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Transcending The Cultural Amnesia of ‘Women-In-Music’

I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender,

but I’d like to. I’d like to see my own that way,

free from its female tethers. Maybe it would be like

riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,

but everyone looks at the horse.

-“Horse,” by Chase Twichell* 

*used with permission 

A while back Dazed published a brilliant piece by Emma Hope Allwood about the co-opting of feminist empowerment into a meaningless tool of commercial branding (“The word ’empowerment’ has literally lost all meaning”). From ‘girl power’ t-shirts made by girls in UK sweatshops to “empowering” activewear and protein powders, Allwood notes the consumeristic hypocrisy of how feminist consciousness manifests in mainstream culture. “When we’re sold the idea of power as a purely individual force rooted in buying stuff rather than a collective one with the potential to drive forward change,” Allwood writes, “all that results is a kind of tokenistic personal brand politics that doesn’t go much further than the square crops of our IG feeds.”

Indeed, such marketing ploys naturally tend to neuter the very power out of ’empowerment.’ Allwood muses that back in 2012 she never could have imagined this strange new future where feminism would be so popular that ’empowerment’ could even become a marketing slogan. But the truth is that the co-opting of feminism has a long history, one that operates in predictable patterns.

I actually first wrote this essay a few years ago, in 2015, while on a long layover at JFK airport. These were the pre-Trump days when race and gender politics were important, but nonetheless seen through a lens made a bit hazy by the hope-filled Obama glow. In writing, I was trying to capture my mixed feelings as I noticed a familiar tide coming in, with the topic of women-in-music popping up on the music culture radar with increasing frequency. Over that previous year, I’d seen interviews with women musicians detailing the sexism they endure in the industry, and even entire websites and magazines exclusively devoted to female artists (She Shreds, for women bassists and guitarists, Tom Tom Magazine for female drummers).

While in general I support the idea of women and girls being encouraged to find role models in the music industry, I also know that a few mentions of the ’empowering’ female rocker is all it takes to set off a media trend that ends up making a fool of feminism. As I saw more and more interviews about sexism and the music industry, I started to flash back to the late 90’s, when my young feminist brain was trying to make sense of how to proceed with proclaiming oneself a feminist with any integrity anymore now that the Spice Girls had taken over pop culture. Ani DiFranco and Sleater Kinney’s growls of power had suddenly become co-opted into a feminist-lite version of “Grrrl Power,” plastered all over girls’ backpacks and hair scrunchies. It was disheartening and altogether disempowering to see feminism rendered into easily digestible (and thus easily forgettable) pop culture phenomena. As Allwood discusses, whether this consumeristic reduction takes place in wellness brands or entertainment or even in politics itself, the central problem is the way in which a force that is supposed to be an agent of cultural change becomes subsumed into the larger capitalist status quo.

As I poked around the topic as a teenager, to my dismay I found that this exact same ‘women in music’ trend had in fact happened back in the 70’s, too. Gloria Gaynor and Helen Redding roared and survived and proclaimed their female independence up the charts, and the industry took notice, trying to repackage all the existing female singer-songwriters in the “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” branding. (Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Aretha Franklin were a few of the already well-established artists the industry tried to retrofit  into this new “women artist” packaging, each of whom, you might have noticed, has nonetheless circumnavigated around the “women artist” categorization enough to maintain their own artistic legend–but each did it with considerable longevity and persistence in the industry over a very long period of time.) After that rash of proto-feminist media attention in the 70’s, women artists didn’t “go” anywhere, but the industry returned to its centering of the male norm in all discussions of everything music.

In her 1992 book “She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock n’ Roll,” feminist historian Gillian G. Gaar noted that “women in music” trends in fact reappear with startling regularity, about every 15-20 years. She wrote her book as Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls the grist for the “female singer-songwriter” pop culture mill du jour, but a few years before the peak of the bigger “women’s movement in rock.” Though all of these are part of one loosely defined cultural period, the “She-Rock” peak came after the original Seattle Riot Grrls, but preceded the Spice Girls, who were its commercial peak and fizzle. Around 1996-97, the mainstream music media was all abuzz with Alanis Morrissette, Queen Latifah, Ani Difranco, PJ Harvey, Meschell Ndegeocello, Tori Amos, and Bjork. Sarah McGlaughlin and the women of Lilith Fair would soon convene each summer for a women-only summerfest which the press heralded as a revolutionary idea that was really only a more palatable (e.g. less lesbian, more traditionally-feminine) version of the long-running separatist Womyn’s Music Festival, which had been held every summer in Michigan since the 70’s.

Same as in the 70’s, in the 90’s women artists were profiled and interviewed with special attention to their female plight in the industry. Sure, there is no denying patriarchy is real and everywhere, so there are ample experiences of sexism, harassment, and disadvantage to discuss and analyze. Thus, the double-edged sword of the media coverage of these women-in-music “trends” is that it always feels alternately insulting and, well, empowering. Whenever and wherever women give voice to the reality of living through sexism, we validate each other and a teensy bit of consciousness of shared experience is raised. It’s just that when it is Rolling Stone magazine telling the tale, for example, too much patriarchal detritus can sneak in and muddy those waters, ultimately only reinforcing the idea that women artists, and their music, are mostly only relevant to women.

As had happened a generation before, after all the mid-90’s media buzz about women in music, the female artists portrayed as torch-bearers of a new feminist movement were effectively sidelined into a nonsensical, gender-specific “women’s music” side-genre. After each of these women-in-music “uprisings” the pattern is that feminists and feminist dialogue inevitably branches off again into separate subcultural quarters, and the women musicians who enjoyed a temporary spotlight generally return to the cultural periphery. And the irony is that through all this supposedly feminist attention,  women musicians are ultimately held back from being fully integrated into the cultural canon. This means that the work of female artists is continually, repetitively categorized first by gender, and its true musical value becomes secondary.

Women-in-music is the music industry’s WNBA; women are never assessed on the same terrain as the men because it is always a foregone conclusion that men are simply “naturally” the definitive players, with women artists an ongoing gender-specific variation of the male norm. And our constant recycling of the sidebar of ‘women in music’ perpetuates a type of cultural amnesia from one generation to the next–both about women artists of distinction from earlier generations, and about feminist backlash in general.

In appreciation for Gaar’s math, this “movement” was precisely twenty years ago. Hence, my ambivalence around 2015 as I noticed stirrings of the same gender-specific phrases starting to recirculate in the music mags. On one hand, it is good and thought-provoking and healthy to do revisionist histories of forgotten women artists alongside profiles of under-recognized women artists, as She Shreds and other mags often do. There is no shortage of supposedly earth-shattering new retrospectives on Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the “gods of guitar” greeting us every year at the newsstand. A bit of intelligent, feminist counterbalance is necessary, by Goddess.

My concern four years ago, as I wrote the first iteration of this article, was that we were about to go through the same whole quasi-feminist circus again without it yielding enough permanent gains. I wondered if feminism, with female musicians as its poster children, was about to be dragged into the cultural spotlight, only have its power neutered, yet again. When the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford debacle revived in horrific precision the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, reminding us that our revolutionary feminist feelings post-2016 are really only a repeat of the early 90’s, I felt this same weariness again. Moreover, I felt a sort of matriarchal protectiveness over the activist generation coming up, so inspired and full of intersectional feminist vision. I cringed at the thought of the high likelihood of their politics getting sucked up into the branding machine?

When Brandi Carlile swept the Grammys in 2019, in one of her after-show interviews she deftly claimed the “women artist” question first, before the press could frame it in their familiarly reductive terms. She saw the 90’s as an era where women dominated, and as an example by which we can only hope the modern music industry can reframe its appreciation of women artists.

(In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if women’s predominance in 2019’s award show was Grammy president Neil Portow’s way of apologizing and side-stepping around the pile of political poo he created after defending the almost exclusively male winners of the 2018 ceremony with his “Women artists have to step it up” line.)

I agree with Carlile that it would be nice if the music industry evolved to value women permanently. But considering all the evidence, we have to ask ourselves, is another round of girl power in music what we really want? “Female empowerment” is so pervasive a sub-genre by now that advertising houses and labels with pop divas looking for new song material regular post for girl power anthems. It is a concept that has been thoroughly bookended by the limitations of commercial purposes.

True, today is different. Since the 70’s and the 90’s women-in-music media blitzes, the entire music industry has nearly collapsed–except thanks in large part to the cash cow of hip hop. New artists aren’t invested in and developed by labels in the way they used to be—which is part of what fueled the women-in-music trends of the past (A&R developing female acts according to the successful prototype of previous hits). Second, today, everyone is their own “brand”—and no one stands out as a triumph of  feminism on one hand and identity politic branding so much as Queen Bey, whose deft blending of marketing and empowerment could easily leave most people feeling there isn’t much difference between the two after all. This is all a far cry from the mid-90’s ambivalent Ani Difranco singing, “I am a poster girl with no poster,” an artist who was as clear-headed and feminist as she was in great philosophical conflict about being expected to represent an entire generation’s varying feminist impulses.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of feeling like feminism and branding go well together, the ongoing issue is that there is still a need for feminism in the music industry and music culture. But stopping short at relegating that attention to a ‘women artists’ category inevitably encourages the analysis of gender in music only in relation to women, thus subtly reinforcing the idea of the ‘male norm’ (not to mention the gender binary).

In other words, to speak in gender-specific terms is not by default feminist, nor does it necessarily correlate with feminist intentions. True feminism analyzes all aspects of gender and power. Why not, for example, analyze how male identity and masculinity are formed in music and its many subcultures? What about all the gender-specific ways in which music and its accessories are so heavily marketed to men as extensions of their masculine identity?

In my first stab at this essay, I philosophized on how music actually transcends gender, and how feminism, too, should not be allowed to fall prey to becoming merely a reactionary arm of the larger patriarchal system, but should hold steady on the path to ultimately transcend that system altogether….Ah, back in the glow of the Obama years, there was headroom to reach for the broadest, most abstract visions of what feminism going forward in the 21st century could look like.

As Allwood notes, with a pussy-grabber in the White House and amidst the initial gains of the Times Up and Me Too movements, this is a moment when we simply cannot afford to have our rallying cries get watered down into ad slogans. We need feminism to be strong, robust, and capable of calling bullshit, now more than ever. This is especially true considering the larger wave of white supremacy and xenophobia taking over the world’s political stage. Feminism, when done right, is one of the best cross-cultural modes of communication and activism available to us. Women are everywhere, of course, and everyone is impacted by women’s issues. Maybe this magnitude of potential is why feminism is so vulnerable to co-optation?

When our empathetic impulses to create a more just world are numbed into individualistic consumerism, it is a direct, precise hit to the political nervous system. That this phenomenon has precedent tells us how swiftly and reliably any stirrings of radical feminist action bubbling to the surface can be rendered mute and ineffective through commercial co-optation. As Sut Jhally has been saying for decades, advertising has completely permeated every aspect of our lives; our politics being fed back to us as products shouldn’t really surprise us.

In the same sense that we cannot transform gender and its norms through the capitalist system, which specifically insists upon gender as a central organizing tenet, we cannot expect the marketplace to transform or empower us. That is a job we can only do for ourselves and with one another.

Perhaps in music culture what we can all begin to aim for is the vision of the poet Chase Twichell, the rider and the horse. The rider is the human, the musician, and their music and their soul is the horse. Perhaps we can all muster the generosity and imagination to treat our music first as expressions of our soul, and only secondarily with regard to gender. Gender is only one detail that informs the music’s context, but does not define the maker or the music. Maybe this is what music really wants, and what our souls are often really after.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Roslyn Farrington, a visionary feminist teacher and leader who inspired zillions at Portland State University.

Piano Nerd-Out Time: The Journey of Refurbishing & Regulating a Vintage Piano

In my life I have loved many a piano. But none so much as the vintage Baldwin grand I met and became betrothed to about six years ago. And like shorter term relationships that “prepare” you for a more significant investment, there were many educational pianos along the way before I found her.

There were the pianos I grew up playing; a Baldwin spinet with a squeaky, orange velvet-covered bench, and later, a Krakauer baby grand that my mom inherited after my grandfather passed away. It was the piano my mom and her sister grew up playing, and after being shipped across the country, the movers had to haul the piano–legs removed, kidney-shaped body wrapped in quilted blankets–all the way up the sharp incline of our driveway, an ordeal that took an entire afternoon. Once it was inside I couldn’t stop playing it.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.
The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

Then there was my first piano of my very own, an old grand upright with ornately carved legs, rose vines hand-painted on the interior soundboard, and enough chips in its surface you could see decades of past paint colors. (Honeydew green was the most interesting shade that peeked out; I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to have a melon green piano in the living room with me).

After that, I had a Wurlitzer spinet around for a while, with a sound as loud and metallic as a brass band. (I sold that one to a piano student). Then, I replaced it with an electric piano with settings for historical tunings (interesting and useful for a time because I’m drawn to microtonality, but that board, too, was ultimately also sold to yet another student). Thus I was back to my upright, which was showing its years with each move into every humidity-variable room or basement apartment I asked it to survive in.

In the backdrop of all these temporary fixes, I had other fleeting loves. On the second floor of the piano store where I used to teach lessons, I would take advantage of breaks between students to get away from the studio keyboard and practice on the three rooms of used for sale pianos. It was vintage pianos wall to wall, row after row, like aging maidens waiting to be asked to dance. There were the many Steinway uprights, which almost always had a red SOLD tag on them, and notes about the final work to be completed before they were to be shipped to their new owner. And the regal, crystalline tone of the Chickering grands, or the perfectly even action and balanced sound of the Yamahas.

My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.
My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.

These were all out of my price range, so for my home studio piano, I found a black Chickering console with unusually high pedals, which I always had to wear heels to play; it made me feel like Tori Amos. But like my previous spinets and consoles, I needed something better for regular practice and composing.

For a few years I regularly visited every piano shop that I knew of with a good used piano selection. I routinely scoured Craigslist: “Pianos>Used>Any.” And then finally, after a long, desperate, demoralizing search, after only ever seeming to be feel an attraction to pianos that were way to expensive for me, finally, I found her:

A 1912 Baldwin 7′ grand piano. An oldie but goodie. The first few decades of the 20th century was the best era for the Baldwin piano company, with a sound like nothing else I had played; a symphony in a case. The first day I found her, in a shop called the Piano Technology School for the Blind, in Vancouver, Washington, I just sat there, smitten.

Sure, she had some prominent scratches and nicks on her case, including many tiny, weird etchings into the wood above the keys. I imagined a Liberace type with fistfuls of ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold rings, scratching away at the wood on the key cover over the years. But for me, the point wasn’t to have a perfectly smooth, glossy case; it’ was the sound.

I was so mesmerized by the sound, in fact, that I didn’t pause long enough notice the Baldwin’s considerable quirks. She had suffered a hard couple of decades in her century of longevity: partial refurbishings, objects being dropped or slammed on the keys, parts warping, and the general malaise of never being in any one technicians’ care for long enough to get a full refurbishing. But I was swept away by her sound. I sat there on the bench, in a Glenn Gould hunch, face close to the keys, playing one at a time, mesmerized by the gradually, softly decaying overtones.

For a while I was content to get lost in the Baldwin’s endless chambers of resonance and overtones. I wrote all the songs on my first record on her, including “Theory of Survival,” for which I used prepared piano techniques to create sonic layers:

But the Baldwin’s actual playability was another matter. For a while, I couldn’t practice for more than twenty minutes without my arms getting sore. I was also worried about the impact on my technique because the piano had such limited aftertouch and heavy key weight.

Even finding a piano technician who was willing to work on this old gal was a process; in fact, one practically hang up on me when I told her I had a partially-refurbished grand piano on my hands.

“I don’t touch a grand piano that’s had unknown hands working on it,” she said flatly.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.
Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Finally, I found master piano technician John Rhodes. He was passionate about pianists having good instruments to play, and keeping the tradition of quality, acoustic pianos alive–he felt so strongly, in fact, that he was willing to donate his time to come by and do an assessment to figure out exactly what was wrong.

He came over to my house and we ate cupcakes and talked about cats and pianos and pianists all afternoon. John said he would take on the project–pro bono, all I would have to pay for was parts–but it would mean the piano would need to be in his shop for a while, and he wouldn’t be able to promise a completion date.

During a nearly year-long field trip away from home, the Baldwin’s action was lovingly, meticulously reworked. John kept extensive records on each stage of the entire process.

Upon returning home the Baldwin was definitely in a much-improved state, but even with all that work, there remained the final leg of the restoration: regulation. I had to wait yet again until it was in the budget, and in the stars, to have it done. Then, on a soggy Portland night in October 2013, after a Piano. Push. Play. event, under the eaves of the smoky outdoor patio at Roadside Attraction on SE 12th St., I met piano technician Alvin Alghrim. After hearing about my piano Alvin said he had to come “meet” it, and after playing it once, he, like most people, fell in love with it too and proclaimed it one of his favorite pianos. He said he wanted to work on it.

Le grande dame of my living room.
Le grande dame of my living room.

Before launching into the project, Alvin did intensive research over the next few months going over John’s extensive notes, absorbing John’s process up to that point, and factoring in how that would influence his approach to the regulation. Once Alvin decided he had everything he needed to figure out how to approach the regulation, and he whipped it together in two afternoons. The result:

I’M IN PIANO HEAVEN. I didn’t realize that one of the bonuses of a regulation job is that it actually improves the sound, too. (As if the old girl’s sound could get any better).

xoxoxoxo
xoxoxoxo

At times I am a little bewildered to have such a special instrument, just sitting there waiting to be played, in my daily life. Lest I forget how lucky I am after this long journey, I am reminded by each pianist who comes over and gets to share in this special little slice of acoustical heaven, as they sit down and play and gaze off into dreamland.

I remember an opera singer friend once told me that every singer has to go through some type of profound illness that prevents them from singing for a while; it’s part of the spiritual journey of opening up your voice. Maybe instrumentalists go through a similar thing, that manifests in our instruments?

At any rate, the journey of getting to know and rework an old instrument yields just as much as the attainment of the improved working instrument itself, as through that process we develop an appreciation for sound, how it works, and come to better understand how we respond to it. The oldie-but-goodie instruments might be a bit work, but they are most definitely worth the trouble.