Published Nov 01, 2001There's been some astute discussion of the music industry's sexism in this magazine of late, in this space and in the letters section, all of it penned by women. The summer issue of Punk Planet contained an excellent and scathing column by Jessica Hopper detailing the hypocrisy still prevalent in the supposedly utopian and socially progressive musical underground. And while no one wants to hear a man's take on sexism, here goes nothing.
There is an admittedly sad and deserved expectation that male rock critics are dismissive of "feminine" music. A female writer discussing Björk's new album argued that few men are likely to enjoy it. A colleague of mine, during a long drive where he was subjected to a post-break-up mix tape I'd made, commented that I must be open-minded to have so many female artists on it: he could only hear the vindictively heartbroken female voices of Liz Phair and Lucinda Williams as women, whereas I heard them as narrative kindred spirits. While being interviewed on national radio about my choice for album of the year, which was made by a female artist, I was told, "Oh, admit it, you're in love with her." I'll admit I'm attracted to her charisma as a performer, but why an implicit sexual assumption?
When I once gave an all-female Canadian trio a lukewarm review without once mentioning their gender one of their fans wrote in and called me misogynist. Another wrote in to defend me by pointing out that several prominent women were on my year-end picks for 2000 (which, however well-intentioned, sounds like a cheap "some of my best friends" defence). It seems impossible to enter the debate without the word "misogynist" being horribly appropriated and rendered meaningless; in my dictionary it's defined as a hatred of women à la Marc Lepine, not merely being artistically unimpressed by the work of a particular group of women.
In her Punk Planet piece, Hopper argues that female reviewers in a predominantly male scene are rarely taken seriously, since assumptions prevail that either a) they want to fuck the band, or b) they did try to fuck the band and were spurned, hence a negative review. This may sound like paranoid hyperbole, but a member of a Canadian hair metal band once called my former university paper to complain about a harsh review by a writer who only used their first initials; the musician figured that the writer who in reality was a heterosexual man was a woman who must have tried to get laid but couldn't get backstage.
I'd further Hopper's argument by adding that when discussing female performers, male critics are also assumed to be either a) basing their opinion according to their sexual attraction to the woman, or b) subjecting the woman to either a wildly positive or harsh judgement merely because of their gender, depending on the writer's political bias. (Sensitive guy: "all womyn rock!" Lughead guy: "chicks can't play guitar!") All this cuts both ways. I know one male rock writer who routinely seems to be settling old girlfriend issues in his reviews, and a female hip-hop writer who once wrote a rather creepy review fetishising and drooling over a 15-year-old MC. And while everybody knows the music business is all about pimping, I've had both male and female publicists try to sell me on interviewing a female artist by setting it up as a date.
It's impossible to deny the sexuality of music's emotional response, to say nothing of the effect certain performers have on our libidos. But when is it appropriate in music criticism to discuss sexuality at all? I've enjoyed shows by countless people who turn my crank, a response inextricably linked to their performance; I won't sit through a shitty show no matter how hot the singer is. For that same reason, a comparatively average-looking person can be transformed into a sexual deity on stage if all the musical and theatrical elements are aligned.
Should that enter into a critique of the music? That answer also seems to depend on the gender of the reviewer, not to mention their orientation. For years I wrote under both my own name and a female pseudonym. I learned quickly that a presumably straight woman commenting on a man's on-stage radiance is considered "personal writing"; the reverse is considered creepy. Queer voices in music criticism are scarce.
Critics shouldn't be a bunch of desexualised Maoist prudes. But it should never be assumed that musical and sexual merits are intertwined, as it often is with female artists under male scrutiny. Music and sex go hand in hand, but that doesn't mean we male and female critics alike want to sleep with all our favourite musicians. And even if we do, what does that have to do with the beat?