By Whitney Kenerly
During my senior year of college I bought a crappy single speaker CD player for $22, just to play a dance mix I had made for a house party that night. I already owned a nice set of speakers for my iPod, and only wanted the CD player for one solitary reason: I was fucking tired of boys compulsively switching out of my playlist and taking over as the house DJ.
Never mind that it was my house and my iPod; it wasn’t about that. It was about the way that even some of my closest guy friends seemed to completely disregard my ability to put together something as straightforward as a dance mix for drunk people. And I had to ask myself, was it because I’m a girl?
Female music journalists are used to being overlooked. We are also used to being the “only girl in the room”.
It’s hard to find your voice when you’re surrounded by guys with tendencies to discuss music by rattling off entire catalogs of album release dates and sub-genres of sub-genres as though they are baseball statisticians. And even if you do manage to find your voice, it’s hard to make them listen.
Women have an industry reputation as being predisposed to discuss music from a personal perspective, with criticism regarding emotional responses rather than the mechanical aspect behind the types of pedals or amplifiers or synthesizers that went into creating the actual sound. Whether or not this is true, I don’t think that an interpretation of music must be technical in order to be valid. In a 2010 interview with NPR, James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem discussed his preoccupation with the pure physicality of rhythm in dance music and punk. Regardless of lyrical composition and instrumental arrangements, he understood that a critical part of describing music entails understanding how it feels.
Therefore, it seems only fitting that female artists appear most prominently and attain the most success in pop music. The physicality of infectiously repetitive melodies and melodramatic choruses seem appropriate for such overtly sexualized bombshell songstresses. But in spite of the marketable success (and the subsequent gender discourse surrounding their ultra-vixen portrayals) of power pop princesses like Rihanna, Katy Perry, and the ubiquitous Lady Gaga, it is contradictory to regard their celebrity as any sort of triumph for feminism. These women, thrusting around in various hues of lycra and moaning out the lyrics to songs often written by other men, are all in their mid-20s, strikingly beautiful, and ultimately sexual props.
Ostensibly, the culture of indie music would be different. Hipsters take pride in their androgynous style and self-proclaimed enlightened sensitivity. But when you look at the artists with the most credibility in the indie scene, they (and the journalists praising them) are still mostly white men – just skinnier and with facial hair.
I’ve often wondered if the indie-male artistic and compassionate persona is a subtle visage to quietly disguise real sexism. Even the most progressively literate guys become disengaged when contemporary sexism is brought up, and especially within the sacred confines of their own alternative culture. If you are a guy and still reading this editorial right now, I can probably assume that you are either defensively dissecting every aspect of my argument that annoys you, or you are only skimming this as you simultaneously watch porn.
So are female indie musicians doomed to an identity-purgatory of “edgy” pin-up versions of themselves and restricted to cooing back-up lyrics while playing bass guitar behind the guys?
For me, the alarming proof of sexism in indie rock was revealed after a simple Google search of “Women in Indie Rock”. I was jolted to see that most of the results were from articles listing the “hottest” or most “strangely attractive” women in indie music. Even our own local WKNC 88.1FM college radio station in Raleigh appeared at the top with a “Hottest” list.
I can’t help but to feel like women are just as objectified in indie rock and that the pop music’s seductive siren aesthetic has been exchanged for fringe bangs and loose-fitting tank tops exposing side-boob.
Female musicians and music journalists are forced to overcompensate and strive to establish authenticity based on their creative work apart from appearances and gender stereotypes. Still, our contributions to music and music journalism are utterly invaluable. Where would the world be without Karen O or Ann Powers?
Maybe we can’t control our own feminine visibility, but our abilities and opinions matter, and demand equal respect by men. We know what we’re doing, and we can in fact make a damn good dance mix.