I recently met a fantastic young Taaqademy drummer, around thirteen, who was truly the glue keeping the band together. Excellent technique, and a natural drummer. One thing though: she’s a girl.
Were you expecting a boy? Because most of us would’ve. Nearly every single time I’m confronted with a female bass player, drummer, or an under-10 who listens to anything other than Disney soundtracks, I’m taken aback slightly, and always annoyed at how I myself, a woman, still get surprised when you see a young girl in what’s assumed to be “masculine” territory.
Disclaimer: nothing I’m saying here is supported by actual extensive research, and is specific to my experiences and secondhand stories from people surrounding me. I’m aware that I’m making large generalisations, but these are ones that I’ve not been able to dispute over many years of observing the scene, hence the decision to write about them.
What’s traditional masculine territory? Jazz, soloing, rhythm, rock, metal, rap, electronic music, aggressive lyrics, guitar, sound engineering. Female territory? Vocals, piano, Disney, soul, singer-songwriter stuff. So generalised, I know. But the people who do cross over are exceptions to a largely global phenomenon of music, instruments, genres and styles being split between genders. These are outliers, people who face a good deal of struggle when being on the flip side of the music/gender spectrum.
I’d love to turn this into a feminist piece on how this is unfair and stunting the professional chances of our young girls, but I’d rather talk about the number of other things this goes hand in red hand with. (Okay, so it did end up being one of those but keep reading).
Why are there are so many aspects of “girl music” that a boy wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot pole? You don’t see masculine music being treated with the same kind of contempt that you see girly music enduring. It’s this same contempt that reaches out and envelops all other things feminine, including lyrics that aren’t tough, tempo that doesn’t rival EDM, or even “masculine” music from female musicians (think Evanescence or Nightwish from back then- where are their present counterparts?)
It’s this notion of contempt towards the feminine that is the root of most, if not all other gendered issues. Contempt is defined as “the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration”. Think of how even liberal musicians and self-identifying feminists (such as myself) approach the issue of, say, Taylor Swift. I can’t lie, I have a trace of contempt in the tone I use while discussing her. I distance myself from talk about her music and her celebrity drama consciously, even though I’m fully aware that a good deal of the flak she faces is because it’s simply become cool to hate her, at least a little bit. Yeah, there’s the obligatory I-hate-Justin-Bieber in most musicians, but even Justin Bieber faces arguably less bubbling venom (despite the continuous flow of outrageous incidents of diva-behaviour, close felony charges, and poorer self-awareness and artistic finesse) than Taylor Swift has. Hating a dude is very different from hating a girl, I don’t even have to get into the details for you to know why. See? That’s the problem right. freakin. there. There are a thousand reasons to scapegoat a woman, and like one article from The Guardian reads, “regardless of what Swift does, she is accused of being a treacherous temptress. She’s always a snake. Her actions are incorporated into the narrative as an afterthought, perfunctory pieces of evidence to support an already foregone conclusion. Like all witch hunts, it’s trial by drowning. If you sink, you die, if you float – we kill you for being a witch, stupid. Hating her is the end in itself, and her response means nothing. She’s tried proudly owning her reputation, she’s tried parodying herself (see Blank Space and her LWYMMD video) but nothing works. Her reputation is set in stone regardless of her actions – but this is nothing new, for her or any famous woman.” And like the same article references later, we’ve seen it happen to more than a few famous women. One misstep, and it’s a slippery slope then on. Though many of us now consider gender and reputation separated identities, it isn’t the case the world over and certainly isn’t diminished in the music industry. Female musicians walk a tight line, constantly having to assess and reassess their art in terms of the implications their gender might have on how it’s received.
Deeper still, if you look at the roles music plays, nurturing is most definitely one of them. Nurturing has been construed primarily as a female trait, and music that nu
rtures (think soft pop, female-led jazz, RnB) suffers the same fate as what we used to call the “soft sciences”. It didn’t always used to be the case. What a good number of men now call “guilty pleasure music” even twenty years ago used to be mainstream and not particularly uncool to listen to, but in the recent years, the same kind of music has been relegated to the young female population, parodied, covered with bubblegum pink layers and sparkles and left to be consumed by similarly bubblegum pink-coloured teenagers, while the rest of the masculine music world watches and smirks. Social media and the meme brigade make it worse. It’s these same people that become targets for the same contempt we show Taylor Swift, and by extension, their lack of proximity to the masculine is enough for us to push them into a different box labelled with instructions to treat them slightly worse.
Why is it that the music industry doesn’t come under the same criticism that other fields do when it comes to obvious gender-related indiscretions? Why is Kesha still tied to Dr. Luke despite the fact that no one should have to work with their abuser? Why are these things still scrolled past once you’ve seen them appear on your newsfeed more than twice? At Berklee College of Music, 29% of the students were female in the year 2013-14. They are predominantly vocalists, with some pursuing keyboard or guitar. In jazz? Fewer. Rhythm section? 5%. Female drummers that other male musicians would label “good”? Negligible. There is a problem here. This is about as bad as looking for women in the higher echelons of the (once again male dominated) sciences or in political positions. It’s music. And it’s still gendered as hell.
While writing this, I realise the weight of the topic and the sheer number of layers to this that are still waiting to be peeled back and talked about, so there's going to be more on this soon. But in the meantime, if you filtered the number of half-hearted, sheepishly anti-female comments that pass you by in one day, you’d see what I mean. For now, while #metoo is still #trending, imma take advantage of the dudes who might be listening and put this out.