The Oxymoron of Being Both a Female Musician
& a Feminist
I remember 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 (for no reason and without any provocation on my end) decided to send me a message which said (mind you, in fewer words and with worst grammar) 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”. Not only was I offended because said individual essentially was saying that I had no talent whatsoever to back up and/or justify my career milestones (clearly he was unfamiliar with my 10+ years of vocal and theory training in virtually every style from classical to jazz to broadway, not to mention my awarded credentials which allot me the designation, should I rightfully pursue it, to act as a licensed music teacher, among other things), but as well (and more importantly), 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% 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, above all else. Rather, the problem lay in how the idea of my “hotness” as being essential for my success jives (or fails to jive, more accurately) with my feminist disposition. More simply, when I was confronted with this individual’s point of view regarding my lack (in his opinion) 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: that of marketability, and what it means (and/or how it is limited) for the female artist.
While male musicians are able to don bleach-blond spikes like Billy Idol, wear leather pants and makeup like MCR, tie feather boas around their mic stands like Steve Tyler, or even reinvent themselves as the next Frank Sinatra like Michael Bublé, 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 ts (these days, she’s definitely showing more skin – no doubt an effort to compete with younger “versions” cause don’t you know once a woman has passed 35 in the music biz, she’s obsolete – at least among the mainstream presses, and more importantly, 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/looks like.
I’d be a hypocrite if I were to criticize any of these women, however, as I find myself forced to face the same fate, but I do so knowingly (and without a label breathing down my neck denoting how I can and cannot present myself) in the hopes that perhaps one day, I can enact change from the inside out. Trust me (hopefully, I don’t burst anyone’s fantasy bubbles about me by stating this), but 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 (but don’t even get me started on how difficult of a mission it is, in itself, to first off find non-pastel band ts for women, let alone band ts of “good” artists – ie: those who actually rock). For that matter, if I have a day off (god willing) 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 p.j.s; I imagine it’s a similar story for the above noted women.
To return momentarily to my introduction though, 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, as the purveyor of my insult so ignorantly assumed, 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 (well, any art, in general) 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, ie: chick rockers with animosity are almost invariably labelled lesbians and man-haters). While I can’t speak for all other women rockers (women artists, in general), 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 (or ever could 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 (for that matter, many of my favourite artists are men), I only hope that artists, one day, irrespective of any other master statuses they may possess (ie: gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or sexual identity etc.) 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, personally, 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 to be perpetuated? 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, on our own accord.
So the question then becomes, well, 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 (and this is a trend not just seen in music, but in greater society, why do you think that, in general, we still earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man earns in equivalent occupations? I’m not making this stuff up ladies – 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 (who’s obviously lacking said anatomy) 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 (ironically) 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 and/or elitist crowds. Because of this, unsurprisingly, women (especially, those who are lacking when it comes to “conventional” notions of beauty) 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 (and unfortunately, even in these latter group, “cattiness” is often an issue, and judgements impelled onto 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 (we ESPECIALLY need more women percussionists) with the talents I know you all possess. Make your music – beautiful, or ugly AND present yourself beautiful or ugly, in the process- it don’t matter to me babes, ‘cause I know there is value in ALL art.