09 August 2010

Sexism in Music Journalism

I've been meaning to rant about this for ages, and now we're halfway through summer I feel like I should get something posted up here. (And I can only apologise for the clusterfuck of brackets and italics). Way back in January I was really pissed off when I read Pitchfork's review of Laura Veirs' July Flame, which lead to me becoming very wary of the way gender is addressed in music criticism.

In fact, my attention was drawn to the issue when M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam) criticised Pitchfork (and other journalists) for assuming that Diplo was the brains behind her music. Diplo was cited by multiple media outlets as the producer of Arulpragasm's album Arular, despite the fact that she met Diplo after completing the record. The incident arose when Arulpragasam surprised her interviewer with the accusation, steering the interview to make her statement rather than answer their questions, catching Pitchfork off-guard. Of course, Pitchfork bury her argument beneath a misleading headline, and then the bemused interviewer completely misses the point, saying 'at the end of the day, no matter who produced the tracks, it still says M.I.A. on the spine of the record packaging'. But the mis-crediting wasn't just pissing off Arulpragasam on a personal level. As she invokes the broader issue of sexist attitudes in the music industry, the interviewer attempts to dissociate Pitchfork from these allegations: '[I]t seems strange that people would portray you as being a puppet. Still, I've definitely read things about you that suggest a lot of the work was done by someone else.' I kind of wish Arulpragasam had been a bit more subtle for once - she was never portrayed as having zero creative input into this, and the interviewer makes her argument seem overblown. It's exaggerated, sure, but there is certainly truth in her complaint that journalists emphasise masculine intervention in any woman's recording process. As this Idolator article points out, had M.I.A. collaborated with a female producer, there would not have been as much of a debate over production credit.

The same thing happened to Björk, who posted a statement on her website highlighting the common error of journalists crediting the arrangements of her album Vespertine to Valgeir Sigurðsson. (Björk wrote and produced the majority of the album, collaborating with a multitude of other musicians on different tracks - but infrequently with Sigurðsson). Björk suggests that the problem is exclusive to electronic music and technological processes, but I would argue that there is evidence that these sexist attitudes are more widespread. Björk points out that Pitchfork 'credited nico muhly for the choir arrangement of “hidden place” from vespertine . also that he has done string arrangements for me . this is not true .' Pitchfork appear to have deleted their response (the news feed is periodically cleaned up); try as I might to find a cached version I've had no luck. I remember them dismissing the argument and attempting to make Björk seem hasty and misinformed, while agreeing that the issue at hand was problematic. Although they said they had already reprimanded those responsible for the mis-crediting, again, Pitchfork attempted to distance themselves from the blame even though the error had been made because of the reasons Björk describes, and even though the problem manifests itself in different ways.

But why does this happen? Recently Stereogum posted a piece on Cocorosie in which Antony Hegarty suggests that the lukewarm critical response to Cocorosie's music is rooted in their physical unconventionality: '[A]s women Cocorosie are dismissed because their visual presentation frustrates many male writers’ abilities to sexualize them'. There is an unspoken prerequisite in criticism of female artists to assess them physically and judge their creativity separately, which simply does not exist in criticism of male artists. Journalists seem to believe that by highlighting a man's presence on a record, their praise and criticisms have more credibility. Cocorosie's moustaches are ironic in the suggestion that they should be judged on masculine terms, which leads to a confusion on the part of those who will inevitably judge their femininity before their creativity. The version of The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn I downloaded lists 'Devendra Bamhart [sic]' as "composer" in its ID3 tags. Cocorosie covered one unreleased Banhart song, "Houses", on the album. Go figure.

By attributing production and implying the attribution of creative input to Arulpragasam's peers, reviewers are freer to judge M.I.A.'s music on its own merits, and indeed this facilitated the universal acclaim that her first two albums received. In some reviews it is as if the referencing of masculine input validates the strength of an album. And I'm really not striving to find examples to make my point here. After I made this conclusion, my search for evidence quickly confirmed my hypothesis. I wish I had time to find data on this - but search for reviews of your favourite solo artists, count how many references to contributors there are. I've found that it's so much more common in reviews of female artists. Reviewers of Laura Veirs' work ensure that her boyfriend and producer, Tucker Martine's presence on her records is felt. Reviewers appear much more likely to mention the influence of the producer (who is, let's face it, usually male) if the artist is female, and while I feel that Martine's influence is a very compelling aspect of Veirs' recorded music, the Pitchfork review which elevates Martine's importance as tantamount to Veirs', ridiculous. The portrayal of the female as the 'angel-sweet' voice with the producer doing all of the work is not uncommon. And if I were Laura Veirs, I'd take the reviewer's assertion that '[Martine's] bare and simplistic arrangements still bear enough edge and interest so as not to dull the listener into passivity' as a personal insult. Not only is Martine not credited as arranger, (in the liner notes it is stated that he '[r]ecorded and mixed' the album, also performing 'drums, percussion, treatments'), but I mean the songs are really great! Martine isn't performing the difficult task of making Veirs' lacklustre frameworks vaguely listenable - he's complementing her gorgeous arrangements with a subtly introspective production style. Yet it is only when such mis-credits fall upon the likes of audacious performers like Björk and M.I.A. that we hear about such injustices.

The Pitchfork review of Veirs' most recent album, July Flame, is what really set me off on this. It made me so angry to read the phrase: 'The summer feel is probably not accidental'. Probably not accidental?? Is Veirs as a songwriter so inoffensive that this reviewer (Joe Tangari, senior contributing writer at Pitchfork) feels the need to remind the reader that her songwriting talents are potentially only achieved by accident? And it's not just a small aspect of her songwriting. The title gives you a bit of a clue as to what her stimulus is; the album completes a tetralogy of albums exploring the elements, ending on fire. Tangari says that he thinks Veirs' ability to give music a summery feel is a conscious decision, but what's wrong with just saying that Veirs' music impressively evokes a summery mood, in contrast to the perfectly wintry Carbon Glacier? Veirs has surely proved her worth as a master of focused, evocative songwriting, and instead of applauding this, Tangari just seems surprised that Veirs stands on her own two feet. I just cannot imagine an article stating that it is 'probably not accidental' that, say, Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day" is a bit of a tear-jerker. Male musicians are not subject to this scepticism.

Tangari closes his positive review by namechecking every man who appears on the album (see the album's credits), already having emphasised Stephen Barber's string arrangements (which only appear on two tracks), Tucker Martine's production, and Eyvind Kang's viola-playing; while I can't deny that he's right in saying that Veirs is modest, again the review is attributing the album's excellence to the contributors, when Veirs arranged the whole thing except for Barber's string parts. Similarly, the BBC review of the album namechecks Martine, Barber, and Jim James (erroneously stating that he duets with Veirs on "Make Something Good"; in fact James is not present on this song, and I rather think it elevates Karl Blau's role on backing vocals to imply that the song is a duet). The review (by David Sheppard) also offends by describing Veirs as 'chanteuse' - 'Noun: A female singer of popular songs, esp. in a nightclub', according to dictionary.com. Even if I find the phrase "singer-songwriter" really annoying, I'd rather Sheppard had used this phrase which at least acknowledges that Veirs controls the songwriting process, rather than making her seem like she's just singing. As such, when he mentions Martine and Barber, it gives the impression that they're more in control of what the record sounds like.

Then I found Dan Weiss' laughable review of July Flame's title track, and really I just want to pick this apart to prove how bad music journalism can be. Weiss begins by suggesting that Veirs adopt a stage name in order to stand out a bit, lazily dismissing her work as part of an 'unchallenging medium', confusingly equating her lack of an intriguing stage name with lack of intrigue. 'All she can continue to do is write better and better songs and hope for the best.' Exactly what is Weiss reviewing here? Once he's accepted that the songwriter is writing songs which are good, he gets down to what's going on in the song, summarising his fairly indifferent attitude as he describes Veirs' voice as a 'vaguely sexy purr'. Weiss is not reviewing Veirs' song so much as her voice and persona, and here it's like Weiss' interest in the song is only held by this 'vague' sexiness, the only element he can detect in Veirs' voice. Weiss adds, 'the violin-and-choir-assisted coda won't be for everyone I know', just to remind you that enjoyment of music is in fact subjective. Weiss' amateurishness is that he fails to pin down what is good or bad about it - he aims to make it sound indistinct, but achieves this by lack of effort rather than by reasoning. (But let me take a moment to point out how difficult music journalism is. Merely pointing out these sorts of flaws doesn't mean I can write fluently about music, but if writing like this can be published in arguably the most influential music journalism source of the century, I might have a decent chance of making it.)

Other reviewing traits include only comparing an artist to another artist of the same gender, and comparing a male artist to a female is a rare thing indeed. So upon Googling male "indie-folk" protégés such as Johnny Flynn, Damien Rice, Fionn Regan, et al, it's nearly impossible to avoid the names Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Drake (which are repeated to the point of interchangeability, for Christ's sake) - but I'm harder pressed to find these names in a Laura Marling review (Joni Mitchell crops up a lot instead). This not only lends weight to my argument that music journalism is inherently sexist, but shows up the ineptitude of the reviewers, who base their token comparisons upon gender rather than songwriting. The NME managed to print the paragraph 'Regina Spektor, though, has been an unacknowledged big sis influence on the sound of many young female artists. You can hear her early work in Florence’s jazzy bellow, in Peggy Sue’s raw-hearted confessions and in Kate Nash’s vocal quirks and proud femininity.' It's as if they deny Spektor's ability to influence male artists, and pigeonhole her music into some sort of gender-defined rut, conveying whatever it is in Kate Nash's music that constitutes 'proud femininity' only to confirm the restrictive gender binary.

In conclusion, while M.I.A. and Björk's responses to the sexism they faced are an important step forward to exposing the problem, I believe that there are injustices manifested in the rhetoric of music journalism which causes female artists to be judged on different terms to males.


sarah expletive said...

i'm glad you wrote this post, stephen. it's something i have thought about (not specifically with regards to music journalism but i guess music 'scenes' and the industry in general) but wouldn't be very good at articulating because i am not very confident in my music knowledge. i am trying to rack my brains as to what reviews are like with regards to someone like micachu who is even more un-feminine than cocorosie.

as a minor point -- in addition to what you say about the implications of "chanteuse" foregrounding the fact veirs is 'just singing' and overlooking any creative control on her part, i think being a 'nightclub singer' has sexual connotations to it too. just as she is only performing the music, there is a sexualised performance involved also.

anyway, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Penny-wise and pound-foolish.