All the Single Ladies: Music, Gender and the Fight to Write
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?”
Tagged in: feminism, gender, girl bands, Kate Nash, Louise Distras, patti smith, Rose Elinor Dougall, Savages, Tor Cesay
Recent Posts on Arts
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter