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The oxymoron of being both a female musician and a feminist

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Opinion | November 30th, 2009



Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.
A few years back, I received the biggest insult of my life to date in regards to my career as a professional musician. Some random dude decided to send me a message which said that the only reason as to why I’ve had any success as an artist is because, and I quote, “I’m a hot chick.” I was offended because said individual essentially was saying that I had no talent whatsoever to back up or justify my career milestones (he was unfamiliar with my 10 plus years of vocal and theory training in virtually every style from classical to jazz to Broadway, or my credentials to act as a licensed music teacher, among other things). But what really hit home was the fact that unfortunately, there was an element of truth to his insensitive remark.

Whether I like it or not, I can say with almost 100 per cent certainty that, if I weren’t attractive, he’s right; I wouldn’t be successful in making a name or establishing a reputation for myself. The reason as to why this latter point was so offensive; however, goes beyond the fact that, as a musical purist who writes her own material and believes in the amazing healing and inspirational powers of music, I’m disgusted by the industry’s corporate takeover and shallow focus on marketability. Rather, the problem lay in how the idea of my “hotness” being essential for my success jives with my feminist disposition. More simply, when I was confronted with this individual’s point of view regarding my lack of musical ability, I was simultaneously smacked in the face with the fact that this double standard of discrimination does not exist for my male counterparts. Case and point: Chad Kruger, the so-called “ugliest successful musician” according to many media publications. You will note that there has NEVER been named a female equivalent. And so, with that potentially contentious introduction, I move to the crux of this article: marketability, and what it means for the female artist.

While male musicians are able to don bleach-blond spikes like Billy Idol, wear leather pants and makeup like My Chemical Romance, tie feather boas around their mic stands like Steve Tyler, or even reinvent themselves as the next Frank Sinatra like Micheal Buble, marketability for the female musician, irrespective of genre, is synonymous with sex appeal, and showing T&A. From the “trashy sexy” of C. Love, to the “sexbomb kitten status” of Mariah Carey, to the “gothic/dominatrix allure” of Amy Lee and even the newfound “mature curvature” of old Alanis, who used to proudly uniform herself in ripped jeans and unisex t’s (these days, Alanis is definitely showing more skin – no doubt an effort to compete with younger versions because once a woman has passed 35 in the music biz, she’s obsolete – at least among the mainstream presses, and the mainstream crowd) the message and image remains the same: for a female musician to be popular, and achieve stardom, she needs to be sexy, or more accurately, appeal to the male fantasy of what a sexy woman is/and looks like.

Woman in tight leather pantsI’d be a hypocrite if I were to criticize any of these women, as I find myself forced to face the same fate, but I do so knowingly in the hopes that perhaps one day, I can enact change the inside out. Trust me, when I’m not on stage or in front of a camera, my “image reality” is very different - you’ll catch me, most days, in nothing more extravagant than a pair of jeans, and a band t-shirt. For that matter, if I have a day off and I’m free to lounge around my loft, you can be certain that they’ll be NO makeup on my face, and I likely haven’t even bothered to disrobe from my pyjamas. I imagine it’s a similar story for the above noted women.

To return momentarily to my introduction, the ironic thing is that, rather than it being simpler for any female musician to “make it” in the male-saturated and male-dominated industry because she can rely on her looks, it is MUCH more difficult. I can’t emphasize that enough! If you’re not thought of as a “novelty,” or mistaken for the groupie girlfriend, at the very least, you are ALWAYS seen as a FEMALE first, and an artist SECOND. Not that I have any qualms with being a member of the “fairer” sex, in fact, I take pride in my womanhood. The problem arises in the fact that the association of music with femininity automatically deems it as less respectful, less sincere, but MOST importantly, LESS ORIGINAL; the complete opposite of the goal every artist aspires to accomplish.

When men write songs of the romantic variety, or belt out ballads detailing their lonesomeness and desperation, their words are seen as indicative of the “human condition,” and containing universal truths that can never be overstated. On the other hand, when women artists choose to tackle these same subjects, rather than being acclaimed for exploring their own feelings in regards to such deep subject matter, they are labelled “cliché” because female musicians are only seen as capable of pinning over their lost boyfriends (or girlfriends, if the subject matter is particularly angry, i.e.: chick rockers with animosity are almost invariably labelled lesbians and man-haters). While I can’t speak for all other women rockers I think I’m probably pretty dead-on when I suggest that we as a group would much rather be respected and appreciated for our musical abilities and contributions, than solely be lusted after for the “junk in our trunks.” BUT…in saying all of this, I am NOT proposing that artists should be treated genderless.

As an artist and a woman, I am positioned uniquely in this world, and it is from this positioning that I am able to draw inspiration and create the work that I do. Further, it is my personal experiences, that could only result from this dual identity I have been afforded, that ultimately result in my ORIGINALITY as an artist. I am NOT saying all of this to go “femi-nazi” on my male musician friends, I only hope that artists one day irrespective of any other master statuses they may possess can be seen for JUST that: as creators of unique, engaging, thought-provoking, critical, and even titillating experiences, as the former points really bear no influence in regards to whether or not one has talent.

As I’ve just eluded to, my arguments are not exclusive to the “problem” of womanhood when it comes to being a musician – I, think it is a damn shame that most of those not privileged enough, like me, to have been born in the mid-80s remember M.J. as nothing more than an odd-looking fellow who seemed to have an affinity for getting himself involved in unfavourable situations regarding children. For those of you who’ve actually ever bothered to study his history, not to mention read his lyrics, you’d recognize how much more he was to the world, than just that.

So, why is it, in an age where we’re apparently liberal, accepting, and open-minded, that such stereotypes and such discrimination continue? Well, in the case of women, I hate to state the obvious, but in reality, it comes down to nothing more than a “turf” war. Women are OVERsexualized because it dis-empowers them from having any sincere claims to creative potential. To borrow from feminist scholarly discourse, our status as “objects” is reaffirmed, and we are not seen as possessing the necessary faculties (whether conscious or subconscious) to act as active agents autonomously.

So the question then becomes why are women deliberately dis-empowered? Again, I hate to state the obvious but quite frankly, MEN ARE THREATENED BY US and it’s all an elaborate means of controlling power and therefore influence. This is a trend not just seen in music, but in greater society. Why do you think that women earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man earns in equivalent occupations? I’m not making this stuff up – it’s the truth – consult the stats, if you don’t believe me.

The electric guitar has long been equated as an penis extension, so if a woman can wail with the same precision and swagger as a man, then it throws into question our entire history and legacy of all artistic movements stemming from male greatness, with women as nothing more than mere mimickers, at best, or arm-candy and backup dancers to the glory of MANkind, at worst. It is a little known fact, for example, that the true inventor of the rock guitar technique known as “two-finger tapping” (attributed to Eddie Van Halen) was ACTUALLY A WOMAN named Jennifer Batten, or that the popular Elvis tune, Hound Dog was actually penned by an African American FEMALE, Big Mama Thorton, and that its subject matter documents a lover’s quarrel with a mate who had, to put it nicely, some “undesirable” qualities, from a FEMALE PERSPECTIVE.

It is these contributions that have been skirted away in history. It is these contributions that have historically and still presently been viewed as unimportant, and therefore have remained unrecognized, and for a greater part of our history, undocumented, except among private or elitist crowds. Because of this, unsurprisingly, women have not only been discouraged from attempting to enter the music biz, but moreover, we’ve systematically been indoctrinated with the belief that we will always be inferior as compared with our male contemporaries, and that we will only ever be able to attain acclaim in female-friendly centred circles. But even in these groups “cattiness” is often an issue, and judgements placed on females often remain rooted in male standards of comparison. I truly wish we could all just get along!

So along with my impartation of this rather grim reality check, do I have any shreds of hope to offer? OF COURSE! Anyone who knows my work is aware of the fact that despite my bitching, it has always been and will always remain my goal to leave my listeners with a little inspiration. With that said, I call upon you, my sisters, to pick up your axes, rock those boomstands and to smash those drums with the talents I know you all possess. Make your music – beautiful or ugly AND present yourself beautiful or ugly, it don’t matter to me babes, ‘cause I know there is value in ALL art.

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Although originally written in reference to our sisters who participate in the visual arts, I think that, for the most part, it is equally applicable to female musicians. And so, without further adieu, according to the activist feminist art-focused group, The Guerrilla Girls, here are the advantages of being a woman artist:

1. Working without the pressure of success.

2. Not having to be in shows with men (or better yet, being able to be in all-women shows).

3. Having an escape from the art world in your other four freelance jobs.

4. Knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80.

5. Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make, it will be labelled “feminine.”

6) Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.

7) Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others.

8) Having the opportunity to choose between your career and motherhood/marriage.

9) Not having to choke on those big cigars or paint (read: work or pose) in Italian suits.

10) Having more time to work, after your mate dumps you for someone younger.

11) Being included in revised (or female-specific) versions of art/music history.

12) Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a “genius.”

13) Getting your picture in the art/music magazines wearing a gorilla suit.

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