16 March 2012

Boys and Girls and Music.

Is there such a thing as a "masculine" taste in music? I remember, some years ago, coming across a rather puffy piece in the culture weekly of a major British paper (The Times, maybe?) in which the writer discussed the music tastes of his acquaintances, friends and significant others, collected and arranged according to heteronormative male/female lines. One of the trends this writer had picked up on was how many of his male friends liked ambient, proggy, out-there stuff that didn't necessarily have lyrics and was, by and large, performed by men; the writer's female friends preferred lyrics-driven, melodic, (moderately) conventionally-structured business. I don't know how true this is:  My (male) ex was the one who introduced me to Tori Amos, the most stereotypically "feminine" artist on the planet; I was -- and am -- the one with the collection of postrock with no lyrics.

I'm coming to my point, which is that this week, Pitchfork posted this piece about men, women and the music they listen to. It's not a bad piece; for the most part, I would even go so far as to say that it's reasonably thoughtful. But this bit -- not the conclusion, even, just a section in the middle, just a little story -- is what got me here. I quote in full:

Last year I taught a course about writing and popular music at Columbia College Chicago. In class, one of my students, an especially bright and thoughtful guy, remarked that for most of his life he hadn't listened to music where women were singing. To me, it seemed brave of him to say that, though he didn't seem to struggle with revealing this information. It's just the way it was, though he also said that he could feel it changing little-by-little as he got older. But for a lot of people, especially when you first start listening to music, the identification part of the equation is so important it can be hard to find things to identify with in people who seem very different from you. And during adolescence, when sexuality and gender are at their most mysterious and unknowable, for a male to identify with a female artist can be especially difficult. Cross-gender identification is harder, I think, for boys, in part because media present the perspective as the "normal" or default point of view. Only in the last year did I become aware of the Bechdel Test, which searches for films that meet three criteria:
  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man
There are far fewer than you might think. And if this is the world you grow up in, seeing "life" reflected back at you with movies that don't have these three qualities, boys and girls alike internalize the idea that men are the actors in art and creativity, and women are tangential. If you grow up with this reality, I think it's fair to assume that women will have an easier time identifying with male singers than vice versa. Which is to say that when my student said this in class, I thought to myself, "For me, at your age, it was the same."
There's a big problem here. (Other than the inexplicable hyphenization of "little by little." What the hell, writer?) It's one the author himself may not, in fact, have spotted -- being, you know, male, and not coming to this from the perspective of someone like, say, me.

It's when he starts talking about identification, about how you identify with people who are like you in your musical tastes. More specifically, it's when he makes the telling statement that "it's harder," he thinks, "for boys" to identify across (heteronormative, binary) gender lines. He does own, via the Bechdel test (about which he somehow did not know), that viewing girls as the media does -- as plot puppets, at best, who are there to talk about/talk to/have sex with/at least have sexual tension with boys -- is harmful to everyone involved (i.e. actually everyone)... But how, precisely, is it easier for girls?

I guess my problem here comes from the assumption that because girls wear pants now, it must be easy for them to identify with someone not-them. How, precisely, would that be easier? How is that less likely to induce confusion and upset, both socially and in one's own being, in girls than in boys? I just don't see it, and it's partly because of my own musical backgrounds and tastes and stuff like that that I take issue with the author of this piece.

See, in my teens, I listened almost exclusively to male artists. Not for any particular reason; not out of some gender bias or anything like that. I listened to them because I preferred them and, furthermore, I could identify with them. I found my own sex suspect, both because they were ignored by the wider media -- which I devoured; I look fondly back on many a long afternoon holed up with my room with a copy of Uncut -- and because, when they were mentioned, somehow everything came back to their sexual experiences/preferences/travails, and, being a frustratedly lustful adolescent, I didn't particularly want to listen to music that was viewed only through the lens of sexuality. I couldn't identify with that; I didn't want to be viewed that way and I didn't want to have to view the music I was listening to that way. I wanted someone to speak to my loneliness and whatever other teenaged issues I had, and I was kind of trying not to think about sex all the time (as one wants to, rather) because it made what little social life I had even more awkward.

Since then, I've discovered more female artists, and, similarly, media coverage of them has become less based on sexuality and more on, you know, whether or not they're any good. Outfits like the Unthanks and Jesca Hoop, I would argue, are creating a paradigm for popular music that is very specifically feminine in a way that is, I feel, both comfortable with its sex and sexuality, and not defined by it. This is definitely a positive thing -- but damn, I wish I'd had it in high school.

However, as much as I identify with these artists, I still feel myself more consistently at home in the musical worlds created by Ed Harcourt and La Dispute, for example, than in Chelsea Wolfe's (though Esben and the Witch are definitely up there). I identify more consistently with the issues addressed by Harcourt, for example, and the way in which he addresses them, than I do with the issues addressed by, well, Tori Amos (astonishingly talented though she is). And don't even get me started on Elliott Smith or Bright Eyes. I could -- and have -- listen(ed) to any one of their albums nonstop for about a month.

I would say that women are relative newcomers to popular music -- but they're not. A lot of this is, 'struth, my own issues and identities and whatever, but I still beg to differ with Mr. Pitchfork. It's not easier for girls to cross-identify. It's just that, until very recently -- and the Bechdel test is with me on this one; I would call to witness films like Star Trek 2009, which does, in fact, pass the test, as well as shows like Lost in which women often drive, and are not driven by, the plot -- the possibilities with which they were presented for their own sex were tremendously unappealing.

Maybe I'm wrong here. But I think feminine identity in music is only now beginning to be defined, and received, on its own terms. God knows, it's been a long time coming.