Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Women in Music & 'Classic' Albums

As you may be aware, I'm currently conducting a survey on how we consume music here in the UK (if you haven't already filled it out, please do so - your contribution will be much appreciated!)

One of the questions on my survey reads as follows:

Respondents are then presented with the same list under a different heading: "Which of these albums do you own on CD, vinyl, or cassette?"

I included this pair of questions in the survey because I hoped to compare the number of people who had heard those albums with the number of people who had actually bought a physical copy. At time of writing, for example, 101 people have said that they've heard Thriller, but only 51 people profess to own a physical version. Conversely, while only 65 of my respondents have heard Bloc Party's Silent Alarm, 43 of them also own a physical copy - that's nearly two-thirds of the people who've listened to it.

The twelve albums I chose for this part of the survey represent my slapdash attempt to cover several different genres so as to see if fans of a certain genre are more likely to get physical than fans of another. There's the hip-hop album (To Pimp a Butterfly), the heavy metal album (Master of Puppets), the classic rock album (A Night at the Opera), and so forth.

But while Queen, Metallica, and Kendrick Lamar are each associated with very different types of music, they all have one thing in common, as do all but three of the other artists on my list. Can you guess what it is?

They're all men.

The list's phallocentric nature was brought to my attention yesterday afternoon when one respondent used my optional mailing list signup form to instead offer a little constructive feedback:

Now, this is an issue I wrote about last year, when that picture of the Reading/Leeds lineup with all the male-only acts removed was doing the rounds. The buzz created by that revealing Photoshop effort prompted me to examine the equality of my own CD collection, and finding it severely wanting, I vowed to make more of an effort to listen to music made by female artists.

So how did that go? It's been a year plus change since I made that promise, so now seems like a good time to review how well I kept it:
  • I've published 48 blog posts so far in 2016 (not including the one you're reading right now)
  • By my count, 18 of those posts mention at least one female artist or female-fronted band.
  • 18 out of 48 is 37.5%, or slightly more than one third.
I'm pretty sure that 37.5% is a better total than I was managing prior to February 2015, but I've still got some way to go. The Album Wall's overall output is still skewed in favour of male artists, and in spite of my best efforts, I still have some weeks that look like this:
  • MONDAY: Nostalgic blog post about a white male indie band from the mid-noughties
  • WEDNESDAY: Half-cocked thinkpiece, no specific artists mentioned
  • FRIDAY: Introducing...a white male indie band that you've never heard of before!
And even if I were hitting a perfect 50/50 gender split on the blog itself, the fact that only three of the dozen albums on my supposedly diverse list were made by women (and The Velvet Underground & Nico is frankly a borderline case) demonstrates that I can still be complacent at times.

In fairness to myself, this problem goes far, far deeper than my little blog. When I compiled that list of albums for my survey, I tried to stick mainly to well-known stuff to ensure that most respondents would at least know of the records they were being asked about. Whether or not you consider any of those albums 'classics', almost all of them are the kind of thing you'd expect to see in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die or a list published by Q magazine.

But the popular music pantheon that continues to inform these lists is inherently rigged, and like my iTunes library and my blog archive, it's very much biased towards the boys. Earlier today, I Googled the phrase '100 best albums' and clicked on the first result that came up: this list from the NME. By my hasty count - which was, admittedly, made as I boarded a train - less than a quarter of the NME's top 100 is made up of albums made by women, and once you drill down to the top 10, the entire female gender is represented solely by Nico, Moe Tucker, and Pixies bassist Kim Deal.

With samples like that dictating the status quo, it's no wonder my haphazard list of classic albums contained so many dongs. Yet the music industry's unfair preference for artists with Y chromosomes makes it all the more crucial for people like me to try harder when it comes to representing women; if, by making my lists and blogging my blogs, I'm only regurgitating what Q and the 1001 crowd have already told us, then I might as well not do anything at all.

I'd like to close - lest this go down as yet another half-cocked thinkpiece where I don't really talk about any particular artists - by recommending a few female artists and female-fronted bands whose music I've been enjoying lately. Time will tell if, this time around, I manage to follow through on my resolution to seek out and write about more music-making women, but this is at least a start:

Mothers are a band I wrote about last month. I'm still utterly besotted with this song.

This is Hop Along, a band recommended to me yesterday by a friend on Twitter. On the strength of this song, I'll certainly be investigating them further.

Kathryn Woods sent me her band Fresh's EP late last year and it's ace - here's something I wrote about it back in December. Here's hoping they release an album soon.

Savages have been getting a lot of attention this year, and deservedly so: Adore Life is a belter of an album.

One more - Confessions of a Romance Novelist by The Anchoress is one of the best pop albums of the year thus far, and this song is one of many highlights.

1 comment:

  1. Hey there. Nice post. I filled out your questionnaire.
    I'm a middle aged white guy so I guess I probably fit the profile for the 'classic album liats' demographic but something I have thought about a little bit over the last few years is how I do have a preference for female artists. Doesn't mean I don't like male artists of course but in any given year I'd guess my favourite new records would and up being maybe 75% female?

    I have to say I haven't actually checked though.

    Weirdly even the majority of electronic music I've enjoyed mostly in recent years, where there are few if any vocals, have been by female artists e.g. Holly Herndon, Ela Orleans, Inga Copeland, Lucrecia Dalt.