Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Both Sides, Now! – How Women are Denied Universal Appeal as Songwriters

When you’ve been listening to certain artists for a long time you can sometimes go through long periods of not listening to them. You love them, but for some reason you let them sit on your shelves undisturbed until suddenly one day you reach for one of their albums and, BOOM, suddenly you wonder how you could have gone so long without listening to them. That happened to me recently with Joni Mitchell. I threw on Clouds and all but gasped as each song reintroduced itself to me as something completely new and somehow even better. What usually happens then is that I want to read more about them. I want to see if a good writer can enhance my listening experience so I trawl around reading everything I can. In the case of Joni Mitchell I decided to check out allmusic.com to see what they had to say. This is the first sentence:
“When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”

Whether you agree or disagree with this quote is beside the point. The shocking thing about it is that you will never find an equivalent statement about any male artist. Ever. Think you can find one? I dare you. I double dare you. Bob Dylan would never be described as the most important male recording artist of the late 20th Century. He is simply a recording artist. It would be foolish to imagine that statements of this kind are rare. Female singers and songwriters seem forever destined to be bracketed off to the side, while males are allowed to be universal, untethered by their sex or gender. 'What’s the big deal' you say? 'Joni Mitchell is female, and she’s hugely influential. No need to get your PC knickers in a twist!' The big deal is that this is an example of the way the female experience is denied universal appeal. The male experience is the norm against which the experience of the female is measured and for that reason the average woman in the music industry (and elsewhere) is scrutinised all the more for signs of deviance from the norm. What’s even more frustrating about the above comment is that it is meant to be a compliment, not a put-down, even though it refuses to place Joni Mitchell’s work alongside the greatest work of men. Forget about all that ‘Kurt wrote Live Through This’ stuff which is clearly designed to annoy and antagonise. This is where the real damage is done.

How do I even start documenting the damage? The allmusic quote is loaded for two specific reasons. One, as pointed out, it stops Joni Mitchell’s work from being considered alongside the best work of males. She has a separate category so no need to compare and contrast. Two, in the patriarchal society the terms ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ are loaded with assumptions that come from the perspective of maleness, which acts as the norm. Think of the average male performer and you’ll notice that their maleness is either invisible, or it is psychologically affirmed to make it an essential element of being human. Being male, and masculinity, is natural and real. Being female, however, is wrought with internal contradictions and affectations.

We can look at examples from everyday life to unpack what being female means in our society. Think of the phrase ‘one of the lads’, which is frequently used as a compliment toward women. What does it mean? It means a woman who has a beer with the boys without being too girly or feminine. She may even burp and talk about sex. Bottom line: she is not affected in any way. She is not fake. She is … more like a man. Would a man ever take ‘one of the girls’ as compliment? In the vast majority of cases nothing could be more of an insult. It would imply femininity and gossipy superficiality. How many times have we heard the term ‘she’s good-looking but she knows it’? The implication here is that women should be beautiful yet exist in some kind of childlike state of innocence in regards to their beauty and how it affects others. Once she has awareness she is conceited, manipulative, attention-seeking, superficial, pathetic.

Men demand that women be natural and unaffected, and nowhere more so than in the world of music. But in this context what does natural and unaffected mean? It means women should be more like men (normal), or conform to male ideals of what they imagine natural and unaffected looks like. Do men see a cocky, good-looking male singer as being unnatural? Absolutely not, as long as they don’t indulge in too many traits of femininity. They are simply being real, strutting their stuff, indulging in some masculine bravado. The average man has no need to question this masculinity as they themselves see it as natural and good.

Being a man simply is: women on the other hand complain about being objectified then they go and wear a nice dress and wear their hair in an alluring fashion to attract men’s attention – what’s that about? If a guy wears a nice suit, or gets a tattoo, or a fashionable haircut, or wears clothes that aren’t sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, well that’s completely natural and not some desperate attempt at attention seeking. Women on the other hand, well they’re always trying to be noticed! What’s going on here is that the male view of things becomes, de facto, the universal view, to the point where women are sometimes conflicted about what they wear and what the purpose of it is. Do men go through this torture? Not even for a second because maleness is 'natural' and doesn’t need to be questioned. I realise that this subject has been tackled a million times over by more learned writers than me, but I still hear and read comments regarding women that comply with the ones I mention above on an almost daily basis. So something isn’t getting through.

If being a woman is viewed with such scrutiny in the patriarchal world, it stands to reason that women songwriters and performers will forever be denied universal appeal as they are merely dealing with ‘female’ concerns. When a writer says that Joni Mitchell is, “The most important and influential female recording artist” the sentence is weighed down with preconceived ideas of what being a female means, and what being a female artist means. The author instead could have taken a chance and said, “The most important and influential recording artist” and gone on to make a case that Mitchell showed both stylistic and lyrical superiority to Dylan in her folk years, that her subsequent embrace of more jazz-influenced sounds represented a more radical leap than anything attempted by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and that songs such as ‘The Jungle Line’ and ‘Shadows and Light’ to this day remain challenging and unorthodox. The author could have put their heart and soul on the line and actually risked enraging and engaging their audience, but instead they took the easy way out and limited Joni Mitchell to ‘most important female’. Now before anyone complains that there’s nothing wrong with being an important female (there isn’t) it needs to be pointed out that in the context of a patriarchal society terms like ‘important female artist’ are very damaging, for all the reasons listed above. When maleness stops being the norm against which all behaviours are measured is the moment when statements like ‘important female artist’ will stop being limiting.

How do we fix this situation? There remains an underlying assumption that women singers and songwriters are expressing a limited aspect of humanity, that their thoughts and emotions do not have the same grand all-encompassing sweep as that of the male artist. This is where the music writer can truly alter perceptions. Let those who see unfairness use their anger as a crowbar to pry open the minds of those momentarily fooled by illogical societal inferences. Once open, flood these minds with unarguable reasons as to why they need to hear a particular artist, be it the forgotten 60s sunshine pop of Margo Guryan:

or the ice-cold majesty of Austra.

Harmful opinions about women in music more often than not rest on the assumption that the status quo represents some kind of natural law, that broad commercial appeal and critical approval indicates some kind of innate greatness. The list of powerful, talented, unorthodox women songwriters is too long to type up. That they did not always receive validation on the market, or from critics, speaks more of the poverty of imagination in regards to popular culture than to the lack of authentic brilliance from the artists in question. It seems a pity that this still needs to be pointed out.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

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