(Miss)Representation In The Music Media
Often, when I come to write a feature, a review, or even an essay, I start somewhere in the middle of things. Openings entertain high expectations – snappy, engaging, insightful and the rest – and, until the middle falls into place, I tend to struggle to find that first crucial syllable or sentence, the one that in a logical world would set the ball rolling ever so fluidly and fluently until that final satisfying full stop or overzealous exclamation mark. Writing never takes that straightforward a trajectory for me, and this feature has been no less a struggle. Where do you start on an issue so complex and multifaceted as gender inequality in the music industry? Well, we could narrow down the scope to the music media – we’re an independent music publication, I’m a music journalist of some sorts, so it’s what we know best.
Besides being close to home, there are other valid reasons to focus on media: it’s inseparable from issues of representation, informs culture and politics, and is complicit in the reproduction of social and cultural values. Music is also heavily entangled in this web of representation and possesses the ability to reach vast audiences, and, y’know, makes the people come together (like The Beatles or Madonna and Ali G). The treatment of women and non-binary folk in music media influences, and is influenced by, how we view and treat them in the wider world – if incessantly subject to the male gaze, women in music and women in public life will continue to be unnecessarily trivialised and sexualised; their bodies and private lives regarded as public property; free bait to be commented on, judged, shamed, groped, whatever.
If you’re not sure what the male gaze is, it’s essentially how views of the world and women tend to be depicted in terms of outdated male attitudes. Louise Bruton of Headstuff does a better job of making this tangible in her article If Male Musicians Were Described The Same Way As Female Musicians. Here’s an excerpt: “Known to all as Taylor Swift’s best friend and Laura Sheeran’s younger cousin, Ed Sheeran has had a busy year. The flame-haired singer has a habit of writing heartbroken songs about his ex-girlfriends – including Ellie Goulding, who allegedly cheated on him with One Direction’s blond bombshell Niall Horan – while maintaining a happy-go-lucky, clean cut image in the press. Who’s next on his list to break his heart? Ladies, watch out. He’ll take that heartache and will make a hit song out of you.” She might not be your cup of tea (not mine either), but how often is Taylor Swift treated in this way without mention of her becoming the first female solo artist to win the Album Of The Year Grammy more than once? It’s patronising and poisonous.
Though a lot of men do resist the male gaze (and probably a fair amount of women relate to it), it’s easier to be attuned to these misrepresentations as a woman or non-binary because it’s not your natural line of sight. Essentially, including a diversity of world views and voices in music media prevents the narrative around music from being told from a single, privileged perspective, without the balance of comment from women, people of colour and other marginalised groups being heard at the same level. And, at a time when mainstream media headlines are so worryingly warped, it’s extra important to have independent media with a strong smorgasbord of voices shouting from all different walks of life.
So, what now? Let’s hone things down a little more. Let’s think about representation, let’s think about barriers, let’s think about how we can try and break down these barriers or overcome them. Let’s team up with cultural and literary festival Writing On The Wall to gather a panel of music and cultural journalists from the North West, headed by LAURA SNAPES of Pitchfork and, formerly, NME, and get them talking. Let’s invite whoever we can to come along, learn, question and get involved. Let’s get more women writing for Bido Lito! And let’s not forget that there are plenty of other injustices of representation that revolve around trans rights, sexuality, cisnormativity, race, ethnicity, religion and ableism that also need to be tackled and which often intersect to form a complex entanglement of inequalities – intersectional feminism is key.
Music journalism has a massive, throbbing hangover from its early days in the 1970s when practices in music were messy, misogynistic, fashioned by, and weighted heavily in favour of, blokes. In essence, like much of the rest of the industry, it’s a man’s world. The way female music fandom is so often trivialised as ‘teenage fangirling’ when, in actuality, teenage girls consistently come out on top as the number one consumers of music, is categorically damaging, as well as ridiculous. To be told that your love of music, and the way you consume it, is not legitimate, when really your fan power helps to sustain the entire industry is absolute bullshit. As music and culture critic Jessica Hopper puts it: “This idea that there is a right way to like music and a right music to like and a right way to express that – it all works together in this prescribed idea of how women are supposed to participate in music. Decades and decades of women being told we like music in the wrong way. It’s all just a myth.”
This myth pervades and plays into the treatment of women in the industry. In August, when Hopper called out on Twitter to ask women and “other marginalised folks” to share their first brush with the idea that they didn’t count in music, the responses ranged from dealing with repeated misogynistic comments and lazy presumptions (“Is your boyfriend in the band?”, “Do you need help with those pedals, honey?” etc.) to the absolutely horrifying and sickening reality of sexual harassment, assault and rape (a Brooklyn-based music journalist tweeted her experience of date rape by an artist she was profiling). It goes without saying that this is not OK.
On International Women’s Day this year – the same day we launched our event with Writing On The Wall – we were reminded again of the shit women music journalists have to deal with when Spin published Rachel Brodsky’s piece interviewing The Last Shadow Puppets, in which she details the harassment she received from Miles Kane. As well as asking if she would like to go upstairs (the interview was being conducted in a hotel) and making lewd comments, he plants an unwelcome farewell kiss on her. After the article’s publication, Kane sent Brodsky an apology for his “ill-judged humour”, confessing that he was “mortified that it made [her] feel uncomfortable”. Interviews in music journalism aren’t always carried out in the formal settings of an office: sometimes they’ll take place in bars, venues, backstage at festivals, or even in hotel lobbies, and this seems to confuse some musicians. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd of Jezebel pointed out when writing about Brodsky’s experience, the blurred line between formality and informality may change the context of interviews, but it does not change the fact that unwanted sexual attention in the workplace is, by definition, sexual harassment.
“So what if someone made a few jokes and went in for a peck on the cheek? It’s only a bit of harmless fun.” Not so. It’s a genuine barrier when the musicians you’re meant to be profiling can’t make the distinction between sex and work. From personal experience, what happened to Rachel Brodsky, or to any of the women who responded to Jessica Hopper’s call, isn’t an exceptional occurrence at all. I’ve never been assaulted when interviewing a band but I’ve definitely been propositioned. Mostly (but not always without a bit of persistence first), the proposition has then been passed off as a joke – a bit of cheeky-chappy, goodhearted, old-time Carry On slapstick (but, seriously, how about a bit of slap ‘n’ tickle?) humour.
It’s partly that ‘trying one’s luck and then passing it off as a joke’ game that is so undermining for women in a working capacity – you know you’re not being taken seriously at all and that, if you were a man, you almost certainly wouldn’t have those insinuations made of you. Essentially, you’re considered a sexual object rather than a working person, and it’s no joke – it’s damaging for your self-esteem to find yourself conceding that others value your worth in terms of your physical potential and willingness, as opposed to, say, your nuanced, well-researched interview questions, vast cultural knowledge and adept way with words. Or something to that effect.
That’s one of the reasons this discussion is open to all: it’s just as valuable if an artist reads this article and thinks, “Shit, maybe I shouldn’t ask female music journalists for an invitation back to their tent”, as it is if a teenage girl who lives for English Literature and fights to put BBC 6Music on in the sixth-form common room reads it and thinks she can put two of her passions to good use and get published.
Another reason we’re running the panel, and another barrier to women in music media, is that you can’t be what you can’t see. As a young woman, it might be difficult to imagine yourself dipping that first tentative toe into something that from the outside looks like a man’s world. This is precisely why we want to make prominent women within music media visible to as wide an audience as possible, giving women who are interested the opportunity to find out more about getting involved in music media without feeling so intimidated or out of place.
So, as well as Laura Snapes, who is a regular contributor to The Guardian, Uncut, The Observer and Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Magazine, we’ve gathered SARAH LAY, editor at alternative music mag Louder Than War; AMY ROBERTS, editor at insightful feminist pop culture blog Clarissa Explains Fuck All; LORNA GRAY, music journalist and founder of Liverpool-based intersectional feminist girl gang Fierce Babe Network, and yours truly, to get together, educate and discuss strategies for tackling industry misogyny and the misrepresentations women face, while empowering more women with the skills to get involved. The event is open to all because there’s room for everyone to learn something – whether that’s writing tips or strategies for dealing with dickheads – and because the people in positions to change things in music media still tend to be men.
As for those strategies, we could make a nod to Brodsky’s honesty in writing any discrimination and harassment faced into features as part of the experience of profiling the artist in question. We can encourage, promote and celebrate women in music media, educate and call out sexism where necessary, and stick it to the man or the powers that be when we feel powerless. We can resist focusing so adamantly on looks (style is a different kettle of fish) and private affairs when writing about women artists, or any artists for that matter. And we can most definitely take a tip out of Jessica Hopper’s book: “Being a fangirl is all the qualification you need. And don’t wait for anyone to give you permission. They won’t. And you should do it anyway”. Sounds about right – so come along and do it. The world needs fresh perspectives and at Bido Lito! we wanna hear yours.