Saturday, January 4, 2014

Save the Rock Ta-Tas!

I tend to fraternize with a fairly homogenous species of music fan. Male. College educated. White. At or above the economic Mendoza line. Their musical preferences lean towards the classic rock era but with tolerance and sometimes appreciation for modern folk or alternative acts.

The more ardent and confidently opinionated their musical tastes, the more likely they consider themselves liberals. For reasons I can't easily explain, conservative types aren't usually as musically snotty.

After almost six years of writing this blog, often about music, often requiring intense listening and occasional researching, and after countless hours of debates and discussions about music, I’ve come to one certainty about the species of music fan with whom I tend to fraternize: they are rock sexists.

Not all of them, mind you, and not always aggressively, but most certainly in the aggregate.

If you were to take a good hard look this particular Dude Collective's favorites and best ofs, what you see is the musical equivalent of stodgy university professors and their Important Books. It’s the Dead White Guys of Rock and Roll list. (Except in rock and roll it’s more like Not-Quite-Dead White Guys.)

In general, their tastes are not far off from the statistics seen at Coachella, where female acts and women-fronted bands are lucky to get 10% of the lineup. Women might be making advances in most of our society, but we’re still holding them at bay in rock music.

Ask them why their picture of rock is the equivalent of the graffiti in Superbad*, and this Dude Collective will offer explanations. Some of them are even valid. They’ll name-drop a few women in their list the same way white people say “Some of my best friends are black.” But mostly amongst this set, they are comfortable liking -- and only liking -- their male-dominated musical scene. Besides, the more classic the rock, the better it must be, and the more classic it is, the more testicles are involved, statistically speaking.

They -- this subset of white male music lovers -- are rarely apologetic about their views. When it comes to every other part of life, they’re more than willing to acknowledge our culture should do a better job of welcoming and accepting a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, but when it comes to “art” -- most particularly what is considered “good modern (rock) music” -- the mind closes off. The ears clamp shut. The minute they hear a female voice, their interest is shot.

It’s a comfortable kind of sexism because no one seems to eager to judge, because our tastes are our tastes, right? And who’s to judge, as the Pope might say. Well, except them. They are to judge. And usually quite harshly.

When I came out with my “Favorites” music list for the year, one friend’s reaction was, “When did Billy turn into a girl?” This isn’t even the 12th time a male friend has said I’m “a bit girly” with my musical tastes. That’s a music snob’s way of saying my tastes aren’t very hip. Or masculine, I guess, although I’m frankly still trying to figure out what makes for Quality Masculine Music. I've never had a female friend or acquaintance make that kind of comment.

Looking at my list of favorites, it’s difficult to see how their jibes could be anything but a reaction to the fact that roughly half of my favorite songs and albums are by women or include women in key roles (Note: The Pixies hardly counts). Far more than half of my favorites list showed up on critics lists like A.V. Club, Paste and PopMatters, among others, so it’s not like I'm a trailblazer or a radical.

These guys, for the most part, seem comfortable with their prejudice. They like men making their music. Simple as that. In rock, it seems, women are best seen and not heard. Or maybe it’s OK for them to be the appetizer or dessert, but not the main course.

Their objections and prejudices aren’t unlike the many guys I know who openly and aggressively mock women’s sports as an inferior product. Many of these guys are or were athletes themselves, and some are coaches, and they regularly cite the quality of play and the superior physical ability of the highest-level men in a given sport.

Ironically, while more often this sort of sports chauvinist is perceived as sexist, there is far more justification for acknowledging the physical differences between genders than can justify prejudice along creative lines in writing, the arts, music. It's easier to argue why women can't play football or play a less impressive game of basketball than it is to explain why you just don't like the sound of a woman singing rock and roll or playing a group of instruments.

How white and male is your musical collection? How OK are you with that?


troutking said...

Not apologetic at all for three reasons: one, I like older music and there simply weren't as many women in rock music at the time. In fact, I'd argue that the percentage of women I like---Joni Mitchell, Aretha, Chrissie Hynde, Heart, etc--is probably about the same as the percentage of male artists I like from the 50s-80s. It's just that there were so many more male musicians than female. Two, it's natural to identify with someone whose lyrics you can relate to. It seems to me most women's music collections lean just as heavily toward female artists. Some artists seem to find a perspective that both genders can relate to, but many don't. Three, if you like rock and roll, white males have done simply done it the best. Sure it started with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but the Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, Bruce, Bob, Van Morrison also surpassed them. Why not listen to the best? Now, if you are talking about blues and r and b, I don't have that much use for white artists and my collection reflects that. I don't have any rap in my collection, either white or black. Except Licensed to Ill.

I will acknowledge, however, that a part of the issue is that I'm sure women rockers didn't get as much support from the music industry for many years and so we don't get to hear some great ones, but were there female Beatles or Stones out there that we didn't get to hear? I doubt it.

Robert Berman said...

Genderwise and on paper, my "cool music" collection reflects the history of pop music: mostly guys. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, The Clash, Tom Petty, REM, Pearl Jam, White Stripes, Ben Folds, Avett Brothers. So too my "uncool music" collection: Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Randy VanWarmer, Michael W. Smith, OneRepublic, etc.

However, the "music I listen to a lot" playlist seems majority female, mainly Joni Mitchell and her progeny: Indigo Girls, Sara Groves, Sarah McLachlan, Sara Jarosz (not sure what's up with all the Sara/Sarahs), Emmylou Harris, Dar Williams, Catie Curtis, Brandi Carlile, Petra Haden, Imogen Heap, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Doubleclicks.

But yes, it's an overwhelmingly white bunch when I think of "which artist do I want to listen to today?" On the other hand, I also have my music arranged by year playlists. Blacks fare much better there, from Nat King Cole to Lloyd Price to Motown to Bill Withers to Billy Ocean to King's X to Nelly to T.I. Why do I never seek those songs out even though I'm always happy to hear them?

Billy said...

@Robert - Thanks for the comment. It's my thought that, the minute we consciously examine our listening habits and preferences, we're at least a little more likely to give those not-like-us musicians consideration and appreciation. "We" here being those who in other circumstances favor or appreciate notions of and the value of equality and diversity. It doesn't, however, mean I have to instantly like Rihanna just so I can expand my collection of African-American Women Musicians In Order To Feel Better About Myself.