Why Do I Listen to So Many White Guys with Guitars?

Categories: Essay

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Credit: Natalie Zaro
HAIM has the whole girl power thing on lock
You learn a lot about yourself when you take a three-week road trip soundtracked by the 1200 or so songs that you keep on your iPhone. No matter who you're traveling with, you are bound to eventually exhaust all normal conversation topics, and your focus will inevitably shift to the songs that are accompanying you. I have always believed that you can tell a lot about a person based on their book or film collection, and I feel the same way about music libraries, too.

See also: On Default Genders, Dead Girlfriends, Politics, and Imagination

With that in mind, I decided to take a long, hard, objective look at myself, sizing my music library up the same way I'd size up a potential date, roommate, or friend. When I did, I noticed something slightly disturbing: I listen to a lot of white boys with guitars. I'd like to think I have pretty eclectic taste in music and try to listen to anything, as long as the lyrics aren't heinously stupid/misogynistic. It's pretty normal for the shuffle function to skip from 1940's show tunes to EDM to jazz to a cappella to folk to indie rock. But even with tastes that diverse, I noticed that most of the artists I listen to are male.

I found this alarming. I'm a feminist, and while I don't think there's a way to quantify feminism, I aim to support those who identify as female in any way. So why do I listen to so many male artists, and just how outnumbered are the ladies in my music library, anyways? With this in mind, I came up with an undertaking: re-listen to all 1,257 songs I currently have on my iPhone, and mark down whether the song was sung by people of the male persuasion, female persuasion, or a duet/group song between males and females. I also skipped through all songs from musicals (of which there are quite a lot--I'm a musical theater kid at heart), since those are sung by characters who are telling a story, and the instrumental-only songs, since they don't have singers.

Is my methodology ***flawless, to borrow some syntax from Beyonce? Certainly not, but it did the trick. For better or worse, the singer of a song is the face of the song, and, in bands, often the face of the band. This is the face that the artist chose to present to the world, and so it is the face for which I will judge them. When I jumped in, I was shocked by the numbers I was seeing. I had a feeling that the majority of the songs I listened to were sung by dudes, but I had no clue just how few females I had on my iPhone.

I also noticed something surprising--almost all of the songs by women had earned their place on my phone. It's a battle to be awarded a spot on my phone, but the songs sung by females were all awesome ones that I genuinely love and hand-picked. The songs sung by dudes, though? Not so much. The songs I didn't know very well, or the free songs from Starbucks that I'd been keeping on there and had forgotten about were all sung by dudes. I knew almost every single female-fronted song by heart. This brought up an interesting question for me: why am I so much more willing to keep songs by guys around, to "give them a shot," but I wouldn't do the same for my fellow ladies?

I may be overstating things, but I feel like this is a form of deep-seeded, latent sexism in myself. I've been unconsciously setting up higher standards for female artists, like they have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts do. That's a concept that's unfortunately familiar to any group that isn't white males, and I'm saddened to find that I've been subconsciously reinforcing it, even in something as simple as my taste in music.

See also: "The Assumption Is That I'm a Prop": On Being a Woman of Color in the Indie Music Scene


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9 comments
carla.jean.whitley
carla.jean.whitley

Oh man, I totally follow. I suspect it's not so much that the writer believe she should choose music based on gender (or any other label), but that she's questioning what, if anything, this says about her. I've wondered the same about my music collection, and for years have daydreamed about starting a "chicks rock" radio show. (I haven't done it yet because I'm already spread too thin.) 


It's not that I don't love music made by all sorts of people, but if I'm so pro-girl, why is my music collection so skewed? It may not say ANYTHING about me. Maybe I'm overanalyzing, and this writer is, too. But is it not worth considering?


I don't think it's feasible to make every purchasing decision based on political or social agendas. Ultimately, I buy what I like (whether that's with regard to food, music or anything else). But when it comes to the issues about which I feel most strongly, I try to let them influence how I spend my money. That's why I tend to buy books for full price at local bookstores, for example; I strongly believe in the value of what they bring to my community. Even though that sort of approach may not show up every time I shop, I think it's a worthwhile consideration.

laina.dawes
laina.dawes

Yeah, I'm not quite following the purpose of this piece. I am a black woman who primarily listens to metal, so I listen to a lot of 'white' bands - because my primary interest is the music - if you are good I will support you. Simple. I've never felt guilty, or un -feminist by doing so - it's my preference. However, I am a firm supporter of supporting black women artists who are into metal, hardcore and punk but it is not because they simply are black + women - the support comes from championing musicians who are talented and are hindered by institutional and systematic discrimination within not only the music industry, but among aggressive music listeners who automatically think that ONLY white men should be playing a particular genre of music. 


I have also learned that being a woman musician means nothing if you are not talented. I would never support anyone's music simply based on their gender. That is just silly. 


John Amaral
John Amaral

it is not the quantity but quality. Hendrix anyone?

Frank Vieira
Frank Vieira

Because their good, that's why. More stupid articles from the VV on trashing the white guy or I should say the working class.

Samuel Parker Howard
Samuel Parker Howard

I don't understand this, really. Why would I force myself to listen to an artist for the sake of diversity? Then your taste becomes more of a thinly veiled political statement than a reflection of your personality or mood.

AnonIL
AnonIL

Hmm, I think I have lots of female artists in my collection, but I need to double-check.  If not, I want to change that in my collection too.

awj002
awj002

@laina.dawes It's funny you should mention punk and metal. Those are the genres where you'd expect audiences to care the absolute least about fashion/appearance. But when it comes to physical beauty as a "requirement" for success as a musician, I feel like hard rock and metal have a stronger double standard than most other genres. 


In pop music and radio rock, if you're not attractive, you're unlikely to "make it" regardless of whether you're male or female--at least that's my perception. It seems to be a known and accepted rule of the game...whether you want to be Brittany Spears or Johnny Rzeznik, you better look like either Brittany Spears or Johnny Rzeznik.


On the other hand, dudes in the hard rock/metal genre can be notoriously unattractive (think of Lemmy from Motorhead, or Brian Johnson from AC/DC), while any female-led metal band seems to be fronted by a woman who meets traditional standards of beauty. I'm thinking of Angela Gossow and Alissa White, both from Arch Enemy; Otep Shyamalan from Otep; and the singers for Lacuna Coil and Evanescence. I seriously question whether a metal band with an "unattractive" female lead singer could attain the success of Arch Enemy and the other groups I mentioned.

awj002
awj002

And all the music by women that you aren't listening to--that's all bad music, right?  I mean...you gave a fair listen to everyone's music before making a reasoned decision to give your time, money, and attention to dudes rather than women, right? 

awj002
awj002

Sigh. The underlying point is to suggest that we have historically given default cultural preference to the works of white men, which marginalizes the work of women and non-white men. Often this marginalization is unconscious and expresses itself as what appears to us as individuals to be our natural "tastes" in music, literature, and other cultural expression. I'm guessing if you think of the "great authors" of history, you will think of Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway. Most of us grew up reading those authors, but fewer of us were reading Toni Morrison, or Barbara Kingsolver, or even Jose Saramago or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the same way, most of us grew up with the "musical canon" of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and going back even further Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, etc. This is all to say that culture guides our tastes more than we often know and acknowledge. Nobody is obligated to "force one's self" to listen to music, or read literature, or do anything that is outside what is most broadly accepted as "great" by the cultural mainstream; but to maintain a narrow definition of one's own tastes, while refusing to be critical of one's own prejudices, is perpetuating a culture that makes it harder for marginalized artists to gain visibility, acceptance, and commercial success. Not to mention that by failing to explore anything beyond a familiar archetype, you're denying yourself, and ultimately denying society, access to lots of great work that is every bit as legitimate and significant as work that hits the mainstream, and which offers perspectives that are not often heard.

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