All the Single Ladies: Music, Gender and the Fight to Write

Mark Donne

Adele 225x300 All the Single Ladies: Music, Gender and the Fight to Write


“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag” – Patti Smith

The most masculine Jack White – imposing and possessive – has launched a solo career, but the concepts he is famed for are still live. The most visible of his new creative regulations is the assembly of gender-specific bands. Positive discrimination? In Jack’s own words:

“It’s still a novelty for a lot of people to even see a girl play a guitar or drums. To shatter those preconceptions in 2012 is on the one hand ridiculous that that’s still possible, and on the other hand a great thing to make people think about what’s going on in the room.”

Outwardly there’s never been a better time to be a female musical artist. Adele, PJ Harvey, Florence, Jessie J and others command vast audiences and remuneration. But layers of gender specific conditionality are still applied.

A gulf exists, for example, between female artists as performers – with scope for image exploitation, and creative interference – and female song writers, where control can be exercised and more money made for the artist.

Kate Nash has offered song-writing classes to young female musicians: “A lot of women in pop aren’t writing their own songs and there is this preconception that women are meant mainly as performers. […] A lot of people still ask me whether I write my own material, as if women are not capable of doing it.”

What follows is a sample of views from young, emergent female musicians who write their own material and to varying degrees, contest the rules of the game.

Louise Distras is a singer-songwriter about to release a debut record:

“This morning, I received two emails from two men on different levels of the music industry. One from a promoter that considered telling me he wanted to have sex with me a higher priority than actually confirming a gig date and a second from a well-known record producer who suggested I ‘form a band/ join a band of ugly guys who can play’ to make myself look better.”

Rose Elinor Dougall’s debut record was received last year with unanimity of high critical acclaim. Starting out in girl group The Pipettes, she has also written and performed as part of Mark Ronson’s Business International:

“To be a successful female artist, one has had to belong to a specific archetype, whether that be the overtly sexual pop star, the ethereal songstress, the riot girl feminist etc, to justify ones place within the eyes of A&R men, and journalists. There are some brilliant female artists that fall in to those categories, but I find it frustrating that it is not enough to just exist naturally the way men can.”

Popular music has always had a preoccupation with image, but how much of that preoccupation is disproportionately weighed towards women?

Rose Elinor Dougall: “There is no escaping the fact that women musicians are judged on their aesthetic so much more than men. I really try not to think about it too much anymore, as it can take away too much focus from the music, and it’s pretty boring thinking about what you look like after a while.”

And a more unpleasant insight:

“Towards the end of my time in The Pipettes, we had just licensed our record to Interscope, and were having it re-packaged for a global release. We came up with a concept, did the photo shoot, and had approval on everything. When we were handed the finished article, on closer inspection I realised that since we had last seen the photo, someone, without our knowledge, had photo-shopped our arms and legs to make us appear thinner […]

“The fact that someone had done this secretly, deeming us too fat to appear on the front of our own record, made me so furious. That was one of the factors that led me to leaving the band.”

Appearance-focused scrutiny seems endemic. Unnaturally thin or near soft porn are the leitmotif models presented to young women, and a regularly spent currency to the industrial architects of it. The music video is the most graphic example of discord between inherent sexual intimation or gesture and coldly manipulated, PR-stipulated smut.

Louise Distras: “Media tells young girls their validity lies in attracting male attention, in being sexy and submissive, and that they have to conform to fads, fashion and unrealistic expectations”.

Rose Elinor Dougall: “I think that there are cases when it can be incredibly creative and empowering for women to explore their sexuality through music videos. I just resent it when it becomes solely about the objectification of women and purely for the male gaze”

And Tor Cesay, a hip-hop artist with a debut album pending:

“I don’t think they should be on TV at all, let alone have age restrictions.  I personally believe that music influences behaviour. I don’t support any of it within TV, Film or Music.”

David Cameron is keen to affect cultural change to sexually explicit video trends by introducing an age certificate system similar to that used in film distribution.

Ineffective in isolation says Louise Distras: “Simply placing an age restriction on videos is not necessarily the right way to go when you consider the way female characters are portrayed on TV, films and the media in the first instance – stereotypes whose power lies in youth, beauty and sexuality and hardly ever in a capacity as someone who thinks independently.”

Rose ElinorDougall is emphatic: “Personally i am strongly against David Cameron having any input or control whatsoever with regard to placing restrictions on aspects of our culture.”

Finally, within a creative industry apparently still riven with sexism, have any of the three experienced solidarity or a feminist community, however tacit?

Tor Cesay: “When you are a female MC, you are automatically compared to every girl that has ever touched a mic, and I think that’s because there are less of us. People always want to hear your opinion on other female MCs. […] But it depends on who the artists are, some are supportive, some aren’t.  Female DJs are very supportive, people like Kayper, Fearny, Mary Anne Hobbs, Sarah Love etc. Let’s hope it keeps growing.”

Rose Elinor Dougall: “It’s our duty as women within this difficult industry to be as sisterly as possible, or else nothing will ever progress or develop in our favour. I know that there are communities out there for female musicians, but I have yet to come across one unfortunately. I am quite obsessed with this all female 4 piece called Savages at the moment, and have considered just following them around in a psycho fan way. Maybe they will let me in their gang and we can start one?”

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  • Kadrick

    The sentence I wrote straight after the sentence you highlighted answers the question you asked. 

    Is the article being specific about who the “victim” is? Or are they extracting their assertion of averages? That you’d even open that line smacks of obfuscation. Obviously not all women are susceptible to the general equation of the most successful model of media culture that is providing for them. The same as it is for men, however, the mechanisms they prey upon are a byproduct of gender imperatives. The symbiotic evolution of traits. In this frame-work, women participate in the heavy emphasis on their visual appeal. Like any other emphasis, it is a double-edged sword. It’s commonplace for women to wield the weapon of looks for their own gain. When there is an emphasis upon looks detracting from what they perceive to be their credibility, the blame is laid squarely upon men. Try a little naval gazing within the ranks of your own gender while you’re at it.

    That’s positing the idea that the claims of the article are fully validated, anyway. I dispute that they are. Or at least, the interpretation of what it all signifies.

    Bjork is a alien/child/kooky/pixie? According to whom? I’ve always revered and endorsed her on the basis of merits as a *creative artist*. This isn’t meant to be incendiary, but it is true in my experience- You know who most typically turns their noses up and applies some reductive label with derogatory intent? Correct! Women.

    What is it about Bjork you think attracts these labels? Her gender? Or her conduct? Lady Gaga wears the same paint. But why? It’s nothing more than the wages of being unusual. Want to run the gamut of things David Bowie has been called? Beginning with the “space” list? Jimi Hendrix has been plastered with all manner of wacky descriptions. Do you actually think Bjork had more to contend with, than her country-mate Jonsi from Sigur Ros? Should I continue or is this point defrosting? Marilyn Manson? Frank Zappa? You know how much crap how many male artists have put up with in pursuit of creative freedom? Alien/child/kooky/pixie are hardly concerning and certain not indicative of a gender issue.

    Louise Distras even mentioned being propositioned. And? This anecdote is demonstrable of what kind of exception to things that transpire ordinarily between humans? The only thing it proves is that her representative is straight and horny. Most music representatives are male (I guess that’s our fault, too). And most of those males are straight. It’s an inevitable statistic that more females are going to be propositioned under these circumstances.

    Ultimately, you sound as though you endorse a culture of integrity ascending in art. Guess what! That puts us on the same team. If you’re a woman and you’re an artist, you’d do yourself a far bigger favor by not polarizing the genders, but helping to align them to declare a culture war on mediocrity at large. Neither gender is unique in contending with the omnipotence of the machine that nurtures the vapid and disposable.

    Or you could carry on like someone else on here brandishing terms they’ve rendered essentially feeble: MISOGYNIST! Translation of her charge: Does not agree with my sweeping assertions of female victimology. In my view, many female artists do themselves a disservice by initially casting themselves against a male aesthetic. The many female artists I’m most fond of don’t get off the ground casting themselves against anything. The are founded upon themselves. An illustration of what I mean by this can be found in the words I’ve seen on trucks. “Mine, not his”. By invoking a male in this, she’s insecurely imposed this mindset on herself, instead of possessing her chariot under her own esteem.

    “How does this participation manifest itself”? You’re either naive, daft, or pretending to be one of the two. Let’s zero in on even a basic example. Read any good magazines lately? The culture that women are confronted with with is bemoaned ad nauseum. But how do these sources make money? By gum! Somebody buys them! You can be assured that penises are near non-existent next to the wallets that are cracked to fund these appearance-preoccupied enterprises.

    “Who has the power and control in the dynamic”? It’s largely a matter of what people collectively and individually realize. When women spend a fortune on their appearance, they aren’t as naive as you might be, about who they intend to exercise power and control over. Appearance is one of the key ways women perceive that it is achieved; Especially over men.

  • Kadrick

    Considering the amount of disposable income that is being funneled from screeching teenaged girls, into the pockets of One Direction’s representatives, what would you consider the ethic that is directed at young males to be?

    Perish the thought that impressionable young guys may take note of the adulation pouring forth. Or does the impact on them count for niente? You do actually realize that young males do actually desire to curry the affection of young females, right?

    Where the accusation of “sexism” becomes a regular fallacy, is it’s coupling with the inference that the opposing side of the dichotomy contend with nothing, or nothing comparable.

    “The whole idea that anyone should even have to consider the notion that
    they should be something other than themselves and live by someone elses
    superficial expectations makes me feel smothered and sick.”

    Reasonable statement. So… You’re saying only girls contend with this then?

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been advised that I have to [consider what people want to listen to/make something commercially appealing/keep it simple. People like simple] or some of variation of “subordinate” yourself to something other than what you’re compelled to express.

    The idea that the authentic expression will be a harder road than that which is manufactured on the basis of market appeal is another inevitability. Irrespective of however many nefarious specters seek to milk it, it will be both a truth; And a truth that they seek to propagate rather than overcome.

    They want reliable streams of revenue, and an undemanding audience is reliable. Penises and vaginas do not enter this equation.

    PS. It’s amusing to see that you’ve thought your Reply hadn’t posted so you’ve attempted to replicate it’s contents. An impressive job you’ve done and all!

  • Kadrick

    To even begin to address what you’ve stated, you’d have to be more specific about the “acts” themselves. I won’t take it on your word that some “fantastic” female act was refused participation when “fantastic” might be debatable.

    Those barely-dressed pop-stars are raking the dosh. Guess who most of their takers are- Yep, the same gender as those I’ve mostly known to mock Bjork. While I agree that this is a valid conversation, I don’t agree with the direction it usually heads.

    If women feel strongly about how asinine the creative culture directed at them is, this is a conversation they need to own, and also have among themselves. I regularly engage in this conversation to the extent that it probably alienates some people. And the manner of my endorsement is in the best interests of creative males AND females, because it is BOTH who are affected by the prominence of asinine culture.

    If you’re so involved and dedicated, what’s stopping you from organizing a female festival? Something for female artists and bands that are mostly female? I’m not especially into gimmicks that are based upon demographies, but if you’re that convinced of the lack of favor, this would certainly surmount any such charges.

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