While I have little personal experience to back up the theory, I sometimes get the impression that being a woman in the music industry might not be the easiest job in the world. For, despite recent scientific advances in the important areas of space exploration, nuclear power and vegan ‘bacon’, no one seems to have solved the secret to being a rock star and a girl at the same time. From having to deal with inevitably doomed romantic entanglements to being endlessly reminded by the media that you’re morbidly obese because you’re bigger than an XXS, writing a memorable hook for your latest song appears to be the least of most female musician’s problems.
On top of all that, women in music also seem to enjoy the convenient double standard of always being the fall guy for shitty situations. (Or fall girl, rather.) From Yoko to Miley, the world of music has taught us that if something’s gone tits up then it’s usually easiest to blame the person with the tits. (And definitely not the middle-aged man dressed like Beetlejuice that she’s grinding into.)
This seems to extend into the realm of sexual objectification (that’s ‘treating a person as if they were just a jiggly mass of sexy flesh’ for you non-wordy types) and so when women are treated like the frothing-sex-demons that they generally aren’t, they’re expected to just roll with the programme. In the eyes of the media, sexism only becomes sexism when someone’s offended and so women are typically portrayed as the ones who ‘can’t take a joke’ and end up ruining all the fun of the ‘well-meaning’ misogynistic wankers.
Luckily, there are women in the music industry who appear to have reached their bullshit quota with this kind of thing. Enter Lauren Mayberry, lead singer of Glaswegian synthpop trio CHVRCHES, who recently took a stand on social media against an on-going stream of tweets, emails and messages from gentleman callers offering her a night of passionate embrace. Following a decidedly ‘get-to-fuck‘ cease and desist Facebook update, currently clocking in at 6,200+ likes, Mayberry then featured on the Guardian’s website, reiterating her refusal to accept online misogyny. Exploring the malicious logic behind the countless messages offering everything from taking ‘the girl singer’ out for dinner to full-on anal rape, Mayberry questioned why women in music feel culturally obliged to blindly ignore the sexist abuse hurled at them simply because social media and the net are so necessary for musical success in today’s multimedia market. (Spoilers: they shouldn’t.)
Similarly, former Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer decided to take a rather unique stand against that much-loved British institution, the Daily Mail, earlier this summer when the publication ran a story about a minor wardrobe malfunction during her Glastonbury set. Entitled: ‘Making a boob of herself!’, the piece of Pulitzer-worthy journalism chronicled the narrative of Palmer’s absconded breast throughout the show, complete with pictures and video. In response, Palmer composed a musical reply called ‘Dear Daily Mail’, performing the song a few weeks later at one her London tour dates. Encouraging audience members to film the performance, the artist sardonically undercut the Mail’s culture of cellulite, sex and celebrity before disrobing mid-song to reveal herself completely exposed before her fans. Attempting to calm the celebratory uproar, Palmer can be heard shouting, ‘Shh, it’s just a naked woman!’
While the Daily Mail shockingly failed to cover the new twist to the story, many other major sites did and Palmer even featured on BBC’s Newsnight to discuss the viral success of her musical ‘fuck you’. (At the time of writing, the multiple recordings of the song on YouTube alone have amassed around 1.5 million views between them.) Following her trailblazing successes utilising the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to bankroll her latest album and keep corporate labels out the picture, Palmer’s artistic battle cry (‘They don’t know that we are the media’) appears to have gained further cultural traction with this latest cause.
The fight against sexism escalated even further with the recent release of Lily Allen’s comeback single ‘Hard Out Here’, the song’s video both resplendent with sideways jabs at the double standards of the music industry and a viral hit. Lines such as ‘Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt, who’s going to tear it in two?’ clearly take aim against the misogynistic culture reflected in songs such as Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, culminating in the chorus’ judgement that ‘it’s hard out here for a bitch’. While ‘Hard Out Here’ is not the entire solution to modern sexism, equally entangled with its own issues of product-placement and gender politics, the fact that the effects of sexism are now fair game for songwriters suggests that the problem is no longer being swept under the cultural carpet.
While the solution may sadly not be as quick a fix as ‘let’s all start treating each other with respect’, musicians such as Mayberry, Palmer and Allen seem to be on the right track. While recent equality campaigns against sexism and misogyny appear to have gravitated towards the format of the Facebook page, anonymously reciting distressing experiences suffered by innocent people to the effect of technological group therapy, direct action may instead provide more meaningful results in the long term. As recent events on Glasgow University’s campus have shown, allowing sexist behaviour to go unchallenged can create a culture of acceptability that can reach far into even the university’s establishment. By calling out behaviour as sexist a small part of the power stripped from the victims of sexist bullshit can be regained, reminding them (and us) that sexism is not their fault.
And in the world of pop music, women desperately need to regain their fair share of the power. For all the out-and-out awfulness of the Daily Mail and sad, lonely men that have to abuse quasi-famous people to get their kicks, an alarming chunk of pop music seems eager to popularise the presumption that women are indeed perma-sexed and desperate. If the portrayal of female sexuality in new media is plagued with ‘blurred lines’, spaces of cultural ambiguity into which sexism feels able to circulate without critique, then perhaps it is up to empowered women within the music industry to put themselves out there and define new boundaries that are more definite.
– Featured image by OpenEye.