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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* 

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.”

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.

Let’s flashback to the mid-90’s for a sec. (Yes, let’s!)

Around 1996-97, the mainstream music media was all abuzz with the chart successes of Alanis Morrissette, Queen Latifah, Ani Difranco, PJ Harvey, Meschell Ndegeocello, Tori Amos, Bjork, Sarah McGlaughlin and the women of Lilith Fair. Though all of this was 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. Because by the time Ani DiFranco and Sleater Kinney’s growls of Grrrl Power had suddenly become co-opted into the Spice Girls’ feminism lite, plastered all over girls’ backpacks and hair scrunchies, we knew it was over. It was disheartening and altogether disempowering to see feminism rendered into something so, well, silly.

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.

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. The most recent iteration was in the 70’s, with Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and Helen Reddy (“I Am Woman Hear Me Roar”) on the outwardly feminist pop anthem side, and Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, and Dolly Parton on the I’m-just-my-own-galaxy-of-legendary-don’t-peg-me-as-a-“female-artist,” on the other.) Regardless of who’s in or not, Gaar showed that women-in-music is a rite of passage, one per generation. 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.”

Same as in the 90’s, after a rash of feminist-ish 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. And, same as in the 70’s, part of what made all the media attention in the 90’s at first feel like authentic coverage of a real “women’s movement in music” was how women artists were profiled and interviewed with special attention to their female plight in the industry. On one hand, this is a tiresome question. On the other, 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, tentatively, empowering. Whenever and wherever women give voice to the reality of living through sexism, we validate each other. It is a win whenever even only 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 relevant to women. (And, by larger extension, that feminism itself is a for ladies only.)

As with the 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” in the mainstream, the general pattern wherein 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.

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, with musical significance vaguely secondary, if it is paid much attention to at all.

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.

I actually first wrote this essay a few years ago, in 2015, as I noticed a familiar tide coming in. The topic of women-in-music was again 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).

In appreciation for Gaar’s math, the last “women’s movement in music” was precisely twenty years prior. 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.

But my concern is going 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 and sidelined, yet again.

When the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford debacle revived with 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.

When Brandi Carlile swept the Grammys in 2019, in one of her after-show interviews she addressed the “women artist” question, reframing it to step away from the press’ usually reductive terms. She saw the 90’s as an era where women dominated, positioning it as an example by which we can only hope the modern music industry can reframe its appreciation of women artists. Because the industry as a whole, still, is 83.2% men and 16.8% women.

(Call me cynical, but 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. And I agree with the general sentiment of articles like “It’s Time for the Music Industry to Have a Feminist Revolution” (Oct. 2019). Problem is, we already have. Several times. And we have to ask ourselves, is another round of girl power in music how we really get from here to there? After all, “female empowerment” is so pervasive a sub-genre by now that advertising houses and labels with pop divas looking for new song material regular hunt for the next girl power anthem. It is a concept that has been entirely baked into the industry and is for the most part defined by the limits of its commercial applications (the presumably small audience that is both female and feminist.)

True, today is different. 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.” But even in her ambivalence about being expected to represent an entire generation’s varying feminist impulses, Difranco did feminism right by presenting and allowing for complexities. I’m not questioning the legitimacy of Beyoncé’s reign (I mean, never), I’m only interested in what it looks like when we have sustained and diverse representation of all types of feminist perspective.

Because outside of fleeting media trends, there is still a need for feminism in the music industry and music culture. (Aside from R. Kelly, the industry has yet to be fully Me Too’d; I’ve heard people say it’s coming but it has yet to.) And when there are extant abuses of power and privilege that directly impact women’s careers (as with Kesha’s battle against Dr. Luke), there is a need for public awareness, which could hopefully influence a shift in the industry. But, here we also can fall into the all-too-familiar tropes of women as victim and men as perps. This is another way in which the “female perspective” can easily be sidelined into “he said/she said” dynamics, which conveniently separates the political and personal. Is it not possible, instead, to address abuses of male power as a general civil rights issue, one that everyone, of any gender, should be concerned about, not only for its transgressions but also because it simply makes the playing field unfair? Must this be championed as a “women’s issue”? Is it not a human issue?

Talking about power abuses by men in the music industry only in terms of the female victim/survivor and male perp has the same effect as merely creating a ‘women artists’ category–or even a “feminist” or “female empowerment” one. Doing so only encourages any attention or analysis of gender in music to be done 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 throwing around “empowering” language necessarily indicate 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? But the industry is ultimately most concerned with sales, which is why we cannot and should not ask it to champion our politics for us.

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.

We cannot transform gender and its norms through the capitalist system if capitalism specifically insists upon gender as a central organizing tenet. And, 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 need is something more like the vision of the poet Chase Twichell, the rider and the horse. The rider is the human one (the musician, the artist, the seeker), and their music, how they express the song of their soul, is the horse. Sure, gender is one detail that informs some parts of the music’s context, but it does not define the maker, or the music. Maybe music is not in fact here to merely reinforce and challenge gender norms, and then reinforce them again. Maybe both music and feminism still have something much bigger to offer us, even in this era of the individual-as-brand. Perhaps if we casually stop acting like gender is such a big deal, eventually, it won’t be. If we simply insist, without necessarily advertising it as a platform, that everyone be treated with fair consideration (both artistically and in terms of civil rights), then maybe we will see a more gender-diverse, egalitarian industry naturally arise.

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

“Horse” used with permission (thank you, Chase!)