Monday, 30 April 2012

Riot grrrl: sexism and music journalism

EDIT: Just realised I forgot to link in my examples. I'll fix this today after work.

I’m not going to say that Sleater-Kinney are one of the greatest all-female rock groups of the past twenty years. I’m not going to say that at all. It’s not that I don’t like Sleater-Kinney, I absolutely adore them. What I am going to say is that Sleater-Kinney are one of the greatest rock groups of the past twenty years.

This distinction is important. At best the addition of the words “all” and “female” would be an indication of lazy journalism; it’s easy for critics to flesh out an overdue piece by dropping in a few extra sentences about how rock groups with female membership come from some line or other inhabited largely by x chromosomes. At worst they would be a creeping indication that a troubling prejudice still exists in contemporary rock music journalism.

It might sound as if I’m creating a problem where there is none (after all, I made up my own case study), but this kind of thing is still endemic in the popular media; here are a few examples of articles that seemingly reduce female musicians to their gender alone or make tedious links with other musicians on the same basis. It didn’t take me long to find them. It’s why Spotify tells me to listen to Garbage if I like PJ Harvey, even though they‘re little alike. It’s probably why every time other I try and watch a Grimes video online I have to sit through an advert for Florence fucking Welch, and never any other more similar sounding male artist.

The issue isn’t helped by tokenism either. It’s still only ten years since Q magazine devoted an issue to “Sirens! Women Who Rock Your World”, emblazoned with the image of PJ Harvey’s bare legs and her t-shirt proclaiming “Lick My Legs” (what demographic was that particular cover aimed at I wonder?).  The issue here isn’t in championing artists who display a consciousness or interest in female issues – that would be a far more useful use of journalistic space* – it’s the idea that the artists concerned are somehow separate from their male counterparts due to gender alone; artists like PJ Harvey and Kate Bush shouldn’t have to put up with being lumped in the same category as Britney Spears on such a dubious basis. This may smack of elitism, but there is still a clearly defined trope at work here that need no longer be presented by our Newspapers, Websites and Magazines.

The clearly sexualised marketing of the issue didn’t help either, although I’m sure Harvey would have been glad of the publicity. It was, however, a marked improvement on an issue of Q seven years previously, which featured Harvey, Bjork and Tori Amos and included the tagline “Hips. Lips. Tits. Power!”

So what’s the way forward? We can start by offering our female artists a level playing field and not making an issue of their gender where there is nothing otherwise to separate them from their male counterparts and nothing otherwise to tie them to their female ones.

*one would also hope such a piece would include male artists who have championed women’s issues, such as Fugazi or Ariel Pink.