Sexism in music journalism
By Suzannah Weiss [Noorigin]
Despite a recent increase in female music chart-toppers, popular music publications often portray female artists differently from their male counterparts. Periodicals like Rolling Stone and websites like Pitchfork Media — which have largely usurped print publications — tend to discuss the appearances of women more often than those of men, take their music less seriously, stereotype them and incorrectly attribute their successes to male coworkers. These double standards govern how women and men are viewed in general, rather than being specific to music criticism and reporting. Music journalism is a product of its culture’s gender roles and consumer demands. When this culture combines with mainstream pop and rock publications’ largely male staff and the sexism already prevalent in the music business they address, critics unwittingly carry on tropes that they have the power to ameliorate.
Popular rock magazines tend to exclude women except when commenting on their appearances. Anyone who has looked at a collection of Rolling Stone covers inexorably notices the double standard to which the magazine holds female and male artists. The overwhelming majority of cover-featured artists are male, and when women appear, they are nearly always scantily clad and accompanied by suggestive headlines. Sexualized photographs of male celebrities (Ashton Kutcher, Sugar Ray, Justin Timberlake, etc.) exist, to be sure, but the difference is that it is hard to find even one photograph of a woman who is not young, fit and seductively positioned. Plenty of male celebrities who make the cover, on the other hand, are long past their prime for both music-making and sex appeal (Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Keith Richards); overweight (Ruben Studdard, Michael Moore); or not in accordance with attractiveness conventions. When men are pictured seductively, they are still more clothed and accompanied by less suggestive text than their female counterparts. Cindy Crawford posed in only frilly underpants in a 1993 issue, and Christina Aguilera appeared completely nude on a 2002 cover with the headline “Inside the Dirty Mind of a Pop Princess” — a stark contrast to the aged Keith Richards on the previous month’s cover, which read, “Kieth Richards: On Life and How to Live it” (Rolling Stone: 1,000 Covers).
The headlines for covers with men usually have to do with their careers or their personal philosophies. The only two suggestive titles I could find next to pictures of men were “How does Madonna’s Dick Tracy Keep it Up?”, “Kid Rock Gets Lucky” (1990 and 2007, referencing women) and “What Keeps the Rock Hard” (2001, conveying hyper-masculinity more than objectification). The magazine’s history is replete with sexual innuendoes about female stars, which are sometimes hard to distinguish from front-page pornography teasers. If the text does not objectify, it usually infantilizes or demeans by portraying women as groupies and professional man-pleasers. To illustrate, here is a representative (though not comprehensive) sample (Rolling Stone: 1,000 Covers):
“Madonna Goes All the Way” (1984)
“Sex, Lies and Videotapes” (1989)
“Look Who’s Hot!” (1990)
“Jennifer in Love: on Fame, Family and Life as a Brad Girl” (1999)
“Britney Spears: Inside the Heart, Mind and Bedroom of a Teen Dream” (1999)
“The Naughty Ways of Miss Drew Barrymore” (2000)
“Booty Camp! Destiny’s Child: A Story of Discipline and Desire” (2001)
“The Hot List: The Best Bands, Bars, X-rated Fetishes, Lesbian Hookups and 14 New Artists to Watch” (2001)
“Housewife of the Year: Jessica Simpson” (2003)
“Beyonce: What Makes the Shy Girl So Hot?” (2004)
“Jessica Alba: Booty and Soul of America’s Hottest Starlet (2005)
Sometimes music criticism’s obsession with women’s sexual value is more than complacency with the status quo; it is blatant endorsement of it. For example, a Spin reviewer called Patti Smith “the most unattractive woman I’ve ever seen,” according to Celia Farber, another Spin music journalist, who reacted to the story: “How many rock stars aren’t totally unattractive men? With men it’s like a shock if a woman isn’t attractive” (Farber quoted in Garr 351). Rachel Felder, another rock critic, says such instances of selective attention help nourish a culture in which “you don’t see overweight women rockers” or unattractive ones. Felder points out that the critic not only gave unnecessary weight (pun intended) to the artist’s appearance, but also saw her image as exceptional because it wasn’t ideal (Felder quoted in Garr 351-2).
Gendered language in descriptions of artists is found in praiseful reviews as in negative ones. Joanna Newsom, a skilled harpest whose primary aim with her eccentric style is clearly not to appeal to the masses, still receives attention from male critics about how attractive she is. Despite the near absence of sexuality in her music and her image, the Rock Town Hall dedicated a blog post to her titled “Triple Your Pleasure With Joanna Newsom.” This could be overlooked as a reference to her three-part CD — if the lede did not refer to her as an “indie darling.” And if the next line did not promise that the reader would “get off” on the album. And if it weren’t that, after mourning that there is no DVD of her concerts lacking sound, the author asks readers how much they would like her if she were less attractive. Critics have imbued Newsom with all sorts of wild-woman, witch-like qualities, describing her as a “Lady of the Woods” (“Triple Your Pleasure …”) with shiny hair and a “bold cackle” (Colville).
Journalists also praise female, but less often male, music stars through the rhetoric of the teeny-bopper-pop-princess-turned-sexy-woman. Discussing the transformation of a young female artist’s image often goes along unquestioningly with descriptions of her evolving music, as if the former is a code for the latter. An On Portland concert review describes Miley Cyrus’ initiative to “explore her blossoming adulthood,” then proceeds to describe in detail her outfits, the size of her breasts and her “burgeoning sexuality” (Kleinman). Even Taylor Swift, tame in comparison to the Miley Cyruses and Christina Aguileras who have made grand entrances from the territory of cute to hot, has been met with similar caterpillar-to-butterfly terminology. A November 2010 issue of Rolling Stone quotes a country radio programmer as saying, unlike “Miley Cyrus trying to jump from Hannah Montana to being a supersultry pop star,” Swift has transformed from “teen superstar” to “beautiful woman” (Clay Hunnicutt quoted in Knopper). Of course, this means no harm, and the fact that a supporter said this illustrates that publications are transmitters rather than producers of gender stereotypes. But if Justin Bieber preserves his success for five years, will he be declared teen idol turned handsome young man, or just adult star?
To give these publications’ writers, photographers and editors the benefit of the doubt, this emphasis on the visual is no magazine’s invention. Many female celebrities embrace seduction as part of their image, a trend by no means limited to the music industry, so it is not hard to imagine that some came to their photo shoots already planning and hoping for profit-producing clothes-shedding. However, this compulsory presentation of women as eye candy may be undermining their roles as serious artists. Is it merely incidental that Rolling Stone’s 25 “Best Albums of All Time,” based on a poll the magazine conducted with its readers in 2003, features only male soloists and all-male groups?
Granted, the publication released issues titled “Women in Rock,” “Women of Rock” and “Women Who Rock” (a bit repetitive, but perhaps necessarily so).
Curiously, though, in addition to fitting the cookie-cutter cover girl image, many — though not all — of the featured women in the October 2000 “Women in Rock” issue were pop singers and hip-hop artists rather than rock stars. Shakira, Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige appear on the cover (Rolling Stone: 1,000 Covers). Rock musician Maya Price wrote a letter to Rolling Stone, which the magazine (revealingly) never published, but which was posted on Price’s website, lamenting the lack of female rock stars in the deceptively titled issue. The issue presents rock as “no longer a style of music but a trendy costume to be whipped up by expensive stylists and slapped onto the latest pop tart barbie doll,” she wrote, adding that she might expect as much from “a magazine whose cover shot is regularly a naked underweight actress” (Price quoted in “Maya Price’s Open Letter…”). Donna Anderson of all-female rock group The Donnas had a similar reaction, telling the Dallas Observer, “These are not really women, and it’s not really rock. It’s, like, girls, and it’s pop” (Anderson quoted in Harvilla).
Making it in rock music is notoriously hard for women, though, so perhaps the magazine is working with what is out there and making an effort to include female stars. The success of women in the music industry, as described in a Jezebel article, is tilted toward pop: “Yes, 50% of the top selling artists this week are female, but they’re all, to a woman (Rihanna, Natasha Beddingfield, the abhorrent Katy Perry, etc.) beautiful, under 25, and singing pop. Several of them do not write their own songs, and their popularity is largely driven by their packaging, not their music” (Jessica G.). But this is not enough to explain Rolling Stone and other mainstream periodicals’ stingy coverage of female rockers. The media’s portrayal of women in music is not just an effect, but also a cause, of their limitations. “Women keep being left out of the histories, so if you’ve grown up on the rock magazines, then you always think that women are a new big deal,” said Lori Twersky, founder of the feminist magazine Bitch (Twersky quoted in Garr 304).
The excessive attention to women performers’ image has been used to circumvent the messages in their songs, Susan Douglas argues in Enlightened Sexism. Coverage of the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement was particularly problematic. For instance, next to the article in USA Today about the first Riot Grrrl convention is a feature on the artists’ poor fashion choices (“The Riot Grrrls’ Punk Feminist Look is Pure in-Your-Face Fashion”). This attitude allowed reporter Elizabeth Snead to conveniently dismiss the musicians’ politics as “strident,” “anti-male” and “self-absorbed” in the adjacent “Feminist Riot Grrrls Don’t Just Wanna Have Fun” (Snead quoted in Douglas 45). It also allowed for Newsweek to knock Courtney Love’s stand against sexual assault, deeming it hypocrisy that she “wears vintage little-girl dresses that barely make it past her hips — all the better to sing songs about rape and exploitation.” This profile also couldn’t get over the Riot Grrrls’ “anger” (“Revolution, Girl Style,” quoted in Dougals 45-46).
Anger is not as often seen as a negative quality in male artists, especially rock musicians. This glorification of hyper-macho qualities is raveled in rockism, the trend of equating a song, band or album’s success with how much it resembles hardcore rock. One critic’s description of a band as “testosterone-driven hard rock à la Guns N’ Roses” makes this conflation of rock music and masculinity clear (Horwitt). So does a New York Times review describing Nirvana’s rise as “a group with loud guitars and louder drums knocking the whimpering Mariah Carey off the top of the charts” (Vowell quoted in Sanneh). Is it a coincidence that the criteria that lend music gravity and respect in the music journalism world are also masculine ideals?
Male and female artists alike get judged by these standards. Pitchfork critic Chris Dahlen seems to have an affinity for the half-sung, half-shouted swear, lamenting the “sedate” language and music in much of Rilo Kiley’s album More Adventurous. But in several tracks that save the album, he writes, “the guitars spike and roar, and [front-woman Jenny] Lewis stops worrying about ripping her best dress” (Dahlen, rev. of More Adveturous). Dahlen also cites Lewis’ “taking no shit and saying ‘fuck’ a lot” as the source of her “empowered indie rocker” status (Dahlen, rev. of The Execution of All Things).
This review illustrates another point of departure for responses to male versus female artists: descriptions of the voice. Pitchfork describes Lewis’ voice as “as pure as chilled spring water … cute ….” (Dahlen, rev. of More Adventurous). The online music publication similarly describes Laura Veirs’ vocal aesthetic as “angel-sweet” (Neil), but according to a different Pitchfork writer, her voice is a “vaguely sexy purr” (Weiss). These reviews focus more on the artists’ physical qualities than their music, embedding their voices with either pure and angelic or dark and seductive qualities.
This classification of virgin and whore voices does the same thing The Awl does to Newsom’s “cackle”: it places women’s music within the limiting descriptive framework of female stereotypes. Also praising a woman artist with language related to traditional female stereotypes, a trivializing Guardian review describes acclaimed indie folk artist Laura Veirs as “chanteuse” — a female nightclub entertainer — in the first paragraph, which mentions not her performance but her “elfin body” and pregnant stomach (Simpson).
Inability to fit women artists into pop culture tropes or flatten them into an image can result in poor or misguided writing, according to a Stereogum op-ed. Folk group CocoRosie, for instance, is “dismissed because their visual presentation frustrates many male writers’ abilities to sexualize them” or otherwise pigeonhole their experimental artistry (Hegarty). Liz Phair described herself as “frustrated” with the way her interviews are edited to depict her as either wholesome girl next door or sex kitten. These ingrained categorizations make writers “unwilling to allow my overactive will to cohabit with my feminine, almost girlish, demeanor” (Phair in Raphael 230). I would suggest it is not so much writers’ unwillingness to depict her multi-dimensionality, as the whole culture’s difficulty conceiving of such a figure.
Some words of praise are so marked with masculine qualities that they don’t fit within any female caricature. Phair wrote about the almost exclusive application of the term “genius” to male artists: “You would be surprised how may men who run in the indie music circle, who run around with women who are clearly in control of their lives, literally do not believe that women can be geniuses” (Phair in Raphael 230). Journalists have been notoriously stingy in granting women genius status (Czyzselska). This reflects an old but stubborn myth evident in H. R. Haweis’ 1872 Music and Morals: “the woman’s temperament is naturally artistic, not in a creative, but in a receptive, sense. A woman seldom writes good music, never great music” (Haweis, quoted in Cooper 25). The depiction of women in the music industry as entertainers with pretty voices and faces, rather than artists or intellectuals, is a later incarnation of Haweis’ philosophy.
The assumption that the genius in the music business is most highly concentrated in male brains may explain reporters’ frequent assumption that male producers are the masterminds behind female artists. This has on various occasions lead to factually inaccurate reporting. Journalists have wrongly stated that Goldfrapp just sings (she writes and plays the synthesizer), that M.I.A. producer Diplo’s (actually nonexistent) musical collaboration played a significant role in Arular’s success (Paul Thompson), that Bjork’s computer programmer and recording engineer (nothing more) wrote and produced one of her albums (Bjork) and that the Beastie Boys produced a (self-produced) Indigo Girls album (Dickerson 206). Critics also seem to think female artists incapable of influencing men, as evident in online music journal NME’s description of Regina Spektor as a “Big Sis” to other female artists, painting her professional influence as a stereotypical nurturing female bond that involves borrowing clothes (Mackay).
The ideology that considers women supporters and reactors rather than creators and shakers, singers and sex symbols rather than writers and producers, also encourages them to be fans rather than critics. Just 15% of executive leaders in top communications companies are women, according to a 3rd Annual Annenberg Public Policy Center Analysis of Women Leaders in Communication Companies (Falk). The shortage of women in journalism is especially true in leadership positions, as critics, and in rock music publications. With all these effects at once, female critics in leadership positions at rock publications are scant. Most of Rolling Stone’s editorial staff, most New York Times critics, and 10 of 12 Pitchfork editorial staffers are male (Jessica G.). This is not to say that a male staff makes for sexist writing, but it increases the business’s risk of old-boys-club mentalities. That music journal Blender is owned by the same corporation as Maxim, for example, suggests that it is not under particularly feminist leadership (Kaplan).
Anwyn Crawford argues in music journal Loops that the culture of the groupie and the related ideology of female fans swooning over the male performers discourages girls and women from looking at music critically and undermines their opinions as hysteria (Crawford). It doesn’t make the situation easier when band members hit on female interviewers, confining them to the more accepted role of the groupie. Women who want to work with music-related communications more often get involved in public relations, which is more acceptable because it is considered a “service” profession (Sullivan 141).
Perhaps the greatest sin of music journalism is that of the passive observer, complying with the most egregious beliefs advocated by artists they acclaim. Metro Times included NWA’s “She Swallowed It” in a list of best sex songs, even though it contains explicit justifications of rape, as do several of their other songs (Holdship). Rolling Stone also gave the group rave reviews, declaring it the 83rd best artist of all time (Ahmir Thompson). A different issue of Rolling Stone discussed groupies and their various services in detail with Incubus. Bassist Dirk Lance complained that “girls” often want to have serious discussions about his music; when the interviewer suggested that this is a good thing, Lance responded, “Sometimes you just want a girl who will sit on a bottle” (Lance quoted in Strauss).
Yet this should all be written with the qualification that there are female music critics making headway into a traditionally male-dominated field, positive reviews of female artists, and female chart-toppers. Currently, the top 5 iTunes downloads are all by female artists, according to the November 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The fact that there is information available on sexism in reception of musicians suggests that this issue is being addressed; still, it is an issue. Music publications’ objectifying, demeaning and under-crediting of women are symptoms of two larger epidemics: the prevalence of these attitudes all over the media and the shortage of women in positions powerful enough to change them. As for the remedy, it is doubtful that Rolling Stone will give up its eye-catching covers. But perhaps as non-commercial websites become go-to sources for reviews, consumers will become more empowered as critics, and aficionados with feminist leanings will have an outlet to spread awareness not only of overlooked artists but also of why such artists have been overlooked.
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