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Female Music Critics Transcend Fan Culture

This is a guest post from Georgia Kral, re-posted with permission from On The Issues magazine.

Scan through the pages of a major music magazine, the arts section of The New York Times, or myriad other sources and count the number of female bylines you find on pop music criticism. Not many, right? (Or in the case of The Times, zero.) In music writing, gender disparity is a persistent feature.

One theory that has caught on about why there are so few women in pop music criticism builds on the idea that a woman is trained from a young age to be a fan and not a critic. In an article for the music-oriented Loops Journal, critic Anwyn Crawford writes that young girls are socially trained to be reactive, as opposed to considered and thoughtful, in their response to popular music. Girls absorbing this sensibility decrease the likelihood that they’ll become, or even see themselves as, critics.

“Wordless, intensely emotional and undeniably sexual — this is the state in which teenage girls are understood to connect with music, and with those performing it,” writes Crawford, an Australian journalist known for her feminist music criticism. “It is all in their bodies: they do not intellectualise; their opinions are instinctive rather than considered.”

Stereotypes and hardened historical frameworks are hard to shake. According to Crawford, if women are placed in the position of adoring fan at an early age, they are less likely to believe that they can then be critical — or harder yet — thought of as critical.

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13 thoughts on Female Music Critics Transcend Fan Culture

  1. I’m a female music critic. It’s definitely a hostile environment for women a lot of the time, but funnily enough not because of the actual musicians. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve met a few assholes, but for the most part the musicians are usually the easiest people in the whole scenario to deal with. It’s the hangers on that suck.

    To explain – the music industry is full of dudes who want to live like rock stars, but have no musical talent. These are the guys who whine about Radiohead not throwing backstage parties with groupies and bowls of coke. Most of these guys got into the industry in the hopes of picking up the dregs of everything the actual rock stars have already gone through – drugs, women, coolness by association.

    Roadies, photographers, tour managers, male fans…those are the bane of a female music writer’s existence. I mean, I can count on one hand the situations in which the actual band has tried to pull the “you must be a fangirl, so give me sex” attitude, but the hangers on? All the damn time.

    Example – on Tuesday night I was covering a band. When I was in the photo pit and was standing around waiting for the band to start, there was a little group of photographers, all of whom were giving me that lust/hate/contempt look that women know so well. One of them said “must have given someone a blowjob”, and they all snickered. Note that I was wearing jeans and a tshirt – not that it should matter, I’m just pointing out that I was essentially dressed the same way they were, just in a nicer version of, and with boobs. The roadie who took me backstage afterwards to do an interview was doing the smirk/snicker thing too.

    Also note that I had no problem with the actual band at all – they couldn’t have been nicer or more respectful. Now, part of the difference could be intelligence – as a group musicians are on average more intelligent than the dudes who move their gear around, or than photographers, and therefore better equipped to distinguish a woman who is working from an excited fan. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think what’s actually happening is that the presence of a woman who’s clearly working, who is a professional person and not a fan/groupie, shatters the illusion of the terribly exciting rock star lifestyle that the hangers on are so desperate to gain access too. So it pisses them off. And then they take out their frustration on the woman who just reminded them that it is not 1987 and they are not a member of Motley Crue.

    It sucks, but I’m not sure what can be done about it. In order for it to go away the music industry would have to cease attracting the hangers on who’re hoping to steal a bit of the rock star lifestyle for themselves, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    Interestingly enough, the PR part of the industry is heavily female dominated. I wonder how the asshole dudes treat them. I should ask!

  2. that young girls are socially trained to be reactive, as opposed to considered and thoughtful, in their response to popular music.

    A well-received, male rock critic just published a book that was more memoir than anything, and still presented girls’ fandom as something silly and superfluous, while guys are the more serious “nerds” when it comes to pop culture, but somehow that’s supposed to be okay because we girls, well, get to dance and stuff. And if girl’s fandom is silly, women’s is nonexistent. I’ve spent a lot of time with music fans — some critics, some not — and I’ve never not felt like I had to go through some kind of initiation to prove that, yes, I do know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to see yourself as capable of critical thought when everyone around you discounts what you’re saying.

  3. I’m not buying this. In my 43 years, I have yet to see a difference in the way women and men respond to music—only in the way their response is viewed by others. Men and boys aren’t any less “fans” than the women and girls, and women and girls aren’t any less “critical” or “reflective” than men and boys.

    In other words, despite a lifetime of sexism, our critical thinking capacity and practices haven’t been “trained” out of us—they’re just ignored and dismissed by a sexist society. Take any piece of music journalism written by a man, slap a female name on it, and watch the critiques of the piece roll in—“too emotional, too fannish, too shallow, too….” Yeah.

    I think the reason fewer women are in music journalism or criticism is all about the field being an exclusive boys’ club that still views women as groupies.

  4. My sideline/dedicated hobby is music and I sing in a band with a decent draw and an almost 50/49/1 gender split amongst our fans. I have to say that La Lubu has it right. As a performer, I can’t really say that men who turn out to my shows respond much differently then women.

    As a psychologist what really interests me, though, is how the perception develops that men and women are going to have a different flavor of fandom. While I think its probably true that some women are socialized to respond as fans and not as critics, it hasn’t been my experience that you’re talking about an overwhelming majority. Instead I think the perception that women are fans comes from a couple of factors that feed into each other. Take 10 guys who showed up to a concert and theres a pretty good chance two or three of them are in need of a shower, out of the other seven or eight you’re probably unlikely to find more than a few who have actually thought about what they put on before they stumbled out of the house. Even though most women at most shows I’ve been to aren’t aiming to pick anyone up, the basic attention to personal hygiene that most women are going to practice means that women are going to look like they put forth a lot more effort when compared to a bunch of sweaty, frustrated scene guys.

    So you start from that point, with women at a show generally looking a lot more put together. Then you have the bands. Sure, the headliner might not be staffed by assholes, but if you’ve got four bands on the bill one of them is eventually going to have a song about how much women want them or how badly they were wronged by some evil shrew. Rock music has a long history of objectification and whining and that really hasn’t changed much. Now you’ve got women who look more put together than the men, and you’ve got an environment which is already objectifying and likely whipping up the frustrations of the kinds of guys who read pitchfork.

    Then you get to the fact that, in my experience, most women who go to a show are there to…enjoy the music. They aren’t interested in being hit on, especially not when a band is on the stage. The creepy guy at the show, however, isn’t even considering that, so when he gets shot down he walks over to his friends and whines that “that groupie staring at the guitarist just isn’t interested in me cause I’m not on stage, man!” or “she’s with her boyfriend, that must be why she’s here!”

    Unfortunately, those are the guys who become roadies, talent buyers, and critics. They’re the people who start the conversations about music (only with men, because they don’t imagine a woman would be interested or have anything to contribute). They’re the people who hire their friends when a spot opens up, the ones who talk to a lot of people and develop a name for themselves as a critic.

  5. I think the problem is that women aren’t generally taught to appreciate music and how it is made, just to like it or dislike it. I’ve been attending punk/hardcore music shows for the past 15 years as well as more mainstream concerts, and the prevailing trend seems to be that women are just expected to buy and consume music, not to have a critical ear. It probably sounds a bit ridiculous, but I can say that I can talk to women involved in punk about the inner workings of how music makes them feel that the casual pop music fan (male female or otherwise.)

    I was never encouraged by anyone beyond a few teachers in high school to pursue musical knowledge that wasn’t somehow industry related. Sure you have women doing interviews with bands, reporting on the scene itself, but where’s the female David Fricke? Who is writing music history? Who is writing reviews of new records? I don’t want to dismiss the commenter above who is actively involved with music reporting, but I want to see more women discussing music with a critical eye. Challenge me. All music is not created equal, otherwise this wouldn’t be something I take seriously. I want more young girls and women to pick up instruments and make music that matters, and I want them to be able to tell me why it does.

  6. I think the problem is that women aren’t generally taught to appreciate music and how it is made, just to like it or dislike it.

    And that isn’t just as true of men? Please.

    No, the advantage that men have over women is that their opinions (on anything) are considered worthy of consideration, while women have to fight merely to reach the starting point of credibility. Most of the male critics aren’t musicians themselves nor did they necessarily have strong backgrounds in musical or literary theory—they just have a love for music and strong opinions about it. Opinions that are taken seriously by (other male) editors and (other male) critics and (other male) publishers and….need I go on?

    As an older woman (I’m 43) this especially rankles my ass, because I’ve been diggin’ in the crates since before some of these young guns were swimming in their daddy’s nut-sack (my folks took me to a lot of rent parties as a young child, and to keep me out of trouble, I got to be DJ)….yet I’m supposed to keep my patience when one of these little fucks offers his male privilege as evidence of his superior meta-analysis of music from long before he was born? Music that was the soundtrack to my life? Nahh, not havin’ it. I have yet to meet a woman (or girl) who loves music who isn’t just as able as the men to offer her reasoned opinion on it and why it matters. Not “oh, it has a nice beat and you can dance to it”….why. the music. matters. Music isn’t just a fucking tune to some of us—it’s the rhythm of our lives. Music is as crucial to some of us as oxygen.

    Sure you have women doing interviews with bands, reporting on the scene itself, but where’s the female David Fricke?

    Y’know, I literally grew up reading Rolling Stone and CREEM magazine, and those were notorious boys’ clubs. Maybe you can ask Jann Wenner why he hasn’t made any effort to include women writers in the magazine. You might ask him why he doesn’t include more women in the cadre of critics for 100 best lists while you’re at it. Because it sure isn’t because there aren’t women capable of it.

  7. One of my dearest friends is the incredibly famous music critic Gina Arnold, who wrote about the SF music scene all through the 80’s and 90’s. Google her- you’ll see. But she, and all the other women who were professional, well-paid music critics during those decades, have just been slowly disappeared from the narrative, as though they and their careers never happened. It’s like a horror movie, reading articles like this one, where it is assumed that female music critics have never been. THEY HAVE BEEN! THEY WERE THERE!!

    There were also a DAMN LOT of female MUSICIANS in the 80’s, who have also disappeared from the cultural narrative, as though they, and the feminism that they represented, never were.

    THis is one way that Patriarchy works (and white supremacy, too): just omitting the women and minorities from our collective history. Then it can be claimed that White Men are the ones who Did Everything.

  8. ” I don’t want to dismiss the commenter above who is actively involved with music reporting, but I want to see more women discussing music with a critical eye. Challenge me. All music is not created equal, otherwise this wouldn’t be something I take seriously. I want more young girls and women to pick up instruments and make music that matters, and I want them to be able to tell me why it does.”

    It’s interesting, and honestly very telling, that you assume that this is not already happening. I mean, since you seem to be replying to me…I’m assuming you’ve never read my work, since I’m blogging under a pseudonym. So there’s no way you could know whether or not I’m already doing those things. You’ve just made an assumption based on the fact that I’m a woman.

    This is particularly amusing to me since I actually have a stronger background in music theory than the majority of the musicians I work with, never mind the fanboys who whine about how women just don’t understand music.

  9. Also I take exception to the idea that performing interviews is somehow a lesser form of music journalism. Interviews are important – done right, they can offer a lot of insight into an artist’s creative process, and they’re definitely something that the audience wants to read. And there’s a reason why interviewing is more heavily done by women – on average, we’re better at it.

    I just finished transcribing a pair of interviews which turned out beautifully, and honestly? It’s very unlikely that a male interviewer could have gotten the same results. There’s always that issue where men don’t want to admit vulnerability in front of other men, and for interviewers sometimes that means that it’s impossible to get the artist to talk about what you’d like them to talk about. A woman, if she’s smart, can get around that instinctive fear of revealing vulnerability pretty easily. So the predominance of women in interviewing positions isn’t a sign that we’re being shunted into crappy jobs – in a way it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that on average we’re better interviewers than male music critics are.

    Not to say that the industry isn’t sexist, because it is. But “well women do too many interviews” isn’t a very good example of sexism in the industry at all.

  10. I was going to say something similar to La Luba’s comment, that I’m not so much buying that girls and women are trained to be “reactive.” The “reactive” response is one I’ve seen hyped endlessly in media coverage yet rarely something I’ve witnessed for myself. On the other hand, I do think that women/girls are more broadly socialized to say “nice things” or else, and that this is something that’s likely to have repercussions in fields of criticism. In a larger sense, we’re taught to put a lid on our external expressions of critical thinking. I’m not buying for a minute that we’ve been socialized out of forming evaluations in such terms, but I do think we’ve been tirelessly discouraged from fucking voicing them. I mean, I’ve been chastized by a commenter here at Feministe for being too mean when I made zero personal attacks but had the audacity to openly disagree with another women. When, if you read male dominated political blogs, they will stop just this side of evisceration, and run about their business happily. The sugar and spice and everything nice message is goddamned relentless in our society, and I don’t see how it wouldn’t have permutations in the field of criticism.

  11. In my comment, I did not mean to minimize CassandraSays. I apologize if I came across that way. Her contributions are absolutely ESSENTIAL, regardless of content. I probably should have started a new paragraph with “Challenge me” because it was a general statement and NOT directed towards her specifically.

    I should also mention that I am a woman, and I am over 30. I guess I have no business criticizing pop music when I don’t listen to it, I suppose. I’ve always had to find my own way when it comes to new bands, primarily from reading reviews on blogs or zines. In those arenas, there are more men providing that content than women but the quality is the same. I agree with much of what Samantha B said as well.

    All that said, my first comment on here was a flop so I’ll not be commenting here again.

  12. It’s also worth mentioning that “criticism” and “fan culture” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I’m not really involved in music fandom, so I can’t speak for that necessarily, but I’m pretty familiar with a few TV/movie fan communities online, and the people there (mostly women) certainly don’t shy away from criticism. And not just criticism: there’s a huge amount of sophisticated meta analysis that goes on in those communities. Fandom is always stereotyped as being about obsessive love and nothing else – and sure, there’s plenty of that – but in my opinion that’s just another way of erasing and minimizing women’s contributions to culture.

    Fan culture itself is stigmatized in the first place because it’s associated with women. It’s perceived as shallow, trite and insincere because those are qualities that patriarchy likes to associated with women, when in fact it can be an incredible creative force.

    Basically, to repeat what everyone else is saying: it’s not that women’s aren’t/can’t be critics, it’s just that whenever we try, mainstream media and culture dismisses us as groupies or fangirls and doesn’t listen to what we’re actually saying.

  13. What samantha b said. It’s not true at all that women don’t form strong critical opinions about art (which is why I think the article that started this conversation isn’t very good). The issue is that women are discouraged from stating those opinions, because it’s not “nice”.

    Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to be very critical. Which is good up to a point, but honestly, how much of what’s on say Pitchfork is valid, useful criticism and how much is pointless snarking, or showing off one’s coolness via one’s disdain for anything popular? Men suffer from their own psychosis when it comes to music, that fanboy need to prove that you’re the smartest kid in the room. I don’t know about everyone else, but I find a lot of stuff that’s coming from that place incredibly boring to read. It’s basically just wanking in prose form.

    What Brett K says is true top. I think the barrier between fan culture and critical culture is starting to erode anyway, and any critic who totally dismisses fan culture is an idiot. Who are we writing for, anyway? Who buys the magazines and goes to the shows? Fans.

    Honestly I dip into little pockets of fan culture a lot when I’m doing research. It’s the quickest way to get a sense of who a band are sometimes – what kind of people do they attract? What is it about them, specifically, that people respond to? Why do they matter? What does their music mean to people? Their fans can tell you that, if you’re not too much of a snob to ask.

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