Face The Music and Dance?

1 Oct

So why is it that Bad Feminist’s first themed week is dedicated to music? Surely there are more important issues: domestic violence and rape laws; sexual harassment and discrimination at work?

Well, yes. But while each of these is valid, at its worst, the music industry sadly feeds into every single one, whether through its working practices, the way that music is marketed, the type of music that’s produced or the whole damned lot rolled up into one musical bundle.

Take violence: while it’s not fair to lay domestic violence and rape at the music industry’s door – those acts are the responsibility of the weak individual perpetuating them – it could be argued that the music industry is less than condemning of music that seems to celebrate the crimes.

Smack My Bitch Up attracted controversy for its seemingly domestic-violent message (despite the video ending, which some see as feminist). The Bloodhound Gang sang ‘A lapdance is so much better when the stripper is crying.’ Lyrics abound, endorsing violence towards women – and it’s not always men singing them. Some female-written lyrics such as ‘He Hit me and it Felt Like a Kiss’, written by The Crystals back in 1962 are equally terrifying.*

Dr Michael Cobb and Dr Bill Boettcher, both professors at North Carolina State University, undertook a 2008 study into the connection between violent rap and sexism, published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and entitled, “”Ambivalent Sexism and Misogynistic Rap Music: Does Exposure to Eminem Increase Sexism?” They found that college students who listened to rap music (as part of a study rather than through their own volition) had significantly higher levels of reported sexism. Scarier than that, men who listened to rap music that didn’t even include sexist language still became more sexist than the control group.

That’s not to say that music turns people sexist: the researchers suggest that the music simply brings out any inherent sexism that a person already has within themselves. “Sexism is embedded in the culture we live in, and hearing rap music can spontaneously activate pre-existing awareness of sexist beliefs,” says Cobb. Basically, in believing rap music to be sexist – however fair or unfair that is – simply hearing it reminds us of our own sexist thoughts.

And it’s not just about the words we hear in music. When it comes to perpetuating limiting impressions of women, all you need to do is watch a music video to see women – and only conventionally attractive women – writhing around the screen. Not only does this maintain the ‘perfect’ woman stereotype – small waist, big tits, tight curvy bum, long hair, long legs and minimal clothing – but it also limits the range for female performers.

If you’re a woman, you have to look the part or you won’t get a deal – the very rare, feisty woman apart. Yes, the music industry is image-centric in general, and men have to look the part too – but they have a far wider array of roles they can play, from floppy-haired emo to horny rock star, thoughtful songwriter to dangerous gangsta. Women have one. ‘Fuckable woman’. Kylie is remembered for her hot pants, not her music (not that that’s entirely unfair). Girls Aloud sell more than KT Tunstall. Beyonce has even created her own bootylicious monicker, as a result of her sexy body. Who knows whether Aretha Franklin would even get a deal if she came along nowadays – unless she agreed to go on a strict diet and get a boob job if it made her go flat.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After nearly a decade working in the music industry, I’ve experienced and witnessed such joys as:

•     The female song writer and lead singer of a band being ignored in business meetings while the label/PR/booking agent/lawyer talks to any male around the table about the deal instead. Even the drummer.

•     Women in general being ignored in business meetings, in preference to any male in the room – even if he’s more junior and less relevant.

•     Countless cases of women being sexually harassed by their bosses.

•     Ditto sexual discrimination (women being paid less than men in the same job, anyone?)

•     Women being sent out alone to flyer wearing short skirts late at night in rough areas, with no consideration as to the risk (yes, we should take responsibility for looking after ourselves but companies also have a responsibility to keep employees safe rather than put them in risky situations)

•     Women becoming strangely absent from the company, the higher up the corprorate ladder you climb.

Now that’s not to say the music industry is all bad. Not at all. It brings pleasure to millions of people every year. At its best, it encourages creativity, introduces new artists to a mass market, helps bring joy to the world and raises money for charity on occasion.

There are some incredible women in the music industry – many of who have contributed to Bad Feminist’s Music Week and written articles that we’ll be posting over the next few days. And the industry is gradually evolving – but at a disturbingly slow pace, compared to the rest of the world, particularly when it comes to gender politics.

At its worst, the music industry demands and perpetuates the image of women being sexually subservient and intellectually inferior. It ignores women’s voices and focuses on spreading the universal message of the white 18-25 year old man-boy. Because that’s the kind of unique voice that really needs representing some more.

It’s time to change the record.**

*In 2009, Deborah Finding, from the gender institute at the London School of Economics, completed a PhD thesis entitled Give Me Myself Again – Sexual Violence Narratives in Popular Music. However, rather than look at the effect of violent lyrics on domestic violence, she analysed women’s self-reporting on domestic violence in song, looking into female-written song titles and lyrics such as ‘A Kiss With a Fist is Better Than None”

** For any younger readers, a record was a large piece of vinyl with grooves in it, like a black CD but larger and shitter in almost every way. It scratched, skipped and would become permanently damaged should you have your friends round to dance to Depeche Mode and Wham (first time round, when George Michael was still a teen girl lust icon perceived to be straight. Albeit it by the teenage girls lusting after him at the time, who were too young to have accurately honed their gaydar. Particularly given the word didn’t exist until 1982.)


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