the industry. Other versions of the question can appear as "What is it like to be the only girl in the band?" or "What's it like to be a female rapper?" or "subtle" approaches that are wordier takes on the same theme:
Replace the word “music” with comedy, journalism, sports, acting, politics, or any other public field for that matter, and you have the most basic interview question that’s only given to women. It's something Samantha Bee parodied on the premiere of her new series, Full Frontal; the opening tag depicted a press conference in which Bee was asked what it was like to be a woman in comedy, how getting a show was different for her because she's a woman, and, hyperbolically, "Do you have a problem with your ovaries falling out?" In all major industries, men aren’t asked to describe their experiences as men in the industry because their experience is perceived as the norm, while women are the exception or the outsiders. The only problem is that, when it comes to the music industry, the fans at large haven't quite caught onto the conversation around attempting to changing that fact.
But it's not without women in the industry trying to get our attention. Earlier this month, Best Coast frontwoman (a word not recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, whose app suggests "frontman" and "French woman" instead when you search the term) Bethany Cosentino wrote a piece for Lena Dunham’s email newsletter Lenny Letter, discussing misogyny in the music business and her own experiences with sexist comments. From a concert reviewer who called her a "miserable b*tch" for not smiling on stage to being slut-shamed for supporting Planned Parenthood, she also pointed out that she, too, gets the infuriatingly gendered question:
I just want to be able to exist and make music without people asking me the question "So what is it like to be a girl in a band?" In reality, it's one of the best things in the world. But on a bad day, it can make me question if I chose the right career.
Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, spoke out against the question before as well, when she participated in a Funny or Die video this past summer about what questions musicians are tired of being asked. And in a 2012 conversation with tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus for Noisey, Clark expressed the issue very succinctly: "Every time someone asks 'what's it like to be a woman in music,' the only difference is that you get asked what it's like to be a woman in music." Preach, Annie.
Oh, but there's more.
Savages, a critically acclaimed, all-female London-based post-punk band, echoed similar sentiments in an interview for Broadly in February 2016. White Lung lead singer Mish Way led the interview and immediately brought attention to the stupidity of the question and how impossible it is to escape it, to which Savages' Jehnny Beth responded that "There's no right answer to it. And also, there's not a moment in my life where I'm asking myself that question." She took the absurdity a bit further by turning to her bandmate, Gemma Thompson, and asking her, "Gemma, what does it feel like to be a woman eating a sandwich?" And therein lies the absurdity: It's almost an impossible and ridiculous question to answer.
Furthermore, Chairlift's Caroline Polachek took her anger to a Reddit AMA in January 2016 (h/t Nylon ). A fan asked about Polachek's experiences with sexism and asked if she's tired of questions about being a woman in music:
I AM tired of talking about the experience of being a woman in the industry, and even more tired of people continually having that discussion as if that alone is going to change things. I hate it when Chairlift is on lists of "female musicians". But i hate it just as much when I'm put on lists of "female musicians" that are almost all vocalists. It's not productive.
Polachek makes an excellent point that the question alone won't change things, because for some, the question may appear to form a discussion about sexism in the industry. Charli XCX explores this gender-targeted question in a short BBC documentary called “The F Word and Me,” which was filmed during her 2015 summer tour. The 23-year-old British pop star and songwriter explores the meaning of “feminism” in music through interviews with artists such as Marina and Diamonds and Ryn Weaver, and through her own experiences, such as being shamed for her stage outfits:
I make my own decisions, good and bad, and to me, that's what feminism is all about.
Charli points out in the documentary that the question “What’s it like to be a woman in the music industry?” is annoying and complex, but, unlike the above artists, Charli claims the question is still necessary to ask. Although she’s right in the sense that a possible answer to the question — a woman’s experience of inequality — is a worthwhile topic and should be discussed, I can't agree with the notion that we continue to accept that question as the sole outlet for delving into that very important topic. While the intentions might not be wrong, the basis of the question is a misogynistic presumption that recognizes the artist as a woman, and nothing more.
And that's the real issue: Allowing inherent misogyny to pervade interviews with artists. In one scene in Charli's documentary, a male reporter actually asked Charli if she was wearing a bra, because, you know, that’s an important thing a professional musician should be asked while performing on a major world tour. It’s these questions and assumptions — ones that would only ever be lobbed at a female artist — that continue to undermine women's success in the industry.
But beyond damaging implications, the issue with this treatment isn't simply a matter of fairness; these sorts of questions feed into a much bigger issue, with more tangible consequences. Taking the discussion around this issue a step further, music critic, and now editorial director of music at MTV, Jessica Hopper created a Twitter storm back in August, 2015, when she tweeted:
Responses poured in about accounts of degrading experiences and sexual harassment. Admittedly, Hopper's question and the tired "what's it like" question appear to be the exact same thing at first glance. However, the truly important difference is intent. While Hopper’s clear intention was to start a conversation about inequality, the other often comes from a place of ignorance and a failure to recognize women as more than just members of their gender, instead of as members of a larger community of musicians. It places women in their own category instead of including them among the ranks of men.
With the Grammys placing the world's focus on the music industry, there's no time like the present to extend some of that #AskHerMore magic to the music industry. And the solution, in this case, is really rather simple: Just stop asking women to explain their gender and start asking questions about their work. Equality won’t come the day Kanye has to describe how he can juggle taking care of his children and managing his career, but when someone like Adele no longer has to.
Image: Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle