Molly Lavender is exasperated at gender segregation in music – and the way pop songs valorise abusive relationships
Gird your loins, ladies! The X Factor has returned! And with it the unquestioned assumption that women up and down the country are looking forward to it with rabid anticipation. To not be excited about it is almost to be a traitor to our gender. It’s as if the rules of music have been carved in stone somewhere. Rock is for boys and pop is for girls. After all, are we not female? Don’t all girls go into paroxysms of delight at the thought of spending 12 weeks watching a glorified karaoke contest? My boyfriend’s mother would seem to think so. After establishing that I had absolutely no interest in this particular piece of reality TV drivel, she told me, “you want to get your head looked at”. Thanks. But, despite my rather churlish display of apparent un-feminineness, I’m pretty sure that my brain is, in fact, firing on all cylinders.
So why is my lack of interest in pop seen as an aberration? Is it reasonable to expect me to have an obsessive love of pop music just because I’m female?
Those who compile CDs would certainly have us think so. If you want proof, just take a look at the slew of gender-specific compilation albums that come out each year in time for Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day and Christmas. Have a look at the first four tracks from the Christmas compilation, World’s Best Mum:
- ‘Saving All My Love For You’ – Whitney Houston
- ‘The Rose’ – Westlife
- ‘Mama’ – Il Divo
- ‘Beautiful’ – Christina Aguilera
Hmmm. All quite predictable. Now let’s examine the 2008 Father’s Day release, Dad Rocks!:
- ‘Money’ – Pink Floyd
- ‘The One I Love’ – R.E.M
- ‘Road To Nowhere’ – Talking Heads
- ‘Oliver’s Army’ – Elvis Costello
These are all classic tracks! In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I could quite happily listen to the entire second disc of Dad Rocks without having to skip a track. However, putting my personal preferences to one side, there are clear differences between the songs featured on the ‘mum’ album and the ‘dad’ album. Ignoring the Whitney Houston track for the moment (for which I reserve a special level of bile), the other three tracks have much in common with each other and also the rest of the album. They are all slow-tempo ballads, largely piano based and performed by solo artists (with the exception of Westlife, Il Divo and G4, all creations from the laboratories of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh). In isolation, there is not much wrong with any one of these songs. But a whole album’s worth? Enough to try anybody’s patience, surely.
In contrast, the songs on the Dad Rocks album are exclusively guitar based, mid-to-fast tempo and performed in the main by male rock bands (the two exceptions being Tina Turner and Blondie). As well as the majority of tracks being more exciting and interesting to listen to than those on its feminine counterpart, the album features songs like ‘Eton Rifles’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, which deal with wider lyrical concerns than just male/female love and relationships. It also features ‘Addicted To Love’ by Robert Palmer but, then again, we can’t have everything.
What conclusions are we to draw about male and female tastes in music from these two CDs? The message would seem to be that men have the intellect to appreciate complex, multi-faceted songs, whereas all women want is another slow song about love. The thought that we might want something more than this is not even entertained.
Let’s just get one thing clear: I am not condemning anyone who genuinely loves pop music. A well-written, well-performed pop song can be a thing of joy and beauty. I simply refuse to accept that I should limit myself to a particular genre of music according to my gender.
If I was a mother, and I received the ‘mum’ album as a gift, I would be sorely disappointed. There is nothing challenging about it; no song that I haven’t heard tonnes of times before. Why shouldn’t women have the chance to broaden their musical horizons, to be introduced to something other than generic chart music?
Perhaps one of the reasons that the majority of women don’t stray too far from the pop charts is because other types of music, rock in particular, are often presented as some kind of off-limits, boys-only club. Take, for instance, music magazines. When they are displayed in a newsagent or supermarket, they are placed well away from traditional ‘women’s’ titles. More often than not, they’re grouped in with the soft-core porn mags like Nuts and Zoo. Either those, or other magazines obviously aimed at men like gadget and motorbike magazines, which, invariably, for no good reason, feature a woman in a bikini on the front cover. It’s as if there are invisible gender lines in place, so as to prevent hapless shoppers from wandering into the ‘wrong’ gender territory.
This sexism really winds me up. It winds me up so much that I actually wrote an outraged letter to my local supermarket complaining about it. In my letter, I pointed out that it was extremely short-sighted of Tesco (for that was the store) to place the music and film magazines in the “men’s interest” section, as the arts are for everyone and it was not for Tesco to prescribe who ought to read a certain type of magazine. Suitably satisfied with what I’d written, I went back to the shop before sending it off to check whether there were any other types of magazine that I ought to include alongside music and film. Imagine my surprise, then, when I went back to the shop and discovered that they had no “men’s interest” section. There was only a “women’s interest” and a “general interest”.
Fair enough, you might think, this is progress. No longer is music seen as a purely male interest. Though of course, this still leaves us with the problem of the “women’s interest” section. My heart sinks every time I walk past it. The “women’s interest” section includes publications on gossip, true life stories and beauty, while the “general interest” covers everything else in the world. (My local Sainsbury’s has gone a step further with this segregation. Bizarrely enough, its two sections are entitled “general interest” and “women’s home interest”. Do only women live in homes?) The supermarkets seem to have created a special haven for us weedy womenfolk, as our tiny little brains clearly don’t have the power to process the same information as men.
Why are men the norm and women special cases who need their own separate section? We do make up half of the world; we’re not exactly a minority. If I were in charge of magazines I’d place them under headings that told what they were actually about, like “gossip”, “arts”, “fashion”, “new age”. It’s the logical thing to do. However, I digress. Now, seeing as how the “general interest” section has to cover everything that the sophisticated male mind might want to find out about, it’s bound to be a large one. So let’s play a game. Out of all the places Tesco could have chosen to place the music magazines, where do you think they chose? Next to Private Eye? New Scientist? Horse and Hound? No, that’s right: next to the porn magazines. How clever of them. The music titles are still ostensibly in the “general interest” section, so nobody can complain about sexism, but they’re placed so close to soft pornography as to possibly alienate potential female readers and put them off reading anything other than gossip rags. That’s all right then. Everybody’s happy.
This kind of sexism might well deter women and girls from reading about and listening to rock music. But what about playing it? It’s true that there are a damn sight fewer female rock musicians than male ones. I first properly got into music about seven years ago. Since that time I have studied music at more than one college and played live gigs at a variety of venues. The number of fellow female musicians I have come in contact with has been shockingly small. I’ve always been curious to know why this should be the case.
Some feminists may argue that the reason women are so under-represented in rock in the public eye is that men are favoured in the rock media and given more publicity. I’d be inclined to agree, but the sad truth is that there just aren’t that many female musicians coming through at street level. I currently play in a rock band and as such we often play at gig nights with other bands. Looking back at our last half a dozen gigs, here’s a breakdown of how many other female musicians I’ve played alongside lately:
- 7/11/08, The Prince Albert. Two other bands, 12 musicians in total, one female (clarinettist)
- 25/9/08, Heist. Two other bands, 10 musicians, one female (singer)
- 23/7/08, The Treehouse. Two other bands, eight musicians, one female (singer)
- 18/7/08, Tommy Flynn’s. Three other bands, 13 musicians, one female (singer)
- 2/7/08, Bull & Gate. Two other bands, eight musicians, one female (bassist)
- 25/6/08, Dry Bar. Three other bands, 14 musicians, one female (keyboard)
If we look at these numbers, that’s six musicians out of 55 who were female. That’s 11%. Of course, I’m fully aware that this isn’t perhaps a large enough sample to draw conclusions from, but, bearing in mind all the gigs I have ever attended, I predict that even if we looked at 200 gigs the percentages would be roughly the same.
All this begs the question: why don’t more girls and women play in bands? One explanation might be that some girls take up playing instruments as teenagers, but they drop their music as soon as they become involved in relationships with boys. This was certainly the case for me. I became involved in my first serious relationship at the age of 19. When we started going out, I was playing in a band and was pretty much a music obsessive: going to live gigs every few weeks, buying a couple of new albums every week, listening to the radio wherever I went. When I wasn’t listening to music I was playing it and when I wasn’t playing it I was listening to it. I lived, slept and breathed music and never dreamed that anyone could take it away from me.
Everything was fine for the first few months of our relationship; my life continued as normal. Then the ‘L’ word reared its ugly head. As soon as love entered the equations, things became… different. I suddenly became of the opinion that if you love someone, you ought to make sacrifices for them. We fell into a pattern of staying indoors of an evening watching telly, just to “be together”. I gave up practising to sit with him while he did something that interested him, like playing computer games. I stopped dressing in fishnet tights, big boots and band t-shirts and started wearing more middle of the road clothes, in case he didn’t think I was attractive enough the way I was. Over a period of weeks and months, I allowed my entire personality to be eroded.
The sad thing is that, from speaking to other female musicians, I know my experience is not unique. To become a great musician, one must have tunnel vision. Becoming excellent on an instrument requires a degree of selfishness, something we as women are strongly discouraged from developing. Now, playing the guitar is a fairly common pastime for young men. I imagine that a good number of readers who are interested in men will have dated at least one who played guitar and, if so, I imagine that said young man would have spent a good deal of time practising his instrument. I know female friends with boyfriends who play the guitar who quite happily sit and twiddle their thumbs whilst their beaus stroke their fretboards for hours on end. Can you imagine a man willing to sit around doing nothing while his girlfriend brushed up on her soloing? Somehow, I can’t. Yet so many women do it on a regular basis.
We’re taught that if we love a man, we ought to put his needs first, always, at the expense of our own wants and desires. More than that, we’re taught that we should put everybody before ourselves. Our own needs should come a distant last. It is better to give than to receive, etc, etc. Doing things we want to do is selfish. Selfishness is bad. Selflessness is good. Little wonder, then, that something as time consuming as learning an instrument gets put on the back burner.
So, maybe we don’t practise enough to become shit hot on an instrument like guitar or drums. Maybe we decide we’ll pick up an easier one instead. If you look back at my list of gigs, you’ll see that, almost without exception, the majority of female musicians are singers and bassists. Now, singing on its own is a damn sight easier than singing whilst playing the guitar. It’s also perceived as more feminine. We expect women to be singers. It’s not threatening to anybody’s masculinity. Bass is also pretty easy. That’s not just a lazy generalisation – having played both guitar and bass I can categorically state that bass is much easier for a novice to pick up than guitar. Granted, the bass is much harder to master than guitar, and exceptional bassists are to be admired. However, to play bass with an average degree of competency is very, very easy. What I’m trying to say is that a girl playing bass is also not threatening, because it’s seen by many musicians as the ‘easy option’.
At this point, I feel I must make a confession. I am a guitarist. Guitar is my main instrument. However, in my current band I play bass. I have volunteered to play bass. I have chosen the easy option. Why? Perhaps it’s because in my first band, where I played lead guitar, we were an all-girl combo (except for our bassist, Rob, who joined later). In contrast, I was the only woman in my current band until our drummer, Jen, joined (who I think is absolutely awesome). I play guitar, as do the two other (male) members of my band, so why did I decide to step aside and play bass? There was no good reason for me to defer to the guys and I’m slightly ashamed that I did.
There seems to be a feeling amongst female musicians that men won’t like us if we play guitar; that their egos won’t be able to take it and they will shun us. Well, in my experience nothing could be further from the truth. All the male musicians I’ve played with have been very encouraging and thought it extremely cool that I play guitar, to say nothing of my bandmates’ enthusiasm over Jen and I joining the band. I’ve always thought it bizarre that women aren’t ‘supposed’ to do certain things in case it destroys men’s frail, dainty little egos. Y’know, things like play guitar, do sports, pursue careers, voice opinions, that kind of stuff. That kind of thinking is offensive, not only because it oppresses women but also because it paints men as imbecilic. Most men aren’t that pathetic. Yes, some are, but most aren’t. My solution? Do the thing that you’re worried about doing for fear of offending men. You’ll get to do what you want, the stable, well-adjusted men won’t care and the feeble-minded ones who do kick up a fuss you can weed out. It’s a win-win situation.
Now, you may see this article as somewhat frivolous. You may think there’s nothing wrong with pop music. You may even think that rock is inherently more misogynistic than pop. Granted, if your only experience of rock music has been artists like Guns ‘N Roses and Kid Rock then you may have a point, though personally I wouldn’t classify Kid Rock as rock. Hell, I wouldn’t even classify Kid Rock as music. But what of pop? Is it really as fluffy and throwaway as it appears? After all, as we will see later, the best way to disguise subversion is to hide it behind a façade of innocence. Many feminist criticisms of popular music focus on the visual images accompanying the music. In other words, the music video. Allow me to break with tradition and get straight to the meat and potatoes: the song itself. We may be able to avoid the music video by eschewing the music channels on TV. However, the pop song is ubiquitous and very difficult to escape. We are bombarded by pop on the radio, in department stores, as background music on TV. Chart music is insidious and sells by the hundreds of thousands. Let’s begin, then, by taking a look at the best selling single of last year, ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis.
Witlessly repetitive, both musically and lyrically, it was always going to end up at number one. I could, at this juncture, embark upon a critique of its musical mediocrity; however, it’s the lyrics that concern us most. Let’s jump in just before the chorus:
“I don’t care what they say, I’m in love with you / They try to pull me away but they don’t know the truth”
So far, pretty standard love song fare. The theme of friends and family not approving of one’s love interest, of not knowing what this lover is truly like, is a well-established one. The Shangri-Las’ 1965 hit ‘Leader of the Pack’ tells of a girl in love with a boy who her loved ones think is trouble, but who is actually kind and loving. But what’s Leona’s “truth”? Maybe she’s about to tell us.
“My heart’s crippled by the vein that I keep on closing”
What? No, seriously, what? This is an absolutely harrowing lyric! Apart from being a shocking clunker, the imagery used here is completely brutal. The singer would seem to be suggesting that trying to leave the relationship would, quite literally, break her heart. The image of closing a vein also has connotations of heroin use, as if comparing trying to wean herself off her lover to the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. For me, it intertwines concepts of love and violence in a disturbingly stomach-churning way.
However, it’s the chorus that disturbs me most of all:
“You cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love”
Nine words repeated ad infinitum so as to numb the listener to their true meaning. But, we’re not listening to the song, we have the words lain out on a page in front of us. So, let’s confront them. First of all, “you cut me open”. The most obvious interpretation is that he’s hurting her. Also, the active form of the verb, “you cut”, would suggest that he’s doing it on purpose. Next, “and I keep bleeding”. Note the use of the word “keep”. This would suggest that this situation has happened more than once; that it is happening continually. He is hurting her over and over again and he is not doing a thing to stop it. Then, “I keep bleeding… love.” So, he’s physically hurt her. He’s inflicted pain on her and she’s lying on the floor bleeding out. But she’s not bleeding blood. No. Even as she lies dying she pours forth pure love, love spilling out of her veins for her abuser. Like a helpless puppy that, after having seven bells kicked out of it, still rolls over submissively on to its back, feebly wagging its tail.
Then we get to the middle eight:
“And it’s draining all of me / Though they find it hard to believe / I’ll be wearing these scars for everyone to see”
And so we come to the crux of the song. The narrator admits that her relationship is wearing her down, “draining” the life out of her, even leaving her physically scarred. Yet, she seems to be celebrating this fact. She seems to be proud of the fact that he is hurting her and that she is taking his abuse with good grace.
Look at the language used in this song. “Cut”. “Crippled”. “Bleeding”. “Scars”. All of these words allude to physical abuse. This is not romantic. This is not love. At best, it’s a kind of desperation, the desperate love of a victim who’d rather stay with their abuser than be alone. Yet this terrifying scenario is presented as a perfect love song. The kind of romantic ideal we should all aspire to. And who better to sing this song than a pretty, non-threatening young woman with a wholesome, girl-next-door image. Introducing dear, sweet Leona: used as a mouthpiece to suggest that staying in an abusive relationship is not only acceptable, but desirable. The right thing to do.
The misanthropic part of my personality is almost impressed that such a hateful, barbaric song made it to number one. Almost. The main problem with this song is its sheer ubiquity. It sold over a million copies in the UK alone and 11 millions copies worldwide. There’s probably not a person in the country who hasn’t heard it. Grannies tap their feet along to it, my postman’s been known to whistle it – I’ve even seen seven-year-old girls cheerfully singing along to it, unaware of the unsavoury nature of its lyrics. A song as well known as this soon seeps into our collective unconscious. Never underestimate the power of suggestion. If we are exposed to a message in song format day in day out, week after week, we might just start to believe that it’s true.
And this is why I’m worried. This is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night. I worry about the kind of messages about relationships that young girls are picking up from pop songs. I worry that the next generation of girls may grow up believing that they have to stay in unhappy relationships whatever the cost. Of course, I’m aware that pop songs alone can’t make people act in a certain way. But as long as they reinforce the relationship myths perpetuated by the other media, or at least don’t contradict them, young women will still get the idea that love is supposed to hurt. Because if it doesn’t, it can’t be real, right?
Popular culture is often seen as insignificant, throwaway fluff. It’s for entertainment only, meant to be consumed and then discarded. Therefore, it can’t possibly have any lasting impact on people’s lives, so the argument goes. However, what this viewpoint fails to take into account is that pop culture is much easier to come by than ‘high’ culture. After all, why would the average person on the street pay more money to go to opera, art-house films and galleries when they can have television and magazines for next to nothing? Pop culture’s omnipresence has elevated its importance to a status far higher than we may realise. If we are surrounded by pop culture then it is inevitable that we will pay attention to it. Nevertheless, we may not be aware just what messages we’re picking up from it. Pop music is the perfect medium via which to get a message across, as its utter ubiquity makes it difficult to escape.
This may all sound very sinister, conspiracy theory, Orwellian stuff. Don’t mistake me. I don’t honestly think that I believe all pop music is created with the intention of oppressing women. What I’m trying to say is that pop music is all too often let off the hook when it ought to be put on trial. When compared with the visual image or the written word, sung lyrics are somehow overlooked. All I’m asking is that we think a little more. That we actually properly listen to the music we’re listening to and try to figure out what it’s saying. If you like what it says, go right ahead and listen. If you don’t like what you hear, try listening to something else. Exercise a little quality control and don’t feel bound by the genres of music society says you ought to like. Music has been around since time immemorial and is, I believe, one of the greatest joys in life. It’s about time we stopped compartmentalising it into ‘men’s music’ and ‘women’s music’ and started listening without prejudice (to borrow a phrase from George Michael). We might just be surprised at what we hear.