Music Choices

June 20, 2009

I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and I think by now I’ve heard just about every possible justification for not listening to music by female artists, individually and as a whole. Ani DiFranco is so angry, Cyndi Lauper is just silly, and Meshell Ndegeowho?

True story: I once had a guy tell me that he doesn’t like female singers because he “doesn’t like whiny music.”

His favorite artist? Neil Young.

Now, I love Neil Young, but can I just say:

Moving on.

Here’s the thing. One of the most important elements of power in human society is the ability to make your thoughts heard. That means that access to that ability will be one of the most tightly controlled parts of culture, and that media of all kinds, but especially popular media like music, will be one of the elements of culture most likely to reflect any power imbalances that exist. The institutional structures that create and distribute media will tend to be very difficult for marginalized groups to access. When people who are not members of the dominant group are given access to a mic, it will generally be because they present themselves in a way that affirms their oppression.

So, for example, I would argue there’s something pretty deep going on when white people make up 70% of hip-hop consumers, and what they want to buy is music by artists like 50 Cent and TI—guys who play into just about every stereotype of the violent, sexually uncontrollable man of color that you could think of.

And Britney Spears? Well.

The people who decide which music gets mass marketed are usually straight, white, rich men who are thoroughly invested in the system the lovely and talented bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. To state what should be obvious, they have a stake in presenting us with messages that fit into this worldview.

As individual consumers of media, we also make choices about which voices we want to hear. In a capitalist economy, our consumption of certain messages means that they get recreated again and again, according to demand. Our music consumption is, of course, influenced by our ideas about who is worth listening to… Ideas that are shaped by our socialization through family, peers, and media. The replication of culture and its hierarchies is a big ol’ feedback loop.

To quote Michel Foucault, it kind of sucks goat balls.

So who did you learn to listen to growing up? When you turned on the radio, did they play an equal number of male and female artists? Did the friends you admired introduce you to an equal number of male and female artists?

Now that you’re old enough to make your own music choices instead of having them forced on you by mass marketing and peer pressure, what does it mean if the only musicians you take seriously are men? What does it mean if you rarely listen to the voices of female artists? What if you never seek out female voices when the words they’re singing are actually their own?

I can’t answer for you. What I can say is that pretty much every time someone who doesn’t identify as politically radical looks at my music collection (which is made up of approximately 50% female artists, though most people perceive it as being almost entirely dominated by women), they respond with contempt. There is a pattern here, and the pattern has meaning.

I’ll leave you with some of that whiny, angry music I like.