Musings /// We Need to Talk About How We Write About Women Musicians

Natalie Hemby

“But we write about female musicians ALL the time.”

That statement is the most frequent response I get when I challenge a music journalist or blogger (let’s be honest, it’s most often a blogger, or sometimes a radio DJ) to do better when they write about women. Here is the usual pattern: an article is written, I point out some language that is troublesome, and “but I write about women!” is what I hear in return. I’m not going to call out anyone here in particular, because this isn’t about them, it’s about us – and I do assume many of them have good intentions in the long run, and mean well, mansplaining/hero complexes aside. But “meaning well” doesn’t get us far enough, and we all can learn, listen, and do better. Let me say upfront, I am sure there are times I’ve been a guilty party. And I am sure there are exceptions to every rule. If it makes you feel better to find these instances, go ahead. Instead, I urge us to look forward and inch towards change. (Note: as we’re in Nashville, much of this piece is going to focus on country music, but these themes are universal across genre.)

Truth is, we still often fail when we talk about female musicians. How many times have you seen a woman who is a songwriter – Natalie Hemby, for example – referred to as a “female songwriter”? Often, if you pay attention. How many lists of “Best New Women in Country Music” have you seen? While both of those might seem slightly innocuous on the surface, you’d never see the same applied to men, and therefore both ways of talking about or categorizing women are more of a problem than a solution.

“It is frustrating that everything we create is still discussed first as being a female thing as if it is a deviate of the norm, the male version,” says Caroline Spence, who just released the terrific album Spades and Roses and is – gasp! – a woman and also in music. “Every article starts out with her gender and age in the first couple of sentences, His might just say he is from Texas. So even if our art is just as good as the male equivalent, having been labeled first as female, we are still at some sort of weird disadvantage having been stuck with the connotations of our gender and our gender at a particular age. After mulling over this issue for a long time, I finally found a way to put it to music. My new record has a song on it called ‘Softball.‘ I came from the fact that when I was little I wanted to play baseball and was told I never could but would have to play this sport that was basically the same but for girls. There is a line in the song that says ‘even when you’re stealing the base, they are still gunna call it softball.’ The play on this is that you can’t steal bases, in the traditional sense, that you can in baseball. My point is twofold; first, that men and women operate under different framework and rules even when performing the same tasks and secondly, that even when women are doing the same things as men there is a different language for what they do.” This kind of thought has long plagued women who are songwriters: singing about relationships and heartbreak makes them confessional or sad and whiney, while men who sing about the same things are brazen and brave.

“I think my main issue with the rhetoric around how music journalists can sometimes write about women is that it seems as though the baseline assumption is that a human musician is a white male,” adds Michaela Anne, whose most recent album is Bright Lights and Fame. “So anything other than that requires all of these qualifiers. Whether that is gender, race, body type, etc. So for this conversation being about gender, then there are all the qualifiers that come with the assumptions around the feminine.”

One of the most upsetting recent patterns has been the obsession to pit women who make independent country music against each other – as in, there can only be one. Is it Margo Price? Is it Nikki Lane? Michaela? Is it Kelsey Waldon? Is it Aubrie Sellers? This battle is ridiculous – imagine if we put men to this same standard. This article about Kelsey Waldon’s I’ve Got a Way is one of the absolute worst perpetrators (ok, so I might call out a few offenders by name). This is how the article begins:

“Ooh, is this Margo Price?”
“No, it’s not actually. It’s Kelsey Waldon.”
“Kacey who?”
“No, Kelsey. K.E.L.S.E.Y. Like Kelsey Grammer.”
“It’s a man?”
“No, it’s not a man. I don’t know why Kelsey Grammer’s got a girl’s name. It’s Kelsey Waldon. She’s actually been around for a while, but this is her new album. I really really like it.”
“Ah, I see. Sounds like Margo Price.”
“Shut up, nan.”

The article argues that while Kelsey’s album is good – great, I think – it simply cannot compete in a space taken up by another woman. Do we hear that same reasoning ever applied to Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Cody Jinks, Jason Isbell, Cale Tyson, Andrew Combs? No. Those men don’t sound like each other, and neither do Kelsey and Margo. It’s an insult not just to women, but to art.

Writing more about women in music is important, but we have to do it right. Here’s what else we need to talk about if we want to make a real difference in how we speak and write about women musicians, and really change the language. And if we can change the language, we can help change the culture.

“Woman,” most often, should be a noun. Not an adjective. Natalie Hemby is not a “female songwriter,” just as St. Vincent is not a “female guitarist” and Meg White is not a “female drummer.” If you wouldn’t say “male guitarist,” then don’t say “female guitarist.” Often by doing this, you are implying the very dreaded “she’s good…for a girl” chain of thought that needs to be erased now in order to birth an equal playing field. “Including ‘female’ in front of our job description is differentiating us from our male counterparts, when we are doing the exact same thing as them, if not doing it better,” says Spence. It’s often not overt sexism here (though that happens!), but something different. For one, we’re tagging “songwriter” with a modifier. Female songwriter. As in, different from “male songwriters.”  This isn’t a matter of quantity – writing more articles about women musicians is a great thing, as is approaching it academically – but doing so is not an antidote in and of itself, and language matters. If we’re going to call Natalie Hemby a female songwriter, then let’s do the same for men. But we never would – “male songwriter” would sound ridiculous when used in the same capacity we allow for women.

Woman” is not a genre. “It’s not a genre, it’s a gender,” Margo Price has said. She’s damn right. Women shouldn’t be categorized with other women because of how they were born or chose to identify. You would not put Kanye’s record in the same category as Luke Bryan just because they are both men, but I have seen women who are country artists on the same list as a woman rapper – simply because they are the same gender. Prime example: this list from GQ of “9 Rising Female Artists You Should Know This Fall.” Jillian Mapes did an excellent job tackling this for Flavorwire, with “Woman” Is Not a Genre: Why the New, Female-Led Rock Revolution Is for Everybody.” And for the love of all that is holy, can we not find just ONE other way to talk about these amazing records from Courtney Marie Andrews, Amanda Shires and Star Anna except for in relation to men?

Think carefully about making a list of the “best women.” Top female guitarists. Hottest new women-fronted bands. Just don’t do it. Like when Gibson tagged their list of female guitarists “Guitar Gals.” Or “18 Women In Electronic Music You Need To Hear Right Now,” from Buzzfeed. One country blog likes to have “Women In Country Wednesdays.” Appreciate the gesture, but how about you just write about women on all the days – because giving women their own segregated lists ensures they are kept that way. Exception to this rule: International Women’s Day or any specific day where there is a dedicated reason to celebrate women for just being women, or a women’s magazine – Elle doing a music issue, for example, is a platform that makes sense.

Don’t tell women when and how they can be sexual. Often I’ll see mock outrage in response to a sultry magazine cover, or a writer/blogger lambasting women for speaking out about the problem of how we represent women in music but then choosing to wear a dress or sexually-charged outfit. Unless a woman is being forced, she has every right to both be a sexual being but also be considered completely independent from it.

Do not use the word “songstress.” Nikki Lane is a SINGER, not a songstress.

Do not only compare women to each other. Why do we allow 7,000 truck-song singing men, but limit ourselves to only one or two “outlaw” women? “I always notice how in certain genres, it never feels like men are compared/contrasted to each other and never the sentiment that there’s only enough room for 1 or 2,” says Michaela Anne. “I’ve literally had journalists say to me, ‘oh I really wanted to write about your record but I had JUST written about (enter name of a female indie country/Americana artist).’ And they say it to me so matter of fact like I should know perfectly well that that means they couldn’t write about another female so soon.”

Don’t assume that a woman is flirting with you. Jake Tapper – yes, CNN’s Jake Tapper – once wrote this hilarious article for McSweeney’s about this phenomenon.

Are you giving men different permission than women? For example, Alanna Quinn-Broadus of Alanna Royale finds that too much attention is paid to whether or not she curses on stage, something not applied to her male counterparts. “The fascination with my cursing on stage is baffling and I can only imagine it comes from my being a woman,” she says. “Nobody calls Dave Grohl or Lil Wayne foul-mouthed. Why the fuck do you think that is?”

Think about ageism. “I’m always struck by the collective surprise that is often expressed when a woman is ‘gaining her success’ at an ‘older age’ and how age is often highlighted much more than with male musicians,” says Michaela Anne. “I remember a couple years ago, a male producer friend of mine was in the press about something and the journalist mentioned his age, 40, and called him a young producer. That same year there was a female country artist having her breakout year and so many pieces of press were highlighting the fact that she was ‘older’ at 37. I can’t help but think you’d be hard pressed to hear a 40 year old female musician being referred to as young.”

Likewise, you can make it through a whole interview without asking “what is it like to be a woman in music?” I promise, you can! Sometimes, this question is appropriate – talking to women about their experience in this business is very much necessary – but it does not need to be a part of every.single.article about a female musician. Please, do ask captivating, intelligent questions that force us to confront how women are treated in the music industry, but “what is it like to be a woman in music?” is not one of those questions. It is not always necessary to highlight gender if it’s not relevant to the overall point.

Lastly, if we point out problematic language or systemic sexism, we are not always calling you sexist. This isn’t about you. For once, this is about women. So listen.

Marissa

Follow Marissa on Twitter  /// Follow Lockeland Sprignsteen on Twitter 

Photo credit: Kate York

cropped-ls_sociallogo1_whitebackground.png

Posted by

Marissa is the editor of Lockeland Springsteen.

34 thoughts on “Musings /// We Need to Talk About How We Write About Women Musicians

  1. #amen.
    Though I just edited the anthology WOMAN WALK THE LINE, 26 women writing about the female country artist who marked, informed or changed their life. I think women use music differently — and these personal essays really pull life, emotion, decisions made and life transitions encountered through the artist they selected and their music.

  2. Hello, this is a really good read, and can see plenty of things I’ve done wrong in the past – just wondering what your thoughts are on frontwoman? I’m always a little reluctant to use it, but I would use frontman.

    1. That’s a very good question. I know I have used it – same as I use frontman. Since we have male and female versions, it’s felt less segregating to me. However, I do imagine some form of “frontperson” would ultimately be better: bandleader, lead singer, anything non gender specific. Thanks for giving me something to research and thinking about. I’ll get back to you on this.

      1. Frontperson more than anything just sounds a bit clunky to me – lead singer is definitely better, but then there’s the counter issue where singer somehow sounds a bit limited if they’re also the guitarist/songwriter.

      2. Yeah, frontperson sounds pretty awful. I think what I have done mostly is lead singer/guitarist or lead singer/core songwriter or whatever combo makes sense to describe their role. Not as easy as frontwoman, but, more often than not, the lead singer also has another role, so it’s more appropriate to offer more description anyway.

  3. Amen. I’ve been researching about women in jazz (look at pics of the top jazz groups in U.S. The Count Basie Big Band, Gordon Goodwin, Wynton Marsalis, John Daversa, and even Maria Schneider. Many things need to change, not the least of which is our language. I blogged about my experience and drift away from professional music in an entry called I’m Just a Girl Standing in Front of a Jazz Band.

  4. First off, great article. I can see where you come from on many points, but I feel like you’re misunderstanding people’s ambitions. The reason we have lists like “Best New Female Singers” (or whatever you used, can’t remember) is to set them aside from the rest, because there are so many men singers. It seems to me that if they were to just be left without special recognition, they would be lost in the masses. People, well, women, get offended when they’re doing something amazing but get lost in the crowd, and now you seem to be upset that they are getting special recognition.

    Anyway, just my observations. If I misinterpreted your writing, I apologize. 🙂 Great work!

  5. Hmmm. I understand you, but if you think far back you would note females at one point were never allowed to work -or even move to whatever back then that was equivalent to fame. So saying a female artists or a top female in whatever feild, to me, is a sign of empowerment to the gender. Also it creates more room for recognition having a male and female winning a title rather than one.

    The industries exist to mostly make money. I think is it safe to say it’s more financially safe to market a male and a female version of they are selling… just saying … attaching female to any position or title is going against what our foreparents were used to. I think it shows some form of liberation when added to a title.

    1. Sorry, I simply can’t sit at my computer and approve every comment as they come. And I’m not sure where to get started with your comment – it was pretty offensive for how off base it is, but, ya know, us women. Always getting offended!

      1. Well, I do apologize for being offensive. I believe that none of what I said would have been taken that way, but am sorry it came across as such.

        As I also said in my comment, it was a great article, and you have great insight. Thanks for your work 🙂

  6. Well first off this was a really well done article! Also I better let you know that I’m a dude, just so we don’t misunderstand each other. On my blog I talk about metal and hard rock. In the metal community women generally aren’t taken seriously. And that’s sad. I guess it’s because we don’t think that women can scream, or really shred on guitars, like Eddie Van Halen or Slash can. Bands like Evanescance, Arch Enemy, and BabyMetal are proof that women can be metal too. Your article made me think of that.

  7. The main problem has always been the creation of a standard where a “normal” person was supposed to be a white heterosexual male and anyone else needed further adjectives to be described. I think this is part of the old heritage and it’s high time to talk about people’s skills in terms of their talents and definitely not according to their gender, sexual orientation, religious background or whatever else is there which does not comply with the archetypical standard. I totally agree with you!

  8. As a fan and a writer, though not specifically for a music publication, I get the point. I’ve never considered Janis Joplin a female blues singer. To me she’s the greatest blues vocalist who ever lived. And that’s it! Why we live in a world so full of gender bias I fail to understand. A musician, singer, songwriter or any combination thereof is simply that. A singer. A songwriter, A musician – guitarist, bassist, drummer, violinist, flutist etc. If we’re writing about music, write about the music and leave the incidental details for the readers to decipher and make their own minds up about, say I. Thanks for an eye-opening article. Would you mind if I reblogged your piece? I’m in South Africa which is still staunchly patriarchal no matter what the news tells you. Guys here need their eyes opened too. I loved your piece and I’d like to see it spread around this country.
    Regards,
    Peter The Celt 58
    find me at https://thecelt58blog.wordpress.com

  9. This comment contains 18 and over adult content.

    Listening to Norah Jones – song ‘All a Dream’.

    Respect deserves respect.

    Well I am feeling the gist of it, you want truckers to talk polite and respectful when speaking or writing about Women performers, musicians and singers’ Can be done I suppose, but’ I have never Loaded or driven a Semi Freight truck, nor do I usually write about Women in a non polite manner, but that’s not to say that Female Musicians deserve to be disrespected and trashed over their choice of lyrical content and style of song writing. Case in Point, I really like Liz Phair, as a person’ a brilliant minded woman, a Lead singer, song writer, lead guitarist, and Band fonder, and not just because I am a man that likes hearing Liz Perform her songs about ‘Hot White Cum’ facials’ and ‘sodomy’. Sure it rocks world’ ‘my Hot’ but Liz, like most all Female guitarists and singer song writers they do Mature, we grow older, (Look at Singer Song Writer’ Guitarist Bonnie Raitt as example) and we grow wiser and more mature as fans as well.

    ‘Liz Phair is putting out (no puns intended) some really awesome songs. What piss’s me off, are the spammers, trolls’ and immature imbeciles’ whom are posting rude comments upon public sites, bringing their mentality levels down to that of Locker Room school boys still trying to cope with their puberty growth spurts. There is a reason why most young ladies desire older men, of five or so years their own age, the maturity.
    But where most people fail is in that The ‘Women’ ‘The Music song writer, lead singer, lead guitarist, and Fonder of her own band, is first and foremost a Lady. And Liz Phair needs to be respected as a lady.’

    Most people fail, fans included to see Liz Phair as a brilliant minded musician. What a Female Singer, a Performer does at the end of the shift, when she turns the light out, locks the studio door and goes home (and that includes Pole dancers of whom many are College women paying their way to feed their children, paying taxes, and the bills,) is that persons own privet business. They, the female performer have a life outside of their performance Job. And no one owns them or the right to belittle or toss rude vulgar insults at them at any time. First and Foremost they are Ladies; you see fans most all fans of Male and Female Musicians, Actors, and people in Public view such as the British Royals, far over take, and they do step far over the boundaries of a person’s respect and privacy, as well as that of their families respect and privacy, obsessively so. Pavarotti’s are intrusive classless rude animals because the ‘Fans” not all fans but most are obsessed rude classless animals and far out of line. Performers are people with personal lives performing for the masses, and must be respected, because they do have personal privet lives.

    A rant there I do know, but I do Thank you for allowing me to state that, as I have been saying it for a very long time. But telling an obsessive fan that their Favorite Music performer or Author, or Actress, deserves privacy and respect, will get you at least the finger if not attacked, as in, if you tell a person the reasons for their massive painful headaches they suffer daily is in the ‘Aspartame’ of which in their “Diet” Designer soft drink tin contain, one of their many consumed designer poison soft drinks. Truthful writing is not always taken well. But someone has to say it, has to be informative. I am a bad assed Black boots’ on up front and honest Writer / Poet. Thank you’ Marissa.

  10. Thanks for this.
    I identify as genderqueer and I wanted to say thank you for this.
    I’m very interested in the sociology of gender identity and the hostility towards femininity that seems to fuel itself within our community groups. The expected performance of gender (especially in binary form) that seems unspoken because it’s literally in ALL English speech patterns frustrates and fascinates me. It didn’t get that way quickly, and it’s incredibly resilient.
    I see people in the comments asking about specific feminized words and I am reminded of how different titles for the same job came about: simplisticly, men did things. Then women got to doing those things. Then that thing “became” either less manly, OR they called the woman version something different; bonus points if it also sounds infantilized! Some other languages, like German, do this too. I despise this. It’s like men decided they didn’t want a girl getting her cooties on their favorite titles so they made a small accommodation with rigid boundaries (like a kiddy pool) so we would stop all this pestering about equality.
    Anyway, musician to musician, thank you for noticing. I’m with you!

  11. Like Bolden, Davis was not just a musician but an icon, known as much for his elegant clothes, fast cars and glittering women as for the spare, dark sound of his trumpet.

  12. On the nose with this one! I mean honestly, I can figure out someones gender on my own thank you very much, just give me the news. I am not a female-something or other, I am me and I happen to be female, don’t cheapen my accomplishments by laying on some gendered subtext. Next week (Monday I believe) I have a post scheduled to go up about the interview process for my professional college that you might find interesting, mainly because one question that particularly stood out to me (from one of the “female” interviewers) was, “As a woman, how do you think you are going to maintain work-life balance?” Needless to say I had fun answering that one. The same interviewer played dumb a couple of times during the interview (in order to provide a reason for her wanting to ask certain questions it seemed), I wanted to scream, “Don’t pander to me! I know you are intelligent, that’s why you’re on the committee, just ask me the question straight up.” The other two interviewers didn’t add any pretence to the questions they were asking me, they just asked because thats what you do in an interview (you’re supposed to know the answer or at least what answer you’re looking for).

  13. I did get to play Finnish baseball, with boys, of course. No question about it. Yet we do have articles in the press here in Finland with a headline: The Finnish Female Ice-Hockey Team Came Third in the World Championships. Usually in fine print, on page 17. When the male athletes come third, it’s considered a national tragedy and the first or the second page of a paper is full of it.

    We have had a female president. We have a really good representation of women in the parliament. And then they ask a female musician or writer: how do you take care of you family when you go out and about/just write all day? They don’t ask the male artist this particular question. It makes me grind my teeth together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s