How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide

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Maybe it's all that misguided Year of the Woman chatter that dominated year-end roundups, or the slow, agonizing creep of Fashion Week, or the coming apocalypse, but hoo boy has there been a lot of terrible writing about female musicians in the past few weeks. The latest offender is the New York Times style magazine T's cover-worthy profile of Lana Del Rey, which manages to be offensive from its first sentence and somehow gets worse from there. (There are even photos by the terminally icky Terry Richardson.) This piece inspired me to put forth four questions that writers, whether they're male or female, whether they're people with Tumblrs or those important enough to score offices at the New York Times building, should ask themselves before hitting "send" on their next piece about a woman making music.

1. Go through your piece and flip the gender of your descriptive phrases' subjects. Are there any that sound ludicrous as a result?
Descriptions of musicians' looks are just the tip of the iceberg here. Let's play a game: Could you imagine the following phrase being written, never mind getting through an editor and being published in a major newspaper:

Without straying too far off the indie grid, he's the perfect antidote to Bon Iver-Radiohead overload—dare we say, a skinnier Damian Abraham, a more stable Kurt Cobain?

No, of course not. Because a) it's just a jumble of names, b) just how big is this "grid," and c) mocking the "stability" of someone dead after a life marked by turbulence is outright gross. And yet T's Jacob Brown did exactly this—subbing in Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Adele, and Amy Winehouse, in that order—in the second sentence of his piece, after gushing over how "curvaceous and pretty" his subject was. Does this statement say anything about the music being made, and how it plays off Born To Die? No, it focuses on their public profile: overexposed, fat, crazy-slash-dead—and the result is a bunch of recycled cocktail-party chatter, turned into a doorman's grudging nod to those people Cool Enough To Know What's Good.

(I guess my example is a bit flawed, since of course rock would never be painted with such a broad brush, being as it is Important Music Made And Listened To By People Who Have Thoughts. Not like those silly pop artists who are so trifling and crazy/overexposed!)

Chuck Klosterman's chin-scratching about tUnE-yArDs' Pazz & Jop win contained a similarly hackle-raising line:

Garbus will end up with this bizarre 40-year-old life, where her singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, "Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking puppeteer? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?"

Anyone want to get a male critical darling of yore on the phone to talk about his "bizarre 40-year-old life"? I'll wait.

2. Are you essentially making shit up about the artist in order to sexualize her?
I'll let Chris Randle at the Toronto Standard handle this one, because his response to National Magazine Award winner Tom Junod's assertion in Esquire that Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Ke$ha operated under "porn names" (as opposed to Florence Welch) is delicious and correct:

...he specifies the devices that pop stars remind him of: sex toys. "Beyoncé and Gaga, Rihanna and Ke$ha: They share little but an ability to impart an awareness that whatever their music pretends to be about, it's really about becoming Beyoncé, Gaga, Rihanna, and Ke$ha—about living up to their porn or (in Stephani Germanotta's case) their drag names."

Beyoncé inherited her Creole mother's maiden name as a tribute. "Rihanna" dates back to both Old English and ancient Arabic; it's her middle name, but then pop already had a Robyn. And aside from the vertical stroke, "Ke$ha" is what appears on that woman's birth certificate. Sorry, Beyoncé! You may have erroneously thought that your music is "about" hard-won female independence, or the joys of creative fidelity, or making people dance, or, as Daphne Brooks once wrote, "what it means to lose, and to have, and to possess." But you're a silly girl with a trashy name. The real theme of those albums was demonstrating your fuckability for Tom Junod.

The "drag name" reference that Junod made, by the way, is a reference to that old rumor about Gaga having a penis. Because being a National Magazine Award winner means never having to visit Snopes.



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90 comments
Will
Will

"Without straying too far off the indie grid, he's the perfect antidote to Bon Iver-Radiohead overload—dare we say, a skinnier Damian Abraham, a more stable Kurt Cobain?"

Actually that line makes perfect sense to me and doesnt seem weird at all. I dont know how old you are, but in the 90s it was commonplace for people to constantly talk about how skinny or crazy male frontmen were, or how long their hair was, or how many drugs they were on, or whether or not they were bisexual. And im sorry, but Lady Gaga IS a drag name. Like, intentionally so. Undeniably so. You obviously dont understand or are even barely aware drag culture. Lady Gaga is a drag name. Lady Gaga is a female drag performer.

chiotaikai
chiotaikai

come the fuck on... channel orange is a truly awesome record. it really takes time to start appreciating it. at first it sounded boring for me as well, but after you start to really pay attention to the lyrics, and those hidden synth melodies, it starts to reveal itself. i think it can come off as boring, but actually it wants to seem bored, underlining that very lifestyle it tries to show you. as a previous commenter said, it's just a bunch of songs about rich kids in cali. yeah, it is. but it gives you a full display of this lifestyle, it's fake values, it's dangers, the whole paradox that it is. and the style frank ocean performs it, is the best it can be done in. i don't listen to this kind of music, and i don't really know the roots of it, but the fact that i've listened to it over and over again tells a lot about this thing. it caught me, even if i'm not even close from california. i think he's also a phenomenal live performer. just listen to bad religion on SNL. bottom line is... to call this record boring tells me that the writer of this article listened to it like once or twice and decided that it's boring... well... i think it is a sloppy opinion of a sloppy listener. so in the future, just stick to justin bieber.

monkeypineapple
monkeypineapple

Oh puh-lease. I'll grant you that nobody should care about how fat or not fat Adele is, I certainly don't -- she sounds damn good. But as far as sexualizing Gaga, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Katy Perry - um, have you seen what they wear? How they dance? Have you listened to some of their lyrics? The blame belongs with the labels who sexualize and parade their artists like auto-tuned sex kittens; and to the artists who allow themselves to be so degraded; and with the fans who continue to buy these records rather than others by artists with more talent, more integrity and less cleavage. The male writers who comment on it, snarky though they may be, are RIGHT. Rather than direct your ire at these vain scribblers, author, you should be writing a column on why a woman has to be a porn star to be a pop star. I bet nobody ever wrote like that about Natalie Merchant.

GrrlRocker
GrrlRocker

As a female musician, I really appreciate this article. Thanks for writing it. However, I must say that the writers who depict female musicians this way are only a reflection of our society's attitudes toward women in general.  Seems we're regressing as a country back to a time long b4 the civil rights movement. As an accomplished musician who actually gets paid gigs (not easy these days), I mostly perform as a solo artist 'cuz most other musicians are male and they have a hard time respecting me as a musician (i.e., they usually hit on me and when they see I'm not int. in sleeping with them, they don't want to play w/me anymore...)

 

I've never been one of the guys but I'm not int. in being a sex object either. Guess that makes me unique these days? I'm successful performing solo, get a lot of comments on my playing and sometimes get paid, but when I try to get together w/male musicians I usually run into the "I'm a better musician than you cuz I'm a guy" thing and it's irritating. I just want to play music not compete w/a bunch of insecure guys with mommy issues as to who can pick a riff faster than whom.

 

But I think that we have two options as female musicians here in the USA: dress and act like a man (seriously, I've met female musicians who do--they're one of the guys!) or be a sex object. There's no way to just be yourself. And if you're talented, write your own material and really have something to say--watch out!  'Cuz then your attacking with the status quo & some people don't like that very much.

timeyoutake
timeyoutake

I never realized it was part of my job to be sweet on the person writing about me. That was very funny.

 

Everything else about this piece, I ADORE and finally feel respected, appreciated, understood, validated, and am ever so very grateful that you put voice to this. Thank you!

 

 

ShyCharles
ShyCharles

"But you're a silly girl with a trashy name. The real theme of those albums was demonstrating your fuckability for Tom Junod." - TOO perfect!

 

"The T profile of Lana Del Rey brings up the following artists, all of whom get, for varying reasons, thrown under the bus: Rihanna; Lady Gaga; Adele; Amy Winehouse; Ke$ha; Miley Cyrus; Nicki Minaj" - I never had the misfortune to read the original article but YES, so much YES.

 

This goes on everywhere in the media, in content targeted at ALL audiences. 

 

Joke: What do Rihanna, Amy Winehouse and Nicki Minaj have in common?? OH NO, there's no punchline....this is just how most journalists think of female musicians and singers. 

And how well able we all are to ignore this!

 

ShyCharles
ShyCharles

YES YES YES YES!

May the Lord be praised! 

This is the best thing I have ever read. Perfect. 

Allminearetaken
Allminearetaken

While I completely agree with the simple fact that a great deal of men, and therefore male music critics are sexist, I think the problem comes when people who have no real technical knowledge of subject have somehow managed to find a job writing about it.  The biggest problem with most music critics is that they do not have background in musical theory, composition, and history.  I've once interviewed several local music critics for an article, and I was surprised to find out just how many had never even picked up an instrument.  How can one be qualified to comment on the music with no technical knowledge about the methods being used or the complexity of the music; it means they are left with only the ability to make comparisons to similar artists in their knowledge base.  I think the simple fact is, that most reviews are not really objectively assessing the music. Reading a review from someone who couldn't tell you if that was a minor third or a major fifth chord they just heard is never going to give more than just a superficial opinion based on the basic elements of music that they can understand.  Appearance, personality, and the artists place in popular culture are all that most critics can really have an informed opinion about.

Tryan22
Tryan22

Actually, "a skinnier Damiam Abraham, a more stable Kurt Cobain" DOES tell me loads about the music. It will presumably be angry, frustated, and confused, lyrically, and more than likely will have loads of Black Flag influence.

Tin Canman
Tin Canman

I cringe reading things like ''the lovely and talented''. 

Wizard of Roz
Wizard of Roz

If this is what constitutes a female musician lately then that is frightening! How about Number 5 which may have passed you by..writing about an actual female musician meaning a lady who actually plays an instrument & has talent!!! . I would agree with this if any of the women mentioned actually had any talent. The reason these dumb guys have no clue how to speak of their so-called 'music' is because they don't know what the hell to make of it or even care because there's nothing to care about. I'm a musician & a woman & don't like it, it's not music at all but mindless crap. Even if I liked any of these so-called 'musicians' they would be the last people I would listen to about it.

jamiepeck
jamiepeck

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

Handsupfor88
Handsupfor88

Maura, I've spent the better part of my lunch breaking reading your posts and now I have to post a comment about how awesome you are! Excellent writing!

Sally Sam Sean
Sally Sam Sean

An article about gender saying not to write about gender. Feminists are the only ones who get to mention gender.

Verna
Verna

roomate's mother made $19135 past week. she is making money on the laptop and bought a $564600 condo. All she did was get lucky and follow the guide shown on this link http://myurl.in/hFkhL 

Guest
Guest

Jackie: Please try to engage respectfully in debate with other human beings, regardless of their gender, or whether or not you are on the internet.  Your comments are sexist, divisive, and primarily illustrate / spread anger.  Dismissing and insulting those who disagree with you does nothing to change their attitudes!

Mabq4d
Mabq4d

Nice article, and well-timed after the Grammy's elevation of Chris Brown made it abundantly clear how much the music industry likes women. 

catchmeifyoucan
catchmeifyoucan

Authenticity is an unattainable, or unsustainable, ideal.  You might be born with it, but you can't keep it. But I disagree with the current wisdom - found in this blog and repeated ad nauseum in so many others - that since it's impossible, it's an ideal that's barely worth scoffing at. It's clearly perceived as a Rock anachronism, and since the term 'rock' has been successfully reworked as a perjorative as skillfully as the GOP reworked the word 'liberal' in 1988, it's been marginalized. 

Instrumentalists have been marginalized as well.  I have no idea if this is connected to the demise of rock or not, but the other night was a 3-hour Vocal Fetish Convention.  Outside of Ms. Swift's crackerjack banjo skills, and The Boss mangling his Tele next to McCartney, it was a pretty microphone-centric evening.  An entire idea, or even an emotion can be conveyed without a word. 

For those of us who sometimes enjoy music without the clutter of human voices or video images or bantamweight sociological nonsense, it can get pretty numbing.

Jackie
Jackie

the real problem is the deep down inside, men will never respect women. that's why when women are successful, accomplish something, or display any kind of talent, males are immediately ready to denigrate, insult, and reduce women to objects.

the solution is more female writers. men shouldn't be allowed to cover female musicians or singers, because male egos are simply too fragile. the knee jerk reaction is sexist insults, objectification, and belittling. i'm getting sick of this, and i'm glad i'm not the only one.

it's ridiculous that as women accomplish more and more, men have to become bigger pigs in order to compensate. it's pathetic. these male writers need to shut up.

Alan Ranta
Alan Ranta

Awesome piece. More of this sort of thing.

Mike Browne
Mike Browne

Someone, I forget who, did a parody of that entire Tune-Yards piece by setting it around the release of Fargo Rock City and making it about Klosterman. 

Jimmy Shelter
Jimmy Shelter

Maura would have been perfect for the Victorian Era, with her endless defending of the "honor of women" being in style then. I hope someone gets the smelling salts to help her if she faints from some evil male writing something politically suspect about female musicians in the next century. The horror!!!

Justin
Justin

Isn't the real problem here that people are still talking about Lana Del Ray?

Davidlevack
Davidlevack

Im too drunk to follow that especially without references. But nicely job castrating those ba$tard$!

Edgertor
Edgertor

oh thank you. You could make this into a series, bc there are always new examples coming along all the time!

!!!!!

ami
ami

"terminally icky"???

ARE WE TWELVE

Radiogumbo
Radiogumbo

Just remember: writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Paul Schreiber
Paul Schreiber

While most of your points are terrific, the idea that Beyoncé's music is "'about' hard-won female independence" doesn't stand up to critical analysis.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p72Uqy...

Also ironic is that below your article is a link to "Top 10 Most Beautiful Women Vocalists."

neonia
neonia

haha thank you maura, this is spot on!! so funny, it always makes me laugh when i read interviews like 'gosh she's like soooo much nicer than i imagined despite the fact that she's really hot and a musician' ... alexis petridis interviewing shakira comes to mind, but its so constant!!! these guys need to grow up, its not polite to drool in public!

Tanja
Tanja

Thanks for that. As well the article perfectly shows how few women write about music in popular magazines. 

allslicksjunkmail
allslicksjunkmail

@monkeypineapple Oh no? You don't think so? Hm...let's test that theory:  http://www.askmen.com/celebs/women/singer_100/142_natalie_merchant.html


http://www.snakkle.com/galleries/before-they-were-famous-stars-hot-photo-gallery-from-no-doubt-to-sugar-ray-see-where-these-90s-hitmakers-are-today-where-are-they-now/natalie-merchant-lilith-fair-1998-red-carpet-2010-photo-split-2/


http://spinningplatters.com/2012/06/21/show-review-natalie-merchant-w-san-francisco-symphony-at-davies-symphony-hall-61812/


"Merchant slinked around the stage like a sexy ballerina while singing this song. Although, yes, she now has gray hair and a few wrinkles, she can still move with the grace, balance, and energy of a 20 year old."  


No, you're right. Who would ever talk about a serious musician like Natalie Merchant like that, just because she has a vagina? That's ridiculous. There is clearly no such thing as sexism in the music industry.


Puh.

factorysunburst
factorysunburst

@Allminearetaken I agree that music critics could do with knowing more about how music works, but we've barely begun to develop techniques that yield coherent analyses of popular music. Not a lot of popular music yields interesting results when analysed using, say, Schenkerian analysis - hell, Schenkerian analysis can't handle any music written after 1900. Most popular music critics don't write about other kinds of music, and it's a rare classical critic that writes with informed enthusiasm (as opposed to disdain) about popular music.

monkeypineapple
monkeypineapple

Not so much.  A music critic can learn a little theory to become more informed, but it's certainly not a requirement for every one.  Their job is to relate music to regular everyday people, to describe in words what it sounds like and place it in the continuum of music past and present.  I'd say Music History and Sociology are the main tools of a critic, with music production being next and music theory a distant 4th.  When you read a movie review, do you think the reviewer knows exactly what kind of camera shots are being used?  What acting techniqes?  Doubtful and I wouldn't care.  Anyway, if this doesn't convince you, you might want to take your own advice: There's no such thing as a major fifth chord!

Guest
Guest

There's plenty of great music out there being made by women. Many of them aren't given the attention and recognition that's warranted. That's what this article is about. The woman mentioned DO have talent. If that is only their voices. There are plenty out there playing instruments and rocking it, as well. Those women are getting these crappy reviews too. So, this article is important for all women in the music business. 

Even those you don't like or respect.

Kat
Kat

Oh for gods sake, shut up.

You haven't read the article at all, have you? Christ, Only feminists get to write about gender, no, it's just that we don't want articles on a musician to be about how 'Fat' she is. Because it's all shit and has nothing to do about her music.

So stop hating on feminists, because all we're trying to do is make things easier for women, who constantly get put down because of their weight or looks.

Jackie
Jackie

this is what happens when mental institutions allow their patients to use the internet.

Jackie
Jackie

get over yourself, pig.

you did exactly what she describes in the article, too bad you're too stupid to see it. yeah, the victorian era was great for women. remember when men could cheat on their wives and get away with it, and women would be divorced and lose all custody of the kids with no financial support if someone simply started a rumor she cheated? that's chivalry!

you can get back to call of duty now.

Stewie
Stewie

Heh.  The Victorian Era, that lovely time of "defending the honor of women."  Yes, defense of the honor of women was in SUCH style then, how dare those silly women request voting rights and property rights.  The nerve they had to want such things, such a horror that women would like to be treated like human beings and not objects.

Elizabeth Sullivan
Elizabeth Sullivan

Aside from seeing her name online I have no idea who she is, and I definitely don't know what her voice sound like.

maura
maura

I could have substituted "utterly hacky" in there too (and it rhymes!), but "icky" just fits so much better with the subject at hand.

Nicole K.
Nicole K.

 ....yeah. And writing about writing about music is a far more worthwhile venture.

Elizabeth Sullivan
Elizabeth Sullivan

Not all women are "feminists" either.  I do what I want to do when I want to do it because that's just me.  I'm not interested in "I am woman hear me roar", I am more interested in "I am human let me do what I want to do" 

I just think it's time for men AND women to stop treating each other like enemies and realize that we ALL have an important place in this world.

Caffinated Cutie
Caffinated Cutie

Such chivalry! Is this the way hipsters attempt to get laid? Won't work with me.

artemis
artemis

yeah, that IS feminism.

Stewie
Stewie

Lol.  I dunno if that's how hipsters attempt to get laid since I'm not a hipster.

Good job with providing further proof of the validity of the article being discussed though, by making a value judgement based on my perceived gender instead of the substance of what I said.  Nicely done.

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