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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.